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Antony Sheriff was appointed Executive Chairman at Princess Yachts in January 2016, having spent a decade as Managing Director of McLaren Automotive. Born in Switzerland in 1963, the American attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, obtaining a B.A. in Economics and a B.S. in Engineering before going on to work at Chrysler. He then obtained his M.S. in Management from the MIT Sloan School of Management while contributing to the ground-breaking book, The Machine that Changed the World. Following his graduation, Sheriff worked for McKinsey and Company as a strategic management consultant. In 1995, he joined Fiat Auto in Italy and soon became Executive Director of Product Development for all Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo cars and commercial vehicles. In 2002, Sheriff was promoted to the position of Vice President of Marketing for Fiat. Shortly after, in January 2003, Sheriff was appointed Managing Director of McLaren Automotive, a role he held until 2013.


Sheriff on the Princess S60 at this year’s Singapore Yacht Show at ONE˚15 Marina.

Why do you think you were sought out by Princess Yachts after spending most of your career in the car industry, including 10 years managing McLaren Automotive?

I’m new to the boating business, although not necessarily as new to boating, but I came from making luxury toys, having run McLaren for 10 years and started its road car business. I have a reasonable familiarity with the types of customers and what they want, and making high-tech, expensive, engineered toys that make people feel good and make their life better. That’s the business we’re in.

I think there are a lot of similarities between McLaren and Princess; there are also quite a number of differences. Princess is, above and beyond, a luxury brand, but it’s a luxury brand that has quite a bit of industrial complexity.

In the retail world, luxury brands tend to be things like a perfume where it’s a lot of marketing, and marketing makes up a large percentage of the cost of the product. Here, it’s the materials and the work we put into the product that makes up a high percentage of the cost of the product, and that was similar at McLaren.

It’s understanding how to create something that’s evocative and special for a very demanding, ultra-high net worth customer, whether that’s the product itself or how you relate to the customer, including after-sales, so I think that’s why I ended up here.

From building cars to building yachts, do you see any big changes that could be made? Is the yacht industry missing a trick?

I don’t think the quality aspirations of the yachting industry as a whole is where it should be. I think that there’s a reluctant acceptance that they’re big products that are complicated and that’s good enough. We’re very aggressively trying to change that mentality within the company, but I think it’s endemic in the industry. To be clear, we aim to be the highest-quality [yacht] producer in the world and we are going to be putting our money where our mouth is on that.

I think the auto industry manages complexity better. Because boat companies have typically grown from somebody’s garage, into their shed, into their shipyard and has been very artisanal and started from a small base, nobody has ever looked at it as a whole and said, ‘How can I rationalise this in a more intelligent way to improve the efficiency of how I get boats to market and how I build boats without any sacrifice to the customer?’ We’re going to be doing that. We have some very interesting projects that are ongoing.

I think that some of the rigour that is more endemic in the auto industry can be brought to bear on the boating industry, but it has to be done with the proper touch. If you come from a Ford and say I’m going to put the Ford production system into a boating company, you’ll fall flat on your face because all Ford knows how to do is big volume, big production, very bureaucratic, very rigid.

I think you need to understand the uniqueness of what we do and that most of the boats we make are produced at a maximum of about 50 units a year, as opposed to the car units where you’re doing a maximum of almost 1 million a year and if it’s really, really low volume, then maybe a few thousand a year. Here, very high volume is 50, so I think that’s something that when you try to apply lessons, you need to do it with a sensitivity that realises you’re going into a much lower-volume, less-structured environment, so they need to be applied with care.

You arrived less than a year after Marketing Director Kiran Haslam arrived from Bentley, so was there a conscious effort by Princess to hire senior executives from the car industry?

I’m quite sure that they looked at people from the boating industry and the car industry because it’s similar. I think the McLaren aspect was probably intriguing for them because it’s a super luxury brand and it’s also low volume, so the sensitivity I talked about – how do you apply something that’s more structured but isn’t oppressive – is something that we worked with quite a bit at McLaren, even within the company.

The production of the [McLaren] 650 or the 12C or the 570 was something that was much more 10 a day, 10 a day, 10 a day. As you went down to the P1 or some of the bespoke products, it was still done with the same production system, but it was much more ‘light touch’ and understanding the fact that it’s ultra-low volume. You may be making a car a day in the case of the P1, a few one-offs or a small series where you need to treat it with the same basic concept of process, but understanding that you’re only making three or four so you can’t run it through the same process as if you were making 3 or 4 million.

When you came in to Princess and took a look around, what did you see that could be changed as a business model?

There are a lot of things that could be changed; we had to decide what we were going to change. I think Princess has had a lot of really strong things going for it, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have joined. I think it’s got a great brand. By great brand, I mean it’s strong, it’s getting stronger and the positioning is lovely.

It is a serious boat for serious boaters that has a quiet, understated, confident luxury about it. It’s authentic. Everything we make, we make in-house. It’s the real deal. It doesn’t have the super ficiality that you could get in firms that put their name on a boat, but don’t design it, don’t produce it, don’t sell it; they just brand it. Pretty much everything we do is done here in Plymouth, in the southwest of England.

At the same time, I thought there were a lot of opportunities to modernise the brand and modernise the products. Technology is not a word you hear too often when you speak about motor yachts and we’re going to be introducing some interesting things over the next years – the first thing you’ll see will be next year. And we’re dramatically pushing forward on quality. Quality in terms of perceived quality – how the boat looks, how it presents itself, not just the interior spaces but the exterior spaces as well – as well as the build quality and the robustness of the product.

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“To be clear, we aim to be the highestquality yacht producer in the world and we are going to be putting our money where our mouth is on that.”

Princess is spread across five separate sites in Plymouth and even just moving parts around is quite a complex arrangement. From your time in cars, are you having any input in terms of how you streamline the production process?

We are in the middle of a huge transformation. Firstly, we are very proud to be in Plymouth, we have great skills here and this is how we want to run our business. We are a business that’s rooted in the way we’ve done things for quite some period of time and we are trying to change that significantly now. It’s not straightforward.

In my simple world of McLaren, we had one assembly line and so if you had a problem, you fixed it once, end of story. Here you have 18 different lines for 18 different boats, which makes the time and the effort it takes to change things to be immeasurably more complicated than it is in an automotive environment.

We have a production system that’s as complex as a Mercedes-Benz or a Ford, just in terms of having to affect change in multiple places, to see it through to the whole company.

For a company with our turnover and scale – we have 2,500 people, that’s an enormous number of people – it’s also about changing people and changing the way that people work. That said, there’s an incredible will to do things differently and a desire to make it better, as there’s a lot of pride in the products that we make. I think we are taking a lot of very important steps forward in how we manage the whole business.

Are you looking to change which yachts are produced where?

Over the next five or 10 years, because our whole range will change, everything’s going to move around. What we do is that we look for what’s the volume, what’s the size of the boat, where does it fit and therefore what’s the best way to manage the production. We might be building a bit more capacity. Right now, we are trying to be clever and figure out how we can reduce the amount of space we need for the number of boats we are producing, because we are going to be producing a broader range of boats. We want to avoid using more space, so we will be building multiple models on the same line, but in a clever way.

Generically, small boats will continue to be built over in Lee Mill, medium-sized boats will continue to be built in Langage, very large boats will continue to be built in South Yard because that’s where we have the space to build them and everything else gets built here at our headquarters in Newport. This is sort of our flex factory and that’s really the paradigm.

There may be, for whatever reason, a boat that moves from Langage to Newport or from Newport to Lee Mill, but we can deal with that later; that’s tactical, not strategic. And, of course, we’re going to continue to have our facility in Coypool that makes all the carpentry, metal work, wiring and so on.

In South Yard, you have the historic ropery where you develop mock-ups of the upcoming models. How important is that for Princess as a designer and builder, and also for a potential customer to have a walkthrough in a physical replica?

I think it’s a unique development point. We do spend a lot of time physically understanding the space. It’s very difficult to do something on paper or in CAD and understand how that’s going to work in real life. The mock-up lets you test the perception of being in a large area or in an enclosed space, or whether that clearance feels quite natural, or whether you have to jiggle to get yourself out from behind a table, so we just build it all.

We spend a lot of time there as a management team, sitting in different places, all sitting around a table to see how it feels, what you’re looking at.

We’ve designed a boat that’s coming out at the end of this year – a big sports fly bridge, a beautiful boat. From sitting down in the cockpit area of that boat in the ropery, we noticed that as you looked forward it had very meaty haunches in the rear, so it’s quite muscular and sporty, but it actually was quite high and you couldn’t see that much.

Because of that experience, we lowered it and changed the whole exterior styling and toned it down a bit, so you can have good visibility and feel more open when you are outside on the boat. You’d never see that properly from a CAD model. It doesn’t matter what virtual walkthroughs you have, you just wouldn’t get that perception or understand what it would be like. You really have to be there in a one-to-one model so that’s why we do that.

You’ve talked about some exciting new product launches in 2018, but will they still fit within the traditional Princess style?

Absolutely. Whatever we do is going to be a Princess. The brand will have a certain amount of stretch, but I think the things that make a Princess aren’t defined by certain product categories. It’s not that Princesses are only fly bridges, or can’t be sport boats – we have a very successful, if not the most successful, sport boat business with our V boats. Sport fly bridges are doing extremely well and the fly bridges continue to be strong.

Now, we’re also looking at the way people use boats and trying to understand if there’s a concept, a configuration that’s fundamentally different to what’s out there on the market today and how can we make this work. How can we make it work from an architectural standpoint, meaning the spaces and the flow within the boat? How can we make it work from a hydrodynamic standpoint? Where is the centre of gravity?What are the various moments? Will it be a nice boat to be at sea with? We’re hard at work on something like that, something very different from anything that’s been done before.

We also have some new technologies, which are going to dramatically improve the efficiency of our boats. I think those are going to be surprising, not used before in the nautical industry, and that will change people’s perception of us.

But it’s still very much about being Princess. These will not be boats that will flash and loudly say, ‘Look at me, look at me.’ They’ll be different. They’ll be boats that are going to be quietly understated and confident.

We are also pushing forward quite aggressively on design. I think that our positioning is very good now. I think we have elegant boats. They are not angry monsters. If you look around the boat shows, you tend to see some boats snarling and growling, with funny-shaped windows and stuff like that.

We’re much more for the traditions of what made boats beautiful, with long, elegant, flowing lines that run from the front to the back of the boat and give a boat elegance. You’re going to see that brought into a much more modern idiom, but still the key word is elegance.

There’s a lot that’s going to be bubbling up and changing, but I think in a way that really supports and builds on the brand as opposed to moving the brand to a different area.

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Bottom: Part of the Flybridge range, the new Princess 62 will be on display at both Cannes and Southampton.

Facing page: Sheriff (right) with Marketing Director Kiran Haslam (left) and Andrew Pitchford (centre), General Manager Asia Pacific.

In terms of buyers, is Princess aiming to become more international than it was?

It was pretty international when I got here. We sell everywhere and we are trying to become more international. When I came here, we were Princess Yachts International, ‘international’ in our name, with sales of boats in 80 different countries around the world – and we only had two people who didn’t live in Plymouth working for the company. We now have about five, so we’ve more than doubled our expat population!

In seriousness, we have now built a Hong Kong office, we are building a Fort Lauderdale office, we’re going to manage Europe from here in Plymouth for the moment, so we’re putting people out into the regions to be able to support and work with our dealers and customers in a much more collaborative and fluent way. It’s kind of hard to manage the process in the US if you’re just sitting here in Plymouth and doing it by telephone; then you’re just an order taker.

Do you see strong potential growth in Asia?

First of all, our results in Asia are phenomenal – it’s about 15 per cent of our turnover. I think we’ve been very successful and our Asia market is growing. It’s a core part of our business and as a region, it’s as important as the US, which is just over 20 per cent. Asia has become a core part of our business with not much mainland China in it, so the opportunity is only going to grow. The potential is huge.

What were your takeaways from this year’s Singapore Yacht Show, where Princess had a dominant display through your Southeast Asia dealer, Boat Lagoon Yachting?

I go to the shows because it is a great opportunity to sit down and spend some quality time with the dealers and their sales people, as well as with the customers, understanding what they like and what they don’t like. I think that there is a core of what people like and appreciate when they see a Princess and those are things very close to our values. It is the craftsmanship, it’s the quality, it’s the understatement, it’s the fact that it’s a real boat – it’s not a toy, it’s a proper boat. I like to say that our boats have great seakeeping because if they didn’t, they would never get out of the bay in Plymouth. I think people do appreciate that.

As for particular Asian tastes, there are some regional differences, but people tend to try to stereotype by Chinese customers or Australian customers or whatever. Actually, I think that the customer typologies go kind of fluently across regions. Maybe there’s a couple of regions where the way they use a boat is quite unique. If you go to Brazil they just live on the bathing platform. I mean, properly live on the bathing platform – table, barbecue, chairs. ‘This is our area because we have our feet in the water and we want to have our feet in the water.’

But you are going to have people who want an open boat and be in the sun all the time. You are going to have people with big, closed spaces because they just want to be out on the sea, but in nice air-conditioned comfort. There are people who use their boats largely stationary and people who use their boats and are moving around all the time. It cuts across regions; it really does cut across regions.

Tell us more about the 62 you’re showing at both Cannes and Southampton.

I think you’ve seen to some extent with the 68, but really definitively with the 75, a design ethos: incredible spaciousness, light and area with a huge amount of illumination because of the big windows, and very rational layouts and spaces. That’s really what you get on the 62.

It’s obviously not as big as the 75, but it’s a boat you look around in and say, this is anything anyone could always want. It’s fabulously roomy for the size of the boat, very elegant. It is in many ways a quintessential Princess in that regard.

As for the ‘interesting’ new concepts for 2018, will they incorporate the new technologies or will those technologies be used in existing models?

Yes and yes. We have some new things coming out which are technologies and we have new concepts. For one of the two new technologies, we’re just evaluating whether we want to use it on the new concept boat, but you’ll start to see hints of this over the next year.