They say it’s not what you know but who you know and there are few individuals as well connected as Ulf Sydbeck when it comes to delivering over and above the expectations of clients.
The Swedish born founder and managing director of Riviera Yacht Support has just opened his first satellite office in St Tropez and when we meet for coffee at his HQ in the heart of old Antibes, he is full of excitement about his company’s long-awaited expansion.
‘We opened our new office during the Antibes Yacht Show,’ says Ulf, ‘and it’s going really well. Emmanuelle Hemery, who is in charge there, is well known, having worked in the capitainerie in St Tropez for the last 10 years and she has a background in concierge services at five star hotels so she knows everybody. It’s an exciting time for RYS.
‘For many years I’ve held the reins and there have been opportunities with people asking if they can join forces or set up for me in different places. I like our structure, it’s contained and I’m not greedy, but somewhere along the line, an exit would be nice and if you build a structure, that exit will be of a higher value.
‘I was very close to opening in Palma this summer but in the end, it wasn’t right so I pulled the plug. I might open there next summer. Palma must be the second biggest hub in yachting so if I can find the right person in Spain, I will back them and they can open more offices.’
Ulf set up RYS in 2000 following 12 years at sea, during which time he worked his way up to chief steward on Australian entrepreneur Alan Bond’s Southern Cross III, which was built for the America’s Cup.
‘I’d gone as far as I could go so I started on deck, graduated to first mate and got contracted on a charter boat,’ he continues. ‘They were going to Mexico and needed someone to deal with the client, who was the son of a former president. He had his entourage and a big new boat and we got along really well.
‘After the trip, he told me he chartered two big boats a year - one in the Med each summer and one in the Caribbean each winter. He said, can I call you and you come on board and look after us? I didn’t think anything would come of it but 11 boats later….’ Ulf adds with a smile.
He’s the first to admit that his move onshore happened by luck rather than design in 1999 when he was cruising in the Eastern Mediterranean. ‘I met Makis Pavlatos, who is now chairman of A1 but was then running a small agency based in Rhodes,’ he recalls. ‘We clicked and he called me one day and said Ulf, are you ready to open an office in the Western Med? I thought why not?
‘I started up with €500, no office, no phone, no computer. He told me to use their name and see how it went. I realised it was my thing, fixing things, finding solutions, the best way from A to B. I know languages too so that helps.’ (You could say that - as well as his native Swedish, Ulf speaks French, English, German and a little Spanish.)
After one season, Ulf decided to strike out on his own and set up Riviera Yacht Support. After the first year, he rented an office where he worked 15 hour days. ‘The office was a little hole in the wall and at first, it was just me, shopping, ordering and accounting but I loved it,’ he recalls. ‘Then Campbell (Cormack) joined and we moved to this office. Now there are 11 of us and we also represent Dovaston in France.’
Ironically, the moment Ulf realised just how successful RYS had become was at one of the lowest points of his life personally, when he fell victim to burnout syndrome after years spent working silly hours.
‘It hit me hard and fast one summer and my capacity went from super high to laying in a dark room unable to speak to my kids,’ he reveals. ‘I had to rest. It was scary, you are aware of what’s happening but you can’t control it. At the time, I thought it was the end of Riviera Yacht Support.
‘I was a control freak who had to check everything but suddenly I had to delegate. I would go into the office when I could and look at the computer and I noticed that our figures were good. I realised that while I wasn’t pushing my team down, they rose up at just the right moment. It was fantastic to see. If you give people responsibility, they grow, even if they don’t do it the way you do it. In hindsight it was a great thing to happen. Plus I could play more golf!
‘Rearranging my workload made me realise that I shouldn’t do so much of the daily stuff, I should be out and about looking after the big clients, speaking to the captains and looking at the bigger structure. It gave me a better work/life balance.
Ulf’s wife Louise is an integral part of the business. She is finishing her Master of Wine studies this year and will, hopefully, receive her MW title during a ceremony in London in November. ‘It’s the highest qualification you can get when it comes to wine knowledge, there are just 311 in the world,’ he says proudly. ‘Louise looks set to become the third Master of Wine in Sweden, she has spent seven years studying for this and works harder than me. She has such a passion for wine and it’s great for me as I get to drink the good stuff!’
With wine accounting for 35 to 40% of the business, Ulf says orders of between €200,000 - €300,000 for labels including Domaine de la Romanée-Conti and Chateau d’Yquem, are common. ‘We get some crazy orders,’ he admits. ‘Louise recently did a quote for an order of €1m.’
The most important ingredient for a successful yacht business in Ulf’s opinion is good relationships and he and his team have worked hard to establish close contacts with port captains along the coast. ‘The South of France is saturated more and more each year but great contacts are important to be able to get boats in,’ he says. ‘If you’re friends with someone, that helps.’
He also loves a challenge. ‘An owner of a 55m yacht wanted a pole and pole dancers as a surprise for his wife. He wanted them to do a show while they were eating dinner. We managed to get the French pole dancing champion on board.
‘We also worked for a boat that had Rihanna on board, sourcing a private jet for her and her entourage. And we had 24 hours to organise a party for P Diddy, with a DJ, dancers, lights, sound, catering and security. He also ordered 200 pairs of white slippers as people weren’t allowed to wear shoes on board. We found a factory in Lyon and had them delivered by private jet.’
The fun isn’t confined to wealthy owners and charterers, however, and Ulf also organises a Golf Bonanza, just after the Monaco Yacht Show, at the Grand Bastide in Valbonne and a Snow Bonanza in Auron, with lunch and ski races for captains and crew. ‘It’s good to get everyone together and have some fun,’ he says.
Do you sail much now?
I sailed last year in Sardinia but I don’t go very often and after 12 years at sea, I don’t miss it much. What I miss is that point where you can’t see land anymore and you are crossing for days. It’s a kind of freedom being so far away from everything that is rare to find now.
Where are your favourite places to sail?
Portofino is beautiful, as are Cinque Terre and Capri, but when you are working, you don’t get to go ashore in most places.
What are the headaches in yachting that concern you right now?
Regulations are becoming more and more important. It used to be very loose, anyone could jump on and work, there were not many safety measures or certificates going on. Yachting will be streamlined better as a result, it’s falling into place, it just needs time. The rules on tax issues are messy too and not very clear.
How do you see the next five years?
If I get a good offer, I’ll sell. I have lots of other fun ideas and I would like to take it a little easier.