AFTER CELEBRATING ITS 50TH ANNIVERSARY IN 2015, PRINCESS YACHTS IS QUIETLY EMBARKING ON A BOLD NEW CHAPTER OF GROWTH WHILE STAYING TRUE TO ITS ‘CRAFTED IN PLYMOUTH’ HERITAGE.
BORN, BRED AND BUILT in Britain’s ‘Great Ocean City’, Princess Yachts is as entrenched in Plymouth as the city’s naval heritage is in the locally built luxury motor yachts.
The company’s tagline, ‘Crafted in Plymouth, England’, was the brainchild of Marketing Director Kiran Haslam, who joined in February of 2015, the year the company celebrated its 50th anniversary.
However, it feels like it has been attached to the Princess logo for much longer than that, as it captures the hands-on approach to building the beautiful but strong boats that the company is renowned for around the world.
David King founded the company then known as Marine Projects in 1965 and the former Royal Navy officer continues to work for Princess as a Consultant, having stepped down as a Director two years ago.
Now 75, the humble King works at the Princess headquarters on Newport Street and his presence provides a daily reminder to colleagues of the legacy of the largest private employer in Plymouth, a coastal city of over 260,000 people.
The ongoing personal commitment from the low-key pioneer who once described Princess as “the world’s best-kept secret” still continues to inspire employees, from design and development to marketing and communications, from craftsmen to boat Captains.
Yet it’s not only Princess employees who are able to feel connected to the history of a company that has built over 16,000 boats in its 52 years.
Visitors to the Newport Street HQ also enjoy a window into the company’s heritage, as the main meeting rooms offer a clear view across the water to the industrial shed where King and two friends started work on Project 31 in 1965.
The trio built and sold over 150 of these models through to 1969. That year they ventured into GRP moulding and produced the Princess 32, which sold over 1,200 units and was the first of many Princess-branded models that eventually inspired the company’s change of name in 2001.
In 1980, Bernard Olesinski designed his first Princess, the 30DS. Almost four decades later, he and his son Justin, Managing Director of a 20-strong team on the Isle of Wight, continue to design the hull and superstructure of every Princess model.
A year later, South African Graham Beck bought the business and owned it until 2008, when he sold to L Capital, owned by Groupe Arnault and Bernard Arnault’s LVMH group of luxury brands. L Capital has since merged with US private equity firm Catterton to become L Catterton.
This page: Plymouth, on England’s southwest coast, has a rich maritime heritage and was the home of Sir Francis Drake (statue below).
Clockwise from top: An original Project 31, pictured in Plymouth, was restored for Princess’s 50th anniversary; Project 31 was the company’s first model, selling 150 units; the restored Project 31 at last year’s Cannes Yachting Festival.
<b>Bill Barrow, Princess tour guide extraordinaire, at the Newport Street headquarters.</b>
The powerful yet hands-off backer has helped Princess ride through recent economic and actual storms to remain – in terms of quality and quantity – a world leader in the 50-100ft luxury yacht sector alongside the likes of fellow British builder Sunseeker and Italian yards Azimut and Ferretti.
Bill Barrow has worked across many aspects of the yachting industry since the 1970s and in 1998 joined Princess, where he now works as International Sales Manager.
• Superyacht manufacturing facility
• Assembly line and moulding sub-assembly on site for 40M, 35M and 30M
• Hull mould for 35M
• Test and dispatch for boats over 100ft
• Development mock-up area (East Ropery).
• Main site where the component parts for the yachts are produced including: metal shop, kit parts, loom shop, small moulds and canopies
• Hull moulds for 88 MY, 82 MY, 75 MY and S72
• Stores/transport centre
• Training centre.
• Head office location: Sales, Marketing, Finance, HR, Payroll
• Assembly line on site for 88 MY, 82 MY, 75 MY, 68, 60 and 43
• Hull moulds for 40M and 30M
• Test and dispatch for boats under 100ft.
• Assembly line on site for V58, S72, 56 and 52
• Major moulds for 68, 60, 56 and 52.
LEE MILL & FELIX ENGINEERING Lee Mill:
• Major mould shop for V58 and 43
• Production and assembly for V40, V48 and 49.
Barrow proudly confirmed that the company is moving full steam ahead after a ‘tough couple of years’ that included damage to facilities and yachts by the hurricane-force storms of February 2014.
“All boats that we build are already sold. We don’t build stock and our order book is very strong for the next couple of years,” said Barrow, who also acts as the company’s in-house tour guide and historian.
“We typically build between 200-300 boats a year and currently have about 20 models across our five ranges, with many new models being developed.”
Although Princess and Sunseeker developed independently, the two are frequently bracketed together as the UK’s top two yacht builders and there are several striking similarities.
Both were founded in the 1960s on England’s south coast – Sunseeker in Poole in 1969 – and remain anchored to their home city or town. Both have traditionally built strong, safe, seaworthy boats that are tested in tough conditions in the English Channel.
Both have founders who still remain active in their company half a century later, although both companies are now led by executives who have spent most of their career in the luxury car industry.
Both companies employ in the region of 2,300-2,400 staff and last year increased their annual revenue to well over £200m. And both are investing aggressively in new products and facilities, and restructuring.
And while Princess builds more units but far fewer superyachts, it’s other differences that distinguish the brands.
Top and right: South Yard is home to Princess’s M Class superyachts.
Bottom left: Project 31 hanging out at South Yard.
Pride of Plymouth
Much of Princess’s understated personality stems from both its lowkey founder and its roots in Plymouth, home port for Sir Francis Drake and his fleet in the late 16th century and the Mayflower’s departure point in 1620 as the Pilgrim Fathers sailed to the ‘New World’.
If King embodies the first 50 years of Princess, the appointment of American Antony Sheriff as Executive Chairman in January 2016 indicates that the company – like many yacht builders – is seeking to push forward by absorbing the streamlined efficiency of the automotive industry.
Sheriff (who features in this issue’s Inside the Industry) worked at Fiat before heading McLaren Automotive for a decade. He admits that he’s working on big changes behind the scenes at Princess, but that he’s less inclined to tinker with the company’s home-grown image.
“I think I’m very lucky to have come into a company which has a really strong heritage and a clear understanding of what it wants to be,” Sheriff said.
“Princess comes from a city where there’s a tremendous heritage in building boats and a tremendous amount of ingrained knowledge on how to build boats. It’s a reflex action.”
Princess currently occupies about 25 acres – or 17 football pitches – across five sites, including the Newport Street and South Yard waterfront sites along Plymouth’s winding coastline.
The purpose-built headquarters and manufacturing facilities at Newport Street opened in 1997 and today include the assembly line for multiple models including the Motor Yacht range (75, 82, 88). Newport Street is also the test-and-dispatch site for all Princess yachts under 100ft.
The historic South Yard was acquired in 2009 for the construction of the M Class, Princess’s range of 100ft-plus superyachts currently comprising the 30M, 35M and 40M.
As a part of Devonport Naval Base, which has a history stretching back to 1690 and was renowned as Western Europe’s biggest naval dockyard, South Yard houses several protected buildings including the spectacular 1,100ft-long East Ropery.
Making the most of the building’s long spaces, Princess uses the ropery to build wooden prototypes of all its new boats, before they go into production, so designers and senior management – including King and Sheriff – can test the layouts and spaces.
Sheriff explained: “You can wander through and see a complete mock-up of every deck and every interior space – below decks, above decks – of every boat we’re going to be making.”
Of Princess’s three inland sites, Langage and Lee Mill are primarily focused on moulds and assembly for many of the models up to about 70ft.
Coypool, acquired in 1997 and situated closer to downtown Plymouth, is best known for producing for the huge range of component parts, so houses the furniture, metal, loom and mould shops.
The large site also includes the training centre for apprentices and produces hull moulds for some of the larger models, including the Motor Yacht range.
Like Sheriff, Haslam came from the automotive industry, most recently at Bentley, and says the complexity of managing the production process between five sites is a business in itself.
“Princess is like a dockyard meets logistics company,” the Australian says. “We’re moving 5,000 parts between sites each day.”
Princess even has its own police cars. The company often requires a police escort to accompany yachts or hulls when they’re hauled between sites, but as there weren’t always police cars available, Princess built and owns four police cars – and asks the police for drivers when an escort is required.
This page and facing page: The energetic Coypool site features the furniture, metal, loom and small-mould shops.
Crafted in Plymouth
Princess states that an average of 80 per cent of each of its boats is made by the company in Plymouth, due in part to the city’s naval history and also to its relatively remote location. Engines, glass and satnav systems are among outsourced items.
“Geographically we’re a long way away from any other manufacturing in the UK, so we’ve had to be reliant on building our own components,” said Barrow, who has an almost inexhaustible wealth of knowledge about the company’s yachts, employees, production sites, construction processes and materials.
“That has developed over the years as boatbuilding has long been a really strong industry in this part of the world. Making our own components gives us ultimate control, so we’ve got control of quality and control of time, and we can be very bespoke to a customer.”
At each factory, especially at Coypool, it’s a huge and complex operation, with Barrow explaining that 4,500 different components are used in the furniture for all the models. The company even has records for 420 different door sizes.
Princess is a popular employer in Plymouth, where the company is recognised for paying quite well but where production is intense. Boat builders and craftsmen typically work from 7.00am-5.00pm in four-day shifts, making for a high-energy atmosphere on the factory floor.
A tour of the various facilities at Coypool revealed a dynamic, busy and focused working environment, with all employees working with an intensity that reflected Princess’s strong order books.
And according to Barrow, employees work for an average of 11 years, an impressive figure at any company.
Martyn Hamley, a Bench Joiner in the Furniture Shop, was born in Plymouth and has worked at Princess since 1995.
“Before I came to Princess, I had 10 years with a local company focused on traditional joinery, so staircases, windows, doorframes. I fancied a change, Princess was taking on staff and I’ve been here ever since – 22 years now,” said Hamley, who’s aware he’s just one cog in a mighty machine.
“First, they cut each component in the machine shop, then it moves to the assembly area where we’ve got about 80 carpenters, and then it moves on down into the paint shop.
“There are around 220 guys across the three stages and between us we produce all the timber elements for the craft, pretty much all of the furniture you see, whether it’s fixed or free-standing. Personally, I tend to make a lot of the freestanding feature pieces like dining tables, coffee tables, foot stools.”
As a company, Princess is particularly proud of the careful, detailed finishes on its yachts, a tribute to the company’s metal and wood workers, who are well aware that they’re working on many of the most visible and well used parts of a very high-value product.
As Sheriff confirmed: “We’re pushing very heavily on quality and we’re very lucky that we have all of our joinery and furniture done in-house. Everything you see inside our yachts, we build ourselves, so it gives us complete control.”
Designs on the future
If Sheriff is rightly proud of Princess’s craftsmanship, he’s also a huge fan of the company’s design traditions. If you won’t see Sheriff holding a chisel in the furniture shop, you will see him giving input in design discussions as he has experience in the field from his automotive days.
Even so, Sheriff wants Princess to remain true to its strong design values, even as he seeks to develop the yachts’ technological aspects.
“Princess boats look elegant. They’re incredibly spacious inside, everything works, things are in the right place, nothing clashes and it all seems very simple and natural. But to make something feel simple is very complex; to make something feel complicated is very simple. There’s a tremendous amount of inherent knowledge at Princess,” he said.
“We want to continue to make proper boats as, above and beyond all else, our boats are about seakeeping. Our designs are also about elegance and boats that look like boats – classical, with long beautiful lines. We’ll continue to push our designs forward and the key words will be elegant, timeless and, above all, beautiful.
“What you’re not going to see is aggressive shapes and funny forms. We don’t want them to look like transformers and shock people who say, ‘Wow, look at that,’ and then after two years the boats look old.”
Sarah Verey, Director of Creative Design, and Andrew Lawrence, Head of Design, have worked together since the latter joined in 2002 and the dynamic duo are charged with ensuring Princess remains a world leader in the coming years.
Joining Princess after university, Lawrence began his career by working on the Princess 42 and is now responsible for the design direction and execution of every new model in the current range.
Overseeing a 15-person in-house team, Lawrence also works closely with the Olesinski design firm to achieve the company’s vision from concept to product.
“We brief Olesinski and describe our vision, and they do the hull designs, superstructures and deck. I’m responsible for developing all that with them and then delivering it into our business,” said Lawrence, whose team are responsible for ‘everything on and inside the boat’, from general arrangements to furniture.
“Our attention to detail is one of the company’s standout traits. We get a lot of feedback from the sales guys, who hear it from customers. It’s something people expect from Princess.”
The passionate Verey has worked at Princess for over 25 years, since joining as a teenager, and is a key member of the team that developed the brand and its design DNA. She’s the driving force behind the company’s interiors and developed strong partnerships with some of the world’s leading brands and suppliers.
“First and foremost, I need to guide our team in the direction I feel is right in terms of being contemporary and for the overall aesthetic of what’s being designed, from a piece of furniture looking attractive to the shapes and finishes we want.
“I’m ultimately responsible for all the finishes: timber floor, door hardware, bathroom hardware, stones, upholstery, soft furnishings. At the moment, for example, I’m working hugely on the comfort of seating. It’s always that fight between practicality and aesthetics and cutting edge.”
Verey is among many who believe Princess will continue to succeed by remaining true to the strong principles that guided the company through its first 50 years, while training, trusting and rewarding its highly skilled and particularly loyal workforce.
“We used to have a strapline – Power, Precision, Passion – and to a degree, we all still abide by that, from engineering through to how we craft a piece of furniture or wrap a headboard. The skill set here is phenomenal.”
Top: Many new models are on the drawing board as Princess plans to launch six-seven new models a year.
Bottom: The historic East Ropery in South Yard features mock-ups of new Princess designs.