Industry » Features » Meet Ken Hickling, President of the International Superyacht Society

Meet Ken Hickling, President of the International Superyacht Society

Pinmar Golf Tournament 2012 150

When you think of paint, you think of it drying – and not wanting to watch it do so. It’s not exactly a sexy subject. And in the superyacht industry, it’s one fraught with issues regarding chemicals and ever-changing regulations, stricter controls. So talk tends to be precise, efficient and full of jargon that most people don’t really understand. Or maybe they just don’t want to try to understand. It’s a specialist’s subject, and most specialists stick to their specialty.

However, Ken Hickling appears to buck this trend. While still a specialist – and a paint specialist, as the global manager for business development in yachts with AkzoNobel – he has become quite the generalist, as well. You sort of have to be in order to function well as the president of the International Superyacht Society (ISS). And whether he’s describing the latest developments in antifouling or discussing industry ethics, he speaks with an ease and clarity that’s simple to follow.

Hickling took over that role last year after serving as the society’s treasurer. It’s a role that just seems to come naturally to him – a role that requires him to be out there and talking. He’s nearly always talking – talking to individuals, groups, other associations. He will talk to anyone willing to listen to get his message out there.

He views the ISS’s role as one that helps facilitate intra-industry communication. With everyone in the industry all on the same page, then the message the industry is communicating will be much clearer, he says. In his own words: “One association on its own has a very quiet voice. But as soon as you get a bunch of associations together, you have a very loud roar that catches the attention of legislators.”

In a conversation with OnboardOnline, Hickling spoke on a variety of subjects. But it was his pitch to potential owners – and anyone who would criticize someone who is thinking about buying a superyacht – that really caught our attention. Hickling very convincingly laid out an argument that is hard to logically refute.

OnboardOnline: One thing that I’ve heard you and several others talk about is the negative perception of the industry from the outside – this sense that it’s nothing but the excesses of the ultrawealthy. Where does this come from?

Ken Hickling: “I think that, in some ways, there is a perception that a superyacht is a very bad thing. I think there are a lot of reasons why. But I think it’s fundamentally the politics of envy that drives this. But it is all these perceptions which ultimately fan the flames. And so we cannot stop people being envious of people who have a great deal more money to spend. That’s basically the human condition. But what we can do is try to cut down on the fanning of the flames. And there are a number of areas. I think the ethics is one, but it’s not a particularly significant one when it comes to the public perception pertaining to superyachts.”

KenHickling 2OO: What are the most important areas where we can stop the fanning of the flame?

KH: “What somebody does with their money appears, quite clearly, not to be their own affair. And if you start with that, then it’s like: Okay, if you’ve got a billion to spend, what would the man in the street want you to spend the billion on? Well, the first answer is: Them. The man on the street would like you to give the billion to them. Well, that’s not going to happen.

“Second thing that the man in the street would like them to do with it is to spend it on someone who genuinely needs it. That opens up a whole heap of possibilities. Because you’ve got Bill Gates setting up his foundation and extracting vast sums of money from his fellow billionaires to give to extremely worthy causes and some maybe not-so-worthy causes. And everyone loves that. And you’ve got Warren Buffet doing the same thing. And that’s great.

“But there’s other people who maybe aren’t going to give all their money to charity – I know I don’t give all my money to charity…”

OO: Not even the Gates give all their money to charity…

KH: “No – and why should they? And the very people who are reading the newspapers and leading this don’t give all their money to charity either. They give some. They give enough to salve their conscience and then they spend the rest on a new car, on a new kitchen, on a few extra beers or a better quality wine. They spend it on themselves. And if we accept that everyone is entitled to spend some money on themselves, you say to yourself that: Okay, if a guy is a billionaire, then he’s going to spend, proportionally, as much or more than we would spend on ourselves. So he’s going to spend $100 million on himself.

“Great. So if he spends $100 million, what could he spend $100 million on? Well, he could spend $115 million buying Elisabeth Taylor’s jewelry collection. He could spend $89 million buying a work of art. He could spend $100 million easily on property in New York or some parts of California. He could spend $50 or $60 million on a G650 from GulfStream to fly around in. He could spend close to that amount of money on quite a bit of things.

“If you look at each one of those in turn and ask yourself the question: How many jobs are created for each million spent? The superyacht beats all of them hands-down. It’s the most work-intensive because it’s a craftsman’s industry." 

OO: The only other manufacturing-based industry you mentioned seems to be private jets…

KH: “It doesn’t come close. It doesn’t even come close. It gets part of the way there, but it’s not really there.

“If you take one of our measures at the ISS, a 65m new build will employ 350 people full time for two years. Now, that’s directly employed. Yacht manufacturing is – the clue’s in the title – a manufacturing industry. And if you do the study, as I have, you will find that there is a multiplier that they use that is for indirect employment and induced employment. So you have direct employment, indirect employment and induced employment." 

OO: The difference between the three being – what?

KH: “Now, the indirect employment is the upstream and downstream employment generated. So if you’re going to build a superyacht, you need somebody to dig iron-ore out of the ground, somebody to smelt it into iron and then turn it into steel cut it into steel and then send you the steel plate. You also need somebody to insure the superyacht, to deliver crew to the superyacht at all times, and all that kind of stuff.

“And then you have the induced employment. And this is the employee at the checkout till at the supermarket where the employee is going and getting their groceries. If they weren’t doing that, then they wouldn’t have that 5-to-15 minutes of work. With manufacturing, you can use a five-to-seven times multiplier. Which means that that 350 employees becomes 2,450 people with induced and indirect employment…

“So for a 65m superyacht, you have 2,450 people who are putting their kids through college, or paying off their mortgage, or doing all the things that regular people do. Because it is bluecollar and whitecollar workers who build superyachts. It’s not the wealthy who get wealthy from superyachts. It’s people like you and me.”

OO: Is that the message, then?

KH: “That’s the thing the industry needs to project. That, aside from charitable giving, superyachts are the most effective way to extract money from offshore funds where the wealthy keep their money and put them into the wages of regular people.”

OO: That’s a pretty great message. Why isn’t it out there?

KH: “It’s hard. Because nobody likes a good story. Everyone likes a bad story. And I reached out myself – and I know other people have done the same thing – to talk to mainstream journalists to see if they will publish this kind of story. They’re not interested. It’s not going to sell their newspapers. So we’re not going to reach the public through regular media sources.”

KenHickling6OO: If not through the mainstream media, then how do you reach the general public?

KH: “Well, you may not be able to. You may not be able to get that story out to the public because the media in their various forms are not interested because it doesn’t create any excitement. So you say – okay, is that the end of the story? And I say, No.

“Because if there’s a firestorm, there’s a bunch of owners or potential owners who are feeling the heat. So maybe, if you can’t put out the fire, you give them a fireproof suit. And what do they do with the fireproof suit? They put it on and when someone approaches them and says: ‘You’re a schmuck because you’re just spending loads of money.’ They can turn to them and say: ‘You’re mistaken, I’m providing jobs to loads of people.’ And then they can tell the story.

“So the owner has the story, and they can use it if they get pigeonholed at a press conference or approached at a charity event or wherever. They should be able to just come right back with a snappy answer. Whether or not that actually ends up in print somewhere doesn’t really matter, because the owner can say, ‘I feel okay now. I know I’m doing something good. By sending my money on a superyacht, I know I’m creating jobs and I can feel good about myself even if they want to try to paint it in a different light.’

“So, give them the fireproof suit and they can walk through the firestorm unharmed.”

OO: So, by giving them a way to bypass some of the public scorn…Because, really, there wasn’t any kind of backlash until the economy tanked.

KH: “No, there wasn’t. And that’s understood. Recently, shortly after the Monaco show, went and did a bunch of video interviews. They did a little montage of the interviews they did with all the builders like Lürssen and Billy Smith and all the others, and they were delivering this message brilliantly.

“We packaged this up and sent it out to the various associations and said: Your members need to know these stories. You need to be saying this consistently. You need to be talking about the labor hours and the jobs provided by these superyachts. And these guys were brilliantly delivering this message.

“And I thought, well, that’s great. But is just us talking to ourselves. It’s great that we hear these stories and that if Ken Hickling starts saying it and we all start saying it – that’s good.”

OO: How does the message ultimately get to the owners?

KH: “Who deals directly with owners? Who do they talk to? They talk to designers. They talk to shipyards. They talk to lawyers. They talk to brokers. And these are the four main groups within our industry who are having first-hand contact with potential owners. And there’s one more group that deals with actual owners – and I guess potential as well  – and that’s captains. They talk to current owners and they talk to guests who charter their boats too.

“And that captain has a role too – and maybe this is where OnboardOnline has a particular role to play – and I think that is equipping these guys with what we call the ‘elevator speech.’ And that’s quickly delivering a message. So that when the owner hears it once, twice and maybe three times from several different people, that begins to sink in.

“Because they’re thinking: I’m creating jobs here and that’s good. I don’t have to feel guilty about spending my money, but can feel proud that I’m spending my money here instead of on some kind of piece of art that’s going to go sit in a vault. I’m going to pay these guys a wage and then I’m going to put their workmanship on display. And if anyone asks me, I’m going to tell them why it’s a good idea. Because the point is to reach the ownership and the future ownership of superyachts by equipping them and anyone they talk to with this message.”

OO: I’ve heard this figure a lot – that only 10 percent of those who could own a superyacht actually do…There’s obviously going to be a tipping point, and you’re never going to get 100 percent ownership, but how do you best go after the remaining 90 percent?

KH: “I think the vast majority of superyacht owners have all chartered before they’ve bought. And they don’t come to it thinking, I want to buy a boat, so I’m going to charter so I can learn about it – although there is a small group of those who do that.

“But there’s a majority of superyacht owners who didn’t grow up themselves boating. They hear about the idea of charter from somebody and they see it as a viable way to spend a vacation. Then they love it so much they do it again. And then they say, If I had my own boat then I could do this, I could do that. And then they get it in their heads that they should have a boat. That appears to be the most effective way to bring a new owner online.

“Now, you could argue that we need a new way, because that’s only brought us what we’ve got so far. But I think we can go one step further back and say that is the sampling that tells people they love the taste of the cake. So the question is how do you get more people to take a taste of the sampling? And the answer is that all the people who already grew up boating already know about boating. All the people who are already getting scooped up and sampled in this way, we’re already getting them. So who are the people we’re not talking to? Who are the non-customers? How do we find them, identify them, and get them into the fold?”

Amy Halsted Bob Saxon Norma Trease Ken Hickling 186 copyOO: Okay, so who are they and what’s the message?

KH: “What we do understand is that the reason we like boats is not the reason these people like superyachts. These people like superyachts because they get all the comforts of home – the sumptuous, luxurious life – on board, with service and comfort, quietness. They get all that in a secure location which is also the location of their choice. So you have the security and the luxury, and the ability to have that wherever you want it. And that’s what a superyacht gives you.

“It’s not going boating the way we understand it. It’s taking your private home lifestyle somewhere new that you can take your family with you, or your friends with you, or your business associates that you want to entertain, and you can do that in the location of your choice….It gives you the ability to relax in a way that you can’t really get with any other thing…

“We have to start marketing it as that. It’s a place where you can do business. It’s a place where you can have fun.”

OO: So why aren’t the marketing teams selling that? Why do they keep selling the glitzy, exclusive image? I wrote about this in a feature recently.

KH: “They’re selling an aspirational image that is probably best suited to the owner of a 50-foot boat. That’s fine as far as it goes, but that’s only capturing the people who want to upgrade from a 50- or an 80-foot boat. But they’re not reaching the other guys. And that’s because the other guys aren’t even reading the boating magazines.”

OO: So where is the disconnect?

KH: “There are people who have definitely got their hands around it and there are people who are really trying…We have to, as an industry, recognize that that’s who we need to be talking to. The problem is that is just a small number of constituents – just lawyers, designers and brokers – who talk to these prospective owners. And currently the industry is leaving it to them to secure the business that ultimately supports the rest of us.

“I think that at some stage we are going to have to become masters of our own destiny. And all small businesses are going to have to pull together, put together a small sum of money and put out an outreach program. And we’re currently working on the bones of that. And I know there are others who are also doing that. But that has to be our next step. We have to come together as an industry and market ourselves in the same way that tourist boards of small countries market themselves.”

OO: That’s some of what the inter-association meeting hosted by the ISS at the Fort Lauderdale show was about…How important is it to have a single message, or a single driving force? And is that what the ISS is aiming to do?

KH: “I can tell you, under my presidency, what we have set ourselves out to do is, two things. One is to bring together all the different associations and see what’s in our mutual interest and make sure there is no wasteful overlap. It’s not our job – and we don’t see it as our job – to do everything. There are things that the regional and the national and the functional associations do better because of who they are. Who better to go to Capitol Hill and present the image of our industry to the U.S. legislators than the U.S. Superyacht Association? They are in the right place and the right people to do that…There are lots of people who are in the best place to do a certain job.

“But as we found when we met with the government of Italy who are planning to put in an expensive boating tax which would drive people away, what we found was that when we put together a concerted effort that was made by a consortium of associations all delivering the same message, was that the Italian government listened. One association on its own has a very quiet voice. But as soon as you get a bunch of associations together, you have a very loud roar that catches the attention of legislators.

“That’s what we need to do and the ISS plays a very important role in that. Our role is to identify those common causes and act as the connective tissue that brings it all together.”

OO: And the second…?

KH: “The other is that there are particular topics which are – they’re either hot topics, like too-hot-to-handle, like ethics. Or they’re extremely broad topics – safety is one, owner outreach is another one – where it may be appropriate for the ISS to act as the lead to drive the issue forward into an action plan and lead that to implementation.

“That’s what we did with the ethics program. We’re getting a tremendous amount of support from the industry. Yeah – there are people who say it’ll never work. But the rest of the industry is a larger majority than I ever thought and the support and encouragement that we’re getting is very, very gratifying.

“The only thing I say to all these people is: If you think we’re doing a good job, then make sure you’re a member. Because the more members we have, the more capable, the more expanded our back-office can be. So there is a membership message behind all that.”

OO: What has the reaction been from other associations? Does anyone feel as if ISS is stepping on their toes?

KH: “No – it has been very positive. Actually a lot of our members have come to realize that associations are doing the things that a normal company simply can’t do. Governments won’t listen to companies. They will listen to representative organizations. And so there is a job for us, each and all of us.

“The message I’ve been building very strongly is: Membership in associations is not a choice. You don’t think: Shall I join this one or shall I join that one? My message is simple: You join your international organization; you join your national or regional organization; and you join your functional organization. Because they all need your support…And this is not big bucks. This is not a lot of money.”


Photos provided courtesy of Ken Hickling and the ISS.

Photo captions:

-ISS President Ken Hickling.

-ISS Vice President Dieter Jaenicke and Ken Hickling at the ISS Design and Leadership Awards last year.

-ISS President Ken Hickling speaking at the ISS Design and Leadership Awards last year.

-Amy Halsted, Bob Saxon, Norma Trease and Ken Hickling at the ISS Design and Leadership Awards last year.

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