Look around at the world’s leading yacht brokers and you would be hard pressed to find one with as colourful and interesting a story as Jonathan Beckett.
Burgess’s CEO and charismatic frontman has weathered many a storm over the last quarter of a century, but his vision and business acumen have helped to transform the company from a passionate but tiny concern of three staff into a global phenomenon in superyacht sales and construction, with a team of 140 working out of 11 offices around the world.
In person, Jonathan - Joff to his friends - is a jocular and gregarious character, a refreshing breath of fresh air in an industry where many play their cards close to their chest. A keen sailor, he grew up on the Norfolk Broads and always imagined he would forge a career building wooden boats after getting his BA in sociology at Durham University. ‘I was never academic but I’m a very hard worker. I had a gap year between school and university and went sailing in the Caribbean on a 55ft Sparkman & Stephens ketch,’ he recalls as he addresses the recent YPY conference in Monaco.
‘When I got back, I wrote 120 letters by hand to all the different companies…yacht brokers, rope manufacturers, sail makers and insurance brokers. I had a letter back from Nigel Burgess, who said: ‘I work on my own, I’m not looking for anybody but do come and see me for a chat.’ And I received another from David Halsey at Halsey Marine, who also asked me to come in for a chat. He offered me a job as a yacht broker in Athens on commission only.’
Jonathan took the opportunity and spent a year in the Greek capital, getting married in the process, all the while ‘living hand to mouth,’ he recalls with a smile. One day, he received a letter from Nigel Burgess telling him that he would be visiting Athens. ‘We met for lunch twice the following week and on the Sunday, my wife and I moved to Monaco on a £3000 a year salary for Burgess. I was 23 and we were selling about two or three boats a year.’
In the early 1980s, Jonathan moved back to London to be based at the company’s tiny office in Piccadilly. He has fond memories of working alongside his mentor Nigel, who tragically drowned on the third day of the Vendée Globe while competing singlehanded off Cape Finisterre on the west coast of Galicia in 1992.
‘Nigel was a very interesting character, very pedantic and slightly crazy,’ he reveals. ‘You could only use black or red pen, not blue or a pencil. Working with him was a great learning curve. Our office had one folding chair for clients but we sold Kingdom (formerly known as Nabila) in 1987 from that office. My salary was increased to £6,000 a year and we needed to make £36,000 to cover expenses and costs.’
Following Nigel’s demise, Jonathan purchased the majority of the company with the blessing of his boss’s family, shortened the name to Burgess and continued to forge ahead in increasing construction and sales targets. In 2012, Burgess sold the majority of yachts over 55 metres worldwide, accounting for almost 60% of the market in this sector. During the last 12 months, their yacht management fleet has grown over 17% and Jonathan is naturally buoyed up about the continued growth.
‘We have grown organically over the years and I have loved every single minute,’ he adds. ‘We have built the foundations and we are just at the starting block of taking the company forwards. If you are young, there is a fantastic opportunity out there. Make the impossible possible is what I say to clients. The exciting times are ahead of us, not behind us.
‘There were very few yacht brokers around when I started out. Most brokerages had three or so members of staff. No one talked to each other and there was no cooperation between brokers. The sharing of information and building of relationships with other companies has been the right thing for yachting. Face time with people is important. Being successful is nothing to do with yachts, it’s about the relationship you have with your client and other brokers.’
A people person, he believes in being on the same wavelength as his staff. ‘I’m very down to earth and have my feet on the ground,’ he says. ‘I sit with five other people - I don’t have my own office. I consider them to be my friends. We operate at the same level, it’s great fun that way.’
A keen traveller for whom jetting around the globe each month has become the norm, Jonathan, who has five children and a sixth on the way, has developed a novel and dynamic method of researching the industry’s biggest hitters. ‘I go to the concierge of the hotel I’m staying in and get a driver to take me to the richest area in town,’ he reveals. ‘He will tell me who lives where and I write down the addresses and put them into our database. I once wrote down the tail number of a private jet in Amsterdam, researched who owned it, wrote to him and he asked us to sell his Feadship. You have to make these things happen.’
With discussions currently underway with MYS to make the show more cost effective for brokers, Jonathan, a member of MYBA as well as being a past president, is optimistic about the immediate future. ‘It’s difficult to predict where we will be in 10 years’ time,’ he muses. ‘But I think it will shift for the better, there will be more clarity and closer relationships between brokers and shipyards. There will be a bit of a cleaning up of the industry, which is a good thing. There’s plenty of business out there for all of us, and it’s an incredibly exciting time. Some shipyards are struggling and there will be consolidation in the industry but we just have to work hard.’