John Bonafoux co-founded his marine design business with his former university lecturer 30 years ago. Today, it is one of the world’s leading consultancies. Interview by Jake Kavanagh.
There is a Tardis-like quality to the BMT Nigel Gee office in Southampton, now one of 70 offices within the BMT group. For a company playing such a leading role in technological innovation, the exterior of the building is remarkably understated.
The red-brick building, a former shipyard warehouse, is tucked inconspicuously into a corner of a mid-size marina, with a small yacht brokerage and an ‘all-day English breakfast’ style café sharing the ground floor.
But once a visitor has climbed the metal stairway to the second-floor reception, the full expanse of the impressive open plan office is revealed to them.
Your first clue that this is no ordinary operation is a large poster that greets you on the landing, reminding you of the sheer breadth of contracts currently passing across the desks of the 60-strong technical team.
The team itself is led by the co-founder of the company, John Bonafoux (pronounced bon-ah-foo), a relaxed and affable CEO, who enjoys keeping fit with regular games of tennis and badminton. He admits he once owned a sailing boat, but due to the success of the business, found little time to use it.
However, sailing is in his blood, so he often takes part in regattas with friends and colleagues. He also has a passion for restoring classic cars, allowing him to unwind and remain connected with the mindset of yacht refit enthusiasts.
After all, there is a lot in common, from planning to execution. “Just like some of the classic yachts I deal with, these cars are beautifully built,” he says. “I fix everything myself, except the paintwork. That really is a skill set only a few can do well.”
Building the company
From the early days, when the company was basically a two-man team with a secretary and a single draftsman, the emphasis has been on high performance and lightweight solutions for commercial craft. Bonafoux is thankful for this solid – and ongoing – grounding for two reasons.
The first is that it gives a deep knowledge base and unrivalled experience in all types of hull form and drivetrain, and secondly, it allows the company to work in different sectors when one part of the marine industry is going through one of its typical cyclic downturns.
“Diversity has been the secret to our success,” he said as we sat in an office that overlooked the more modest vessels in the MDL marina below. “All of these markets have ups and downs. After the 2008 global slump, for example, we would have been having a harder time if yachting had been our only market. However, during this recession there was a big boom in offshore renewable power and as such we enjoyed good performance in that sector.”
Diversity isn’t just key in terms of business, but also in terms of motivating the talent. “Staff feedback suggests the team really enjoys the range of projects available,” Bonafoux remarks. “One week they are working on a 50-knot patrol vessel and the next week on a 100m superyacht, and that is very exciting.”
Since the company’s first yacht project in 1992, Nigel Gee and Associates has achieved notable success. As such, yacht projects, which are now mostly in the 100m-plus bracket, currently account for around half of the company’s turnover. Meanwhile, experience and emerging technologies learnt in the commercial and naval sectors are helping to drive some new ideas.
Glancing at the list of services available – from fluid dynamics to tank-testing – it is tempting to ask if there is anything the company doesn’t do, which raises a smile from Bonafoux.
“Generally, we don’t get involved in large and heavy shipping,” he says, “Even so, we previously designed and engineered a 220m container ship, because the owner wanted one that could do 27 knots.
“After every shipyard he approached said ‘we can’t do that!’ he finally came to us and asked us to work up some plans. We not only streamlined the shape below the waterline, but above it as well. We exploited every advantage, however small, as you have to take a holistic approach on high performance vessels.
“The client was very happy with the results, and placed contracts with two yards, one in Germany and one in China. In total, 10 ships were built to our design. Where there is a special requirement for conventional sea transportation we will get involved, and a lot of that research enhances projects across other markets. We’ll probably never develop a 10-knot steel workboat, because there are plenty of players in that market already, but if someone wants one that can do 50 knots, then it’s likely they’ll come to us.”
Whilst high speed, fuel efficiency and lightweight build are buzzwords in the commercial sector, these attributes are generally less of a priority for yachting. “We use the skills we have honed in optimising high performance vessels to develop displacement hulls that are exceptionally fuel efficient,” says Bonafoux.
“Most of our projects are above 80m, and the great majority are over 100m, as this is the growing part of the market. These larger yachts also provide more challenges in areas such as global strength, and this is where our experience of designing large commercial vessels has proved to be a major benefit.”
When I mentioned the graphic of a large three-masted sailing yacht on the wall, a current project, Bonafoux agreed that there are a lot of similarities between sailing superyachts and their motorised counterparts.
“It’s not unusual for us to complete the engineering on sailing yachts, although we don’t consider ourselves to be sailing yacht designers,” he says. “We don’t create hull forms for sailing, as it’s a specialist field, and our expertise is with motor vessels. However, we do get involved in support engineering for large sailing yachts, and how to build them down to a certain weight.
The expertise and capability learnt from building lightweight powered vessels can be applied to ensuring that a sailing boat performs exactly to specification. For example, we were involved with the early stages of the largest sailing catamaran built so far, the stunning Hemisphere. We assisted with structural analysis and in the designing of machinery layouts, which is how we usually get involved in sailing projects. We have also recently been involved on two sailing yachts above 80m, to help make each project go as well as possible.”
When asked if he has noticed any trends since 2008, Bonafoux answers immediately: “Increasing lengths of vessel, but not always with increased volume”.
“There is an ongoing trend right now towards ever larger yachts, with a lot of confidence in the 100m-200m size range from the major builders. Oceanco, for example, has recently built a remarkable new facility for superyachts in excess of 100m, and Feadship has announced plans to do much the same.
“These major players are seeing enough of a trend to make a serious investment in infrastructure, and other shipyards look set to follow suit. This reflects our own order book.”
So why do owners want these larger yachts? Bonafoux thinks it has more to do with the ever-expanding facilities for the toys they carry, rather than just “keeping up with the Joneses”.
Also, the requirement to anchor off many smaller ports means that ship-to-shore transport becomes more critical, and the team at BMT Nigel Gee regularly fields the need for ultra-large tender bays and the challenges associated with handling the formidable craft they carry.
“There has been a very progressive trend towards greater length. Twenty years ago, an 80m yacht was seriously large, but nowadays it would barely raise a headline. But carrying more accessories isn’t just the remit of the larger yachts. We’ve also done a number of refit projects where existing owners in the 40m-50m range want to add another five metres to the yacht, so the refit creates a virtually new vessel. They want a bigger pool, more jet skis and a larger tender, so that’s what I think drives it. Practical reasons, rather than exhibitionism.”
Bonafoux is also aware of the need to keep a yacht personal, and not to have one so large that it loses its character. “There is a real danger that you can end up with a monolith, something impersonal. Although we are looking at yachts in excess of 100m, they often don’t have much more volume than some 80m models. Instead, the owners want something more elegant, a reasonable volume on a longer length. This way, you can achieve much better aesthetics, and the comfort that comes with a longer hull. As a comparison, commercial drivers now dominate modern cruise ship design, so you end up with a vessel of a certain length, but box-like and absolutely crammed. The graceful lines of the earlier liners have almost disappeared.”
Regulatory requirements also have an impact. “With our larger projects, we are designing in an area where passenger-ship rules may apply. This is why we’ve been working with the authorities in a consultative capacity to help in the development of the regulations for these larger vessels.”
Nigel Gee and Associates was absorbed into the BMT Group in 2003, and from Bonafoux’s perspective, this has brought some major advantages to both his company and his clients.
“There are lots of benefits,” he enthuses. “The main ones are the breadth of capability we can draw on from the other companies of the group, and access to new market areas. If we are chasing defence work, for instance, whilst we have the naval architects, we are not a defence business, so we don’t have all the knowledge that goes with a naval platform.
But we have sister companies that do, so we can position ourselves with potential contracts very well, as we have everything under one roof. This approach also helps in our superyacht work. If, for example, we are dealing with surveys or fluid dynamics, we can bring in specialist BMT companies to assist.”
The BMT Group also operates as an employee business trust, where each employee is also effectively a partner and gets a share of the profits.
“The key thing is there are no external shareholders,” explains Bonafoux. “In principle, at any one time, the employees are the owners of the company, which is operated on their behalf by a team of trustees. These trustees decide how much profit needs to be reinvested, and how much distributed to staff. It makes us very independent, as we aren’t open to takeovers and buyouts.
“We can also attract the very best staff, and retain them, as they feel fully involved with the company.
“The day-to-day running of the business hasn’t really changed since we joined BMT, but at the same time they can provide very strong governance when needed, including in-house expertise in contractual and legal aspects. Before, we would have to find a suitably qualified lawyer, so our joining the BMT Group has been entirely positive, with no real downside.”
Bonafoux’s vision of the superyacht market is a fleet of increasing length and complexity. “There are encouraging trends in the industry in terms of the size of it,” he reasons. “Pre-2008, demand was exceeding supply for new build yachts. But the latest data shows that new orders are now exceeding deliveries, which suggests that the post-2008 overcapacity in the industry is perhaps coming to an end, which is encouraging. With this increasing level of orders, a higher percentage are now going to a smaller percentage of yards, so there could be some yards still with troubles ahead, but overall the number of global orders is very positive indeed.
“We’re definitely going to see more yachts being built in excess of 100m, and they will be carrying extra toys, which will need more technical support, such as submarines that can exit bomb-bay style doors, much larger swimming pools, and so on.
“The need to anchor off because today’s superyachts are too big for many ports is another significant engineering issue. I also believe that we will see much greater use of zero-speed stabilisation in the future. It’s a constantly evolving market, which is why we all find it so exciting.”