Superyacht Business catches up with Daryl Wakefield, the president of Westport at the Monaco Yacht Show to discuss future plans following its new ownership structure
Daryl Wakefield rarely gives interviews which is a shame, as the superyacht industry has a lot of questions for the president of Westport Yachts.
First, in June 2014 his Washington-based company was acquired by American Custom Yachts (ACY), a leading bespoke yacht producer. Questions abound over Westport’s new direction and ownership structure. Secondly, there are the resulting rumours over possible plans for a larger series of boats. Westport currently offers just four production series ranging from 30m to 50m. Like Airbus’s A320 series, this scalable production model enables it to undercut and out-deliver its rivals. Thirdly, Westport’s ‘on time on budget’ business model has resulted in an order book that’s purportedly full through 2016.
There’s just one problem. Until now, Daryl Wakefield has been as cagey with these three questions as he is confident about his company’s future.
It’s a self-assured president of Westport Yachts who greets the SB team at the Monaco Yacht Show in late September 2014. Wakefield’s stand has pride of place in the Darse Nord exhibition space. A decade ago, chatter circulated about Westport’s downward direction – a sure-fire way to put off clients concerned with refit and maintenance expertise. Now the man with his eyes on Monaco looks like he’s in business for the long term.
Growing up in the yachting business
To get under the skin of Westport’s current chief, we must rewind 37 years. “I simply grew up in the yachting business,” remembers Wakefield. His father worked in the American Pacific boatbuilding industry and took his son sailing from the outset. The family bond doesn’t stop there. For a time, Wakefield Sr also worked at Westport, which started life in 1964, seven years after Daryl was born. (The firm celebrated its 50-year anniversary in 2014). Both father and son would tinker around together in shipyards. From bucking nails on wooden sailboats to witnessing early powerboat production, Wakefield Jr’s out-of-hours education was hands-on to say the least.
The more formal rigours of school were followed by a specialist technical college in Seattle, a short drive from Westport’s three Washington state shipyards. Here Wakefield studied marine construction and design. “Then I worked with my father for several years in another shipyard. Not that he gave me any special dispensation!” Like father like son, Westport also came calling. That was in 1999 when company fortunes weren’t as bright as they are now.
“The shipyard’s two majority owners, the brothers Rick and Randy Rust, were looking towards retirement,” recalls Wakefield. “So I was invited by Mr Edson (John Orin Edson, the founder of Bayliner Marine who joined Westport in the late 1990s) to join the crew. It turned out to be a fine time to step aboard.”
Did Wakefield’s skills match Edson’s job description?
“Well, my Westport role 15 years ago was quite different to what I’d done in the past. My background was custom boats, but Westport concentrated on production vessels.” By pairing semi-bespoke finishes with the shipyard’s no-nonsense values, we moulded Westport into a pure powerboat enterprise. Cleverly, the firm’s former reputation as a tough fishing boat manufacturer remained intact. It was good public relations. “There was money in private pleasure boats made by naval engineers with ocean-going experience. There still is.”
He’s not joking. Wakefield has an enviable order book. “Business is still historically slower than it has been,” he admits, but he’s confident of more commissions this year. Let’s not forget than Westport deals in the €10m-€20m range whose potential clientele faced the worse of the financial crisis, not the €100m-€200m über-yacht range that rode the recession with relative ease.
New majority owners
“The key sales factor is that people understand where Westport is headed,” claims Wakefield. It’s part of the reason behind his confident showings in Cannes, Singapore, Fort Lauderdale and now in Monaco. “There was previous chatter in the industry: ‘what’s happening with Westport, why are they slowing down?'” Those days are gone. “We’re adding product to the line,” boasts Wakefield. “Sure it’s early, and things take time to change, but we’re back. That’s official.”
Wakefield’s conviction also stems from his company’s recent acquisition by ACY. The new majority owners include members of the Louisiana-based Chouest family, whose business interests also stemmed from fisheries into commercial boatbuilding. Westport’s assets included its three shipyards in Washington state and a sales office in Fort Lauderdale, not to mention the skills of 400 employees who have built more than 120 yachts since 2000. “I feel blessed,” Wakefield tells SB. “The Chouest group is also a family-run firm with a deep passion for yachting”.
Not to mention a respect for Westport’s standards. Family principal Gary Chouest is a proud owner of a company yacht. “They’ve come in and studied our business, not told us what to do,” explains Wakefield. “They have heaps of experience with boatbuilding and client management. If they can bring some of that to the table we’re delighted.” From the operational side Wakefield claims that nothing feels different. “They let us continue being successful.”
Ambition to go bigger
Hopefully the Chouest family will share ACY’s enviable client list too. After all, the latter’s production range stretches up to 27m in length, which is where Wakefield’s range starts off. It’s a key point. Some 50% of Westport’s clients are repeat customers. Several have traded up from the 34m model to the 40m model to the flagship 50m yacht. It also brings us to another point. As the demand grows for ever-longer superyachts – and the proof was evident at this year’s Monaco Yacht Show – then surely the will and resources are now there to inaugurate a 60m series of Westport yachts?
Wakefield suddenly becomes coy. The Westport president skirts around the subject with a glimmer in his eye. He details ACY’s celebrated history and claims that “both companies will help one another whenever they can”. We press further to understand Wakefield’s agenda for a longer model. After all, the world’s largest yachts are being exhibited just metres from where we chat. It must be a growing market, we prompt. “Let’s say, there’s ambition to go bigger,” he concedes.
The taste of the €24bn global superyacht economy (and that statistic dates from 2010) excites Wakefield. We discuss hot designs like Turkish manufacturer Tansu’s 40m So’Mar, which turned many heads at Monaco. “There’s no question that there’s some incredible designs in the marketplace. Beautiful to look at, well-made, functional.” But Wakefield knows his business model. “Most of what we do we starts on spec. That means we have to appeal to a pretty broad audience,” as opposed to one-off bespoke manufacturers. “So we haven’t hitherto gone too futuristic, or too traditional.”
Indeed, his team appears busy enough selling his 30m-50m range of yachts. So much so that our interview is interrupted by a Norwegian party keen to discuss Westport’s 50m flagship.
Wakefield seems to be selling well. The 12th yacht in this production range was launched in March 2014. They can cruise at 20kts reaching a top speed of 24kts. A nautical range of 5,200nm can be achieved at a rate of 12kts.
Westport’s 50m series is pedigree. The six-stateroom tri-deck configuration was styled by Donald Starkey, a man with 26 design awards to his name. The hull was moulded by the legendary naval architect William Garden, who designed everything from racing yachts to tugs over six decades before his death in 2011. Westport products also hold their value. Fraser Yachts are currently selling the five-stateroom 40m Endless Summer, which was delivered in 2003 and refitted in 2014, for €6.7m. The 50m series charters for around €200,000 per week.
Our discussion drifts to the Westport shipyards near Seattle. Wakefield has a call back home scheduled with the five staff members who report directly to him. These include a general manager, finance director, sales director, chief engineer and HR boss. This group meets every day, by Skype or conference call if necessary. “Any good company boss surrounds himself with people he or she can trust. I’m no different.” A collaborative process that works across three specialist shipyards and employs 400 staff entails “a lot of meetings” laughs Wakefield. “But we have a goal, a bigger picture, so we need to work together to that achieve that.”
Working with the family
For the company president, a good business needs good motivation. “At Westport we’re surrounded by a great bunch of people. It’s like working with a family, and that’s the motivation for joining in every day.” Quite literally so for Wakefield, as his two eldest children occupy company positions, having gained experienced in almost every department from management to marketing. “All of our guys love doing what they do as the environment is right. I’m talking the right equipment, the right tools, the right motivation and the right facilities to do what they need to do.” Is he a micromanager? “Certainly not! I worked from the bottom up and I realise that no one wants to be told what do to on a daily basis…so that’s not my style.”
His three shipyards also have to manage a relationship with other stateside shipyards. “Our industry is always going to face similar challenges,” explains Wakefield, “be they environmental, physical, safety or whatever.” It therefore makes sense to try and find solutions collectively because “that’s less work for everyone”. Overall he claims to have a good working relationship with other US yards. “As a boatbuilder since 1964 we’re happy to share our expertise with large and small alike. Although not everyone in the industry is quite as receptive!”
For the American industry as a whole, the challenge isn’t the economy anymore. “It’s been a long road for all of us but it definitely feels that we’re on the recovery, if not on the upswing.” Rather the issue now is the increasing demands of its clientele for higher and higher specification boats. “It’s interesting how just a few years ago the biggest build budget was for navigation. Today that’s been surpassed by entertainment systems in dollar terms.” The amenities that can be enjoyed on the latest superyachts beguile even Wakefield. “It’s like a remote city. The trend has gone from having a Bose stereo to having a surround-sound outdoor cinema,” not to mention custom tender lifts, stern swim decks, retina scan entry and the rest.
It may surprise the industry, but Wakefield is more than happy to employ specialist lighting and entertainment contractors, or to channel more R&D, to satiate these demands. As Westport traditionally manufactured three or four main production models, he admits that: “there used to be an industry feeling that we can build a yacht one way, and that’s the Westport way.” But Wakefield counters that is “far from the truth.” Indeed, it’s evident looking through the shipyard catalogue that each production model is dramatically different. Accoutrements from iPad-controlled lighting to custom tender cranes can be built-in on request. However, the company’s 50-year brief is to deliver a quality yacht on budget, not a floating amusement arcade. “We do tend to focus on what adds value, not what adds cost.”
On time on budget
Is that the Westport USP we ask? Quality semi- standardised yachts at a fair price? “Our goal is to provide the best value we can,” attests Wakefield. His composite builds are fast, quiet, easy to maintain and relatively inexpensive to construct compared with bespoke steel hull designs. Every model comes ABS- classed and MCA-compliant. Precision moulds blend hull and superstructure seamlessly in their one-stop Washington workshop. “Our speed and quality are evident, but our real USP is an absolute dedication to on time on budget delivery. Sometimes we have to buckle down and work on it – but it’s worth it to keep our reputation intact.” The speed at which Westport can turn around a composite production luxury yacht might be an asset in the industry’s fabled future market. As regular visitors to China, it’s a thought that excites Wakefield’s sales team. “By way of example, an Asian client who doesn’t have time to visit the US, may order a yacht, liaise with our travelling production team in person, discuss fine tuning via Skype, then take delivery a year later.” You read that correctly: turnaround times are, in industry terms, light speed.
This is because Westport operates hard-working and industrially content shipyards where they manufacture models from start to finish. “We can build our 40m in 14 months and our top-of-the-line 50m in 18 months.” As Westport constantly has these models in process, delivery times are naturally shorter than the total build time. And as anyone with broker experience can attest, emerging market yacht owners with millions to spend aren’t generally keen to wait five years for their new toy.
Nor is Wakefield keen to leave his sales pitch when the SB photographer arrives. We escort him up above the yellow flags of the Y.CO office for the shot. Some 115 floating palaces shimmer in the Port of Monaco below as 33,000 participants from 38 nations stroll the quays. Thanks to the annual Yacht Show, Monaco’s turnover in this niche sector tops €456m. The Westport president would be more content to be back on pitch, enjoying a slice of that pie.