CEO | Sunrise Yachts
The CEO of Sunrise Yachts is an energetic and enthusiastic leader, looking after both a buoyant shipyard and a loyal workforce. He reveals his ethos behind his drive and his belief in Turkish quality
Interviewed by Juliet Benning
I meet with Guillaume Roché on a sunlit terrace at the Cannes Boat Show and am immediately engulfed by a warm Turkish sense of hospitality with drinks and nibbles proffered as we settle into our seats. Roché, dressed in a crisp shirt and pale slacks, cuts an elegant and ever-so-slightly debonair figure. This is somewhat at odds with the slightly rogue looking gold hoop in his left ear, doubtless a relic from a long maritime career. Roché surprises me with an almost neutral accent I can’t place, before explaining his parents are French and Scottish. Interviewing Roché allows for a fluid conversation about the industry that is difficult to restrict by time — so many topics are covered and Roché voices many passionate opinions.
Sparks of enterprise flew when Roché first met his now business partner, German entrepreneur Herbert P. Baum, and the result was the creation of Sunrise Yachts. Baum, now chairman of the company, discussed the creation of a shipyard with Roché while they sat together on a flight from Denmark, where Roché had been supervising a construction. Baum asked Roché to build him a yacht that would not compromise on quality, but could be built for a reasonable price. It was 2005, and Roché had already been living in Turkey for 10 years, where he had become something of an expert at establishing shipyards.
Building a family business
Roché is obsessive about quality, explaining that the reason he got into boatbuilding in the first place was due to his disappointing experiences as a captain. “I was completely frustrated by how badly built yachts were. Because, with all due respect to my colleagues [competitors] a lot of shipyards are run by balance sheets rather than common sense or by experience. Being at sea is an environment that demands properly built equipment and vessels. I was increasingly frustrated because things were put on boats without any knowledge of how they would behave at sea. Cost cutting measures were put on without knowing what kind of consequences they would have to the people onboard, whether they were guests or crew.”
Roché refers to his competitors as colleagues, explaining, “Its a very, very difficult job — that’s why I don’t call any of the other boatbuilders competitors — to me they’re colleagues because it’s bloody courageous or brave to want to persevere in this business.”
Going on to reveal more about his place in the grand scheme of the superyacht industry, he explains, “[As a builder] you are at the bottom of the ladder in the sense that you’re the person who takes all the risk and it’s also the hardest part of the work in the whole food chain of the industry. You take all the grief as well as the responsibilities. And in the end, even if you do a good job, the likelihood that you will be rewarded in anyway is tenuous.” This, perhaps, is a wake-up call to remind an outsider of the grafting and fretting that goes on in the shipyards — it can be all too easy to be charmed by the launch parties, yacht shows and the glossy photoshoots to consider the blood, sweat and tears that go into the build itself.
Speaking to Roché, it becomes instantly clear that within the workforce family and colleagues are blurred, feeding into a buoyant and friendly community. Fabien Roché, the newly appointed COO, is Guillaume’s brother; his wife Rima Abi-Chahine Roché is administrative manager; Jean-Claude, head of sales and marketing, is a close friend and various other relations are appointed throughout the team. Roché explains, “We all trust each other implicitly. It’s been fantastic because during the worst of the crisis we all huddled together and kept ourselves going and managed to prevail, and that was thanks to the closeness that we all have. So when people say in business you shouldn’t get close I don’t agree at all. I think you should get very close and you should share and be there for the people that work with you and hopefully they’ll be there for you.”
Nurturing talent and respect
Roché is a leader who propels his team through praise and encouragement rather than fear and punishment. “When people are good and they’re professional it’s much better to work on their pride than their fear. In the shipyard right now it’s more effective to comment on somebody’s work and pride than to threaten to fire them. Firing a person is easy but does it solve your problem? No. So when it gets known in the company that a guy screws up but he doesn’t get fired but just gets told, ‘Do you know why you failed, do you realise what you’ve done? Don’t do it again’ — then all of a sudden you eliminate any kind of major tension. People don’t fear for their jobs or start running around trying to cover things up. There’s no paranoia.”
Roché’s workforce encouragement extends to a social programme for the yard. “The social side of the company is massive. We spend a lot of money and a lot of time on events. Every year we do the Sunrise summer party and we invite everybody from the Free Zone, every shipyard, every worker; 3,000 people. We build a stage, hire a band and do a big barbecue and people appreciate that. What it does for the Free Zone is great because workers have fun and they’re happy, and people like us so they’re there for us if we might need any help. And for our workers it’s great because it gives them a sense of pride. It costs what it costs but what you get back is priceless.”
When establishing the yard, Roché and Baum had to consider how to attract new workers to the enterprise. Having worked in Turkey for the previous 13 years, Roché knew the talent he wanted and the solution to draw them in was inspired by the automotive industry as an assembler. “We would build the facilities and take care of all the administrative tasks, project management, cost control, purchasing, marketing etc, and then essentially work with a whole bunch of permanent subcontractors that would be living on our premises. To do that, around the shipyard we built the workshops and we gave them to the subcontractors when they agreed to work for us. It was a two-boat deal, so we were basically offering them work for three years and free facilities, which reduced their overheads tremendously. It allowed them to set up at a low cost and for us it reduced our production costs so it was a win-win situation for everybody. Today I’d say that has proved reasonably successful and it has allowed us to pass through the economic crisis without too much damage. Since we did not really have any high overheads or many employees we were able to weather the storm. I can’t say it was rosy all the time but at least we didn’t take a big nose dive.”
Within the workforce, which at the time of writing, amounted to 190 Sunrise people and 360 subcontractors, Roché has embedded the company ethos, “Enjoy what you do, be proud of what you do, and if you don’t know, ask.” Baum’s own outlook has supported Roché’s approach to management, “In Herbert I found a partner that I really didn’t think existed. We have exactly the same work ethic, same ethos and same vision of how to do business or to treat people. Our first decision when we decided to create Sunrise Yachts was that we wanted to be an attractive employer and we wanted people to want to go to work and be happy to go to work and feel like they belong. And I can honestly say now that it’s grown a bit and sadly I can go through the corridors of my company and I don’t recognise someone and it bothers me a lot, but the atmosphere in the company is palpable. You can feel it when you walk in. People are genuinely dedicated, enthusiastic and happy and, to me, that’s all I have to do.”
At the moment the yard is thriving, with two 63m, a 57m, a 45m, and a 34m all being built, and all sold. For Roché, there are challenges in building larger. “With certain sizes when you go from one to another it’s not a progressive leap, it’s a quantum leap. To go from a 45m to building a 63m is a massive leap. For us, we had to completely restructure our company — we had to hire hoards of people. We had to find the knowledge. We had to embed in all these people our philosophy andour know-how. Even though I knew that it was going to be a quantum leap I was completely caught unaware by the magnitude of changes and the transformation that the company would have to go through in order to build these large yachts.”
Hull number one of the 63-metres, which is about 60 per cent finished, has been designed by Espen Øino, with a Redman Whiteley Dixon interior. Roché got to know Øino through a previous Turkish boss who was building an 82-metre yacht, which at the time Roché considered crazy. “We always said that we would do something together but he’s involved in boats that are considerably bigger than what we build. But we had ideas and concepts that we wanted to try and this basically translates to the Sunrise 50 and the Sunrise 57”
Alongside the new builds, like other yards, Sunrise is investing in the facility’s potential for refit. “We recognise that refit is a growing business because a lot of people are thinking twice about selling their boats, but on the other hand they may want some changes. I think that being a new-build yard and doing refit is a tremendous asset to a client who can benefit from new technologies, the knowledge of a new build applied to an old build and also, once again, the reasonable labour costs. And refits, even more than new builds, are extremely labour intensive, so we can offer competitive prices. But we’re a bit limited right now as we have a launching and lifting issue, which we’re about to solve. We’re planning to build, most likely, a floating dock where we’ll be able to lift boats up to 80m and 1,500t, and this will be a game changer because then we’ll be able to do real refits. I am planning for this to be ready for the winter period of 2014.”
When it came to considering the quality Sunrise was capable of, Africa, the 45m vessel that debuted at the Monaco Yacht Show in 2009, became the yardstick. “She was the benchmark for us in terms of seeing if it was possible for us to achieve what we’d set our minds to. I believe that we managed to prove our point because Sunrise Yachts, from that moment on, had literally put its reputation on the table to deliver, and I think the industry was quite surprised to see that we could achieve such a boat. She was extremely well received. We were the busiest boat at the show by far. Actually, it was way too much as after the show we had to replace all the carpets. We had 800 visitors in four days. But I think everybody was blown away. Nobody could believe that you could get that kind of quality for that price.”
Encouraging confidence in Turkey
Building in Turkey, the yard has had to battle the common perception that quality and standards will be compromised. Roché talks about some of the industry gossip that essentially appears to amount to a series of smear campaigns against Turkish yards. “Unfortunately, we’re in a business that is based on reputation, and the good Turkish shipyards are scaring a lot of people, so any chance that people have to pull us down they will do. We have proof of that on a reasonably regular basis. There are insidious rumours being circulated around and certain customers of ours have been approached by ill-meaning people. It’s sometimes quite vicious. If you think about it, if our formula actually works we’re a threat to a lot of people.”
The threat will grow more substantial when Roché’s ambitious technological plans come to fruition. He is working alongside an ex-fuel cell division engineer from MTU to implement fuel cells on yachts on a large scale. Awaiting further investment but once matured, the project promises to reduce the emissions of a yacht by 90 per cent. Also in the pipeline is Roché’s plan to make the second of the 57-metres carbon neutral, with a diesel electric system with e-pods. Roché’s constantly roving mind and commitment to quality and engineering will ensure that Sunrise will continue to grow comfortably into its potential.