When Andrea Frabetti joined the Ferretti Group in 1989, fresh out of the University of Bologna’s naval architecture program, he never could have imagined that, 30 years later, he would be in charge of Ferretti’s biggest rival. Even just six months ago, Frabetti had no inkling that he would be named CEO of Sunseeker Yachts. He had taken a position as chief technical officer with the U.K. builder, and five months later, the owners asked if he wanted the chief executive job.
Well known in Europe’s yacht-building sector, Frabetti had a 25-year career at Ferretti as both technical director and right-hand man to founder Norberto Ferretti. He’d overseen multiple innovations for the Italian builder, including underwater exhausts, hull-side windows and the industry’s first anti-rolling gyro (with Mitsubishi). Frabetti had modeled that on a stabilization system from a 1930s Italian cruise liner he’d read about as a boy. Other design advances that gave Ferretti its reputation for forward-thinking include a swivel window between the cockpit and saloon to connect inside and outside, airbags for anchor chains, and monitoring and control systems.
Ferretti and Frabetti believed that yachts should push the boundaries of design and technology to offer owners better on-board living. Some advances were incremental, others dramatic. The tender garage on the Ferretti 850 and 920, for instance, allowed tenders to be floated out after the swim platform was flooded and the garage submerged. The submerging garage never made it past those models, but they showed Frabetti’s willingness to experiment beyond conventional limitations.
When Frabetti joined Ferretti, the company had three boats. By the time he left in 2008, he had helped design 300 models across multiple brands.
During the same period, Sunseeker exhibited a similar taste for dramatic design. Brothers John and Robert Braithwaite, who founded the Poole builder in 1969, started with a 17-foot sportboat and ended with five motoryacht lines. They did this the same way as Frabetti: pushing the boundaries of design and size.
“Norberto Ferretti had a great respect for the Braithwaites and Sunseeker,” Frabetti says. “I can recall many times how we discussed what Sunseeker was doing and how we could respond to their newest innovations — not to copy, but challenge. We always had the greatest respect for our competitor.”
The new chief executive says he wouldn’t have “abandoned Italy” for Britain if the job wasn’t at Sunseeker. It’s an odd cultural mix to see an Italian naval architect running the most British of boat brands, but Frabetti is injecting ideas into new models. The company plans to introduce 26 models over the next three years, retiring four, meaning it will finish 2022 with 22 models, or twice the number in its current range.
Sunseeker provided a glimpse of the new models at the Cannes and Monaco shows. The design cues change, but the significant differences are more about layouts and available space, along with technical features. The 65 Sport Yacht, for instance, has a flybridge that Sunseeker likens to a supercar, including a steering wheel that adjusts vertically so the driver can stand to see over the bow.
Frabetti is enamored with functional gee-whiz features. After he graduated from college, he had his pick of Italy’s boatyards. He chose Ferretti, a relatively small company at the time, because it offered a stowage locker on the swim platform. “It was the first storage area for a windsurfer,” he says. “I was attracted by seeing someone doing something different. It was a small thing, but clever. Sunseeker, at the time, was also the first builder to offer a dinghy garage.”
Frabetti has taken over at an interesting time. Sunseeker announced a Superyacht division at the Monaco show in September, working with ICON Yachts in the Netherlands on its 161 and with the Pendennis yard in England on the 131. It plans to add models between those two lengths in the next few years.
At Europe’s fall boat shows, orders for its fiberglass yachts doubled, Frabetti says, likely due to the low British pound sterling against the euro and U.S. dollar. Despite the heady growth, the United Kingdom also faces a looming Brexit deadline, scheduled to take effect Oct. 31 if no deal is reached with the European Union. The U.K. marine industry is waiting with bated breath, as the Brexit situation is anything but clear.
At the same time, the top three British builders — Sunseeker, Princess and Fairline — are reporting record sales. The export market accounts for about 95 percent of total sales, but the situation could change quickly depending how Brexit plays out.
In the meantime, the Italian designer, who grew up inland in Bologna dreaming of boats on the Mediterranean, will oversee the largest expansion in Sunseeker’s 50-year history.
How are you?
It’s raining here in Poole.
I guess that’s to be expected in England this time of year.
Perfection doesn’t exist in this world (laughs).
How about in the Sunseeker world?
Things are very good here after the Cannes, Monaco and Southampton shows. We sold double the amount of boats as last year — and I mean double.
The reality far exceeded our expectations. We’d been afraid of what might happen this autumn, but we saw gains not only in the U.K., but in the Mediterranean and eastern European markets. We have no idea why since we were forecasting lower sales. Fingers crossed.
That’s a good start to your new job. How have the first six months gone?
It’s hard to answer that question because I’d been chief technical officer here for five months, and they asked me to take on this role. I didn’t have any expectations coming into the position. I’m very excited, though, because the company is focused on new products, customer relationships and service — much more than in the past.
Have you found a replacement CTO?
I’m holding both positions at the moment and working with Sunseeker COO Michael Straughan and CFO Mike McMillan. We form a strategic committee, and the three of us cover all competencies of Sunseeker International. My responsibility has always been on product, so we’re focused not only on new-product design, but the quality of products. Our goal is also to double the number of models over the next four years to 22 from our current 11 models. Eight new models will be launched in the next 12 months. We also plan to invest 10 million to 15 million pounds (US$12 million to $15 million) per year in product development.
That’s quite an undertaking.
We will see big increases in our Performance, Yacht and Superyacht categories. We plan to double the number of Sport Yachts and also have much larger presence in the Predator, Manhattan and Yachts categories. And, of course, we just launched a Superyacht Division with our 116, 131 and 161 models, but they will quickly be joined by a 133. We also have plans to introduce several other new models between the 131 and 161. We see potential in the superyacht segment and want to increase our presence there.
You also launched a new Performance category with the Hawk 38, the smallest boat Sunseeker has built in years. Do you plan to go smaller?
We will not go below 38 feet. We have a 52 and 65 planned for 2021. They won’t be exactly like the 38. That’s a good chase boat that can run 65 knots with the new Mercury 450-hp outboards. It’s smooth and comfortable at 40 knots in heavy seas. We see it in places like Miami, where adrenaline is important. The other boats are different but also fast. We want to reclaim our performance heritage. The Tomahawk was invented by Sunseeker, but then they abandoned it. We will bring it back.
You’re very aware of Sunseeker’s history.
For 16 years, I was product development director and chief designer for Riva. I considered Sunseeker our main competitor back then, and I have to admit that, at that time, Sunseeker was much more advanced than Riva in many ways. Sometimes we had great innovations, and other times we were very quick to follow what Sunseeker dictated. I still consider Sunseeker the only brand that can compete at the highest level of the market.
That’s quite a statement.
I think I admire Sunseeker more than some employees here. I closely followed the history of the brand. Norberto Ferretti also had great respect for Sunseeker. Many times, over the 25 years I worked at Ferretti, Norberto and I discussed what Sunseeker was doing. I abandoned Italy only because Sunseeker called me. If it was another brand, I never would’ve left. Sunseeker means more to me than all the others.
How did you find the company when you arrived?
Sunseeker has always been perceived as one of the highest-quality manufacturers. When I came in, I was really surprised by the high level of attention to keeping the assembly lines clean and well-organized. We’re also much more vertically integrated than our competitors because we produce our own switchboards, electrical panels, furniture and many other parts. We control quality 100 percent. Because of that, I’ve been impressed, but I want to move another step forward.
I already talked about the importance of new products and how we will revitalize the company that way. We’re also taking care to consolidate and create more efficiencies across our facilities. Our COO is doing a good job applying what he learned in automotive. We’re also working with the supply chain to further improve efficiencies. That is what will improve our EBITDA next year, rather than volume growth. We don’t want to overproduce. The goal is to keep quality high. My experience has been that it’s better to produce one boat less than maximum capacity, rather than sacrifice quality.
You’re coming off a record year for orders. Do you expect that to continue into 2020?
We had a lot of orders in 2019, so we don’t have a lot of availability in 2020. Our dealers know that. Another reason we’re not overproducing boats and not taking a big step forward in volume is because the world economic indicators are not that optimistic. We want to be a bit cautious.
I hear you’ve been in touch with Robert Braithwaite, one of the Sunseeker founders.
I’ve had the fortune to speak with him. The brothers John and Robert were innovative and pioneering, and they never made a boring product. By that, I mean they always dictated new design rules for yachts. Ferretti was similar. Norberto had a brother, Alessandro, who was also involved in the business. So the two brands had similar stories. I met John recently at the Southampton boat show.
Did you get input for these new models from him?
Our new team has to interpret the strategy and predict the future. I’ve had frequent discussions around design with John. I asked him if he thinks we’re on the right path. He told me we’re doing fine. That was important to me. If we were moving in the wrong direction, he would say something. Clients are expecting something definite from Sunseeker, and John Braithwaite, who ran the company for so many years, will know if we’re straying off the path. It’s important to carry on the heritage of the brand.
Being an outsider, how do you keep Sunseeker’s heritage in new designs?
A lot of the continuity comes from John’s protégés in the business — Ewen Foster, our director of design, and Luke Stride, the chief naval architect and engineer. They grew up working with John. We’re fortunate to have them. They create the continuity. They are the DNA of the brand, and a lot of the designs coming through now contain that heritage but in a new style.
It sounds like you’re excited about where the brand is going.
I was CTO for five months, and then the shareholders asked me to take this role. I didn’t have any expectations because I hadn’t expected it. After six months, I’m very excited. You can see from my background that I like new innovations, and I don’t want to create anything boring. I also want to introduce features that are helpful for the customer to improve life on board. It’s all about the lifestyle.
As an industry, we’re now working on something that was viewed as just a vehicle in the past. Now it is a villa, with full entertainment and fitness areas. Our competitors aren’t those who produce sea vessels, but those who create a rich lifestyle for their customers, on sea or land.
Because of the cost of the boat, it must now be the best villa, wellness center and entertainment center on the sea. We’re looking at lifestyle companies for new ideas. The boat is a lifestyle. The builders who understand this transition from sea vessel to resort are doing best in the market these days.
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue.