They say the best way to get to know an industry is from the bottom up so Gary Wright and Charlie Birkett are perfectly placed to run Y.CO, one of the most successful yachting companies in the world.
Their first jobs were as yacht crew and their roots in sailing and operating some of the world’s largest yachts have given them the ability to connect with everyone from captains and crews to ruling families in the Gulf and tech billionaires.
We meet at their impressive office opposite Monaco port, a stone’s throw from the new Yacht Club du Monaco and surely one of the smartest addresses in the principality. Charlie greets me with a friendly ‘Hello mate’ and a hearty handshake as we settle down to chat in the office he and co-founder Gary Wright share, with a prime view of the harbour. They are back from a whistle-stop tour of San Francisco, London, Holland and Turkey and shortly after our interview, they will be flying back to London.
The enterprising pair started the company in a small office next to the Automobile Club in Monaco almost 10 years ago. Since then, Y.CO has grown to 85 staff and five staff bases around the world in London, Doha, Fort Lauderdale, Antibes and Monaco, which remains the nerve centre with close to 40 management staff based there.
It’s an amazing trajectory at a time when the global economy is only just coming out of several years of decline. ‘Well, we’re growing and struggling!’ says Gary with a smile.
Charlie adds: ‘The biggest part of our business is yacht management and it takes around 60% of our workforce. Although we are very efficient at what we do, when you manage 100 plus yachting operations across all of your various activities (Charter, Operations, New Build), you need people to look after the client and support the yacht, its captain and crew. We consider ourselves to be somewhere in the top five yachting companies in our sector. If we’re measured purely on how many used boats we sold last year, like many of our competitors, we didn’t sell that many, but if we’re measured on how many new construction projects we have or are building, we will be closer to the top.’
So exactly what is it that makes Y.CO different from all the other superyacht companies out there? Gary reckons their early experience working as crew is the key. His first time aboard a yacht was a Transatlantic crossing when he was 18 and he says: ‘I started at the bottom and worked my way up. When I finished school, England was not a great place to be a school leaver with few qualifications, and it was a very tough place to get a job. My lucky break was an opportunity I had to get on a yacht to go across the Atlantic. It was hardly the most seaworthy of craft, however, to my untrained eye, it looked amazing and I have never looked back.’ He went onto captain some of the biggest superyachts in the world in their day, including the Feadships Confidante, Aurora, Calixe and the 93 metre Tatoosh.
Charlie also caught the bug early, leaving school at 16 following a number of expulsions. He recalls: ‘Sailing was my passion from the age of eight. I spent most of my time trying to escape from boarding school to get near water! After leaving school, I kicked around on the South Coast racing sailboats and making a very small living.
‘I got a captain’s job on a Swan 44 in San Francisco then came back and worked at a friend’s boatbuilding yard for a year in Hamble and he invited me down here. I didn’t know anything about the superyacht industry then, I just wanted to go sailing and knew that was what I wanted to do for a living, although my mum and dad probably thought differently!’
They met when Charlie and his girlfriend, now his wife, Rachel, came looking for a job, knocking on the gangway of all the yachts berthed at the IYCA as everyone does, at the age of 21. ‘I was the captain of Calixe, we had just come back from a round the world trip and had a change of crew,’ Gary remembers. ‘We hired Charlie and Rachel and other than my three years in the Americas Cup World in New Zealand for the 2003 Americas Cup , Charlie and I have been working together ever since.
‘What makes our company stronger than the competition in many areas is that we have both spent many years working on yachts,’ he continues. ‘Before Y.CO, other brokerage and management companies were manned for the most part by people who had never spent much time working on these sorts of yachts. They might go sailing at weekends but they didn’t have the experience of what it’s really like to captain a big yacht, to manage it aboard, to provision it and to spend many weeks with the same team on lengthy worldwide voyages. That set us apart a little bit and gave us an insight very quickly into both sides of yachting.
‘We are more understanding of what it takes to manage a yacht; the team aboard may be at sea, they may be on a charter, they may be experiencing bad weather or they may have a very short time frame to get the boat ready for the next trip. Understanding the parameters in which today’s captains and crews work allows us to better understand optimal times for engaging about management or admin issues that may not be time sensitive.’
They are unique in running the company as equal partners and admit that sharing the burden through bad times as well as good has been a bonus. ‘We think the same way and have the same vision for the company,’ explains Gary. ‘We both have slightly different skill sets and the responsibilities seem to fall quite naturally either to Charlie or to me.
As we have expanded, Charlie has taken on the CEO role and probably as a result of being the oldest person in Y.CO I have stepped into the chairman’s role. A huge amount of what we do is based on trust. It would be much more difficult to do if just one of us was sitting in this office responsible for what we both do.’
Charlie adds: ‘All our competitors either have one man at the top or there is a CEO who doesn’t have a vested interest in the company. I wouldn’t have liked to have gone through the good and the tough times over the past ten years on my own. We can wake up at 4am and call each other and have a 5.30am coffee and a chat. That is invaluable.’
The Y.CO client base represents a glamorous Who’s Who of global movers and shakers from the worlds of business, royalty and technology. ‘Our client base stretches geographically from here to there,’ says Gary, holding his arms wide apart. ‘If you go East, it’s ruling families and successful businessmen from the Gulf region, if you go West, it’s young, smart, well-educated billionaires running some of the world’s most successful companies, and it is everyone in between. We spend a lot of time flying. There’s nothing like getting in front of people and from September to Christmas each year, we spend almost every week on a long-haul flight to Australia, New Zealand, America’s East and West coasts, Russia and the Gulf.’
Their business is driven by passion, according to Charlie, who says: ‘Our brand is suited to self-made, successful people, whether they are ruling families or dot.com billionaires. They appreciate the fact that we have a dynamic young environment. We work with clients who are passionate about yachting and we share that passion. Many of our team have a yachting background but even those who do not are initially sent on a two day tender driving course so that at least they can drive a boat and understand the rudiments of being aboard. Often, we send some of our team on passages with those yachts within our management or charter fleet. If a boat is sailing from here to Gibraltar or onto the Caribbean, we’ll send a couple of guys from the office and they join the crew.’
Adds Gary: ‘They are expected to muck in and work with the crew, they wash the boat down and do everything the crew does but in turn they also sit with them and explain what we do, why we do it and why we need the accounts done in a certain way. At the end of the trip, they are all usually good mates and it builds better ongoing relationships. Too many companies focus on what it costs to get someone on a boat and then fly them home again but that investment in people is what makes the difference in the long run. Some of our best people have been here for many years and many now have senior roles within the company and are our most valued asset.’
In the last decade, yachting has grown from a cottage industry into a mammoth multi-billion euro empire catering to the desires of the wealthiest people on the planet. Louis Vuitton owns a shipyard and the world is waking up to the fact that selling yachts is where it’s at and is the pinnacle of luxury.
‘When we started, our goal was to bring a new experience into the industry,’ says Charlie. ‘In the last eight to 10 years, we have seen huge growth in the size of yachts being built but also in the information that clients want. When I started out 20 years ago, a big boat was 50 or 60 metres, and for Gary who started out even earlier,’ he adds with a smile, ‘a big boat was 40-45 metres. If you think of a 120 metre yacht today that is employing 60 - 80 crew, additional rotational crew of another 10 - 15 people and shore side support, you have a medium sized company with a very healthy annual turnover. An owner wants to know that this investment is being well managed and well supported.
‘Then there are refit periods to coordinate, shipyards to contact, designers to engage, marinas to book and everything else. Yachts don’t just go and anchor off these days for long periods of time, they go to commercial harbours and take on huge amounts of supplies. Wherever they go, they create a mini economy, bringing with them all of the benefits that spending large amounts of money for local suppliers and services bring.
Gary agrees, adding: ‘When 10 or 12 yachts go somewhere, they have a real impact on the economy. A big yacht 30 years ago was often a conversion from a commercial vessel. It was managed aboard and was poorly regulated. Our industry is now very professional, very commercial and is taken very seriously. It’s driven by a small group of people who can afford to buy or charter a superyacht and they want the very best. With a handful of owners spending upwards of €300 - 400 million on a new 120 metre plus yacht, they have everyone’s attention and many people are waking up to the industry and want to be a part of it.
Historically, one of the most challenging areas in yachting is the high turnover in crew, with many staying an average of just six months, or one season. Gary and Charlie are already seeing the benefits of addressing and changing the perception of crew progression on board.
‘If the crew want to commit and can see career progression, the owner is accommodating and gives the crew acceptable standards to work in and we coordinate the training programs, you have an amazing scenario,’ explains Charlie. ‘Some of the time, it doesn’t happen quite so straightforwardly. Crew might want to progress their careers more quickly to get to the next level. Our job is to give crew a realistic career plan and help them make decisions at the right time.’
‘Realistically, crew are not going to progress from being a deckhand to a captain in two years, it’s not possible,’ says Gary.’ However that does not stop some from trying, and our job is simply to manage expectations and steer them through a clear and well defined career path.’
‘We give crew training - whether it’s vessel specific, service specific or personal career training - so they can see some career progression on that boat. Otherwise, they are just going to clean windows or do ironing and will move onto another job in the hope of a promotion. Most of our boats have steady long term crew.’
Their humble crew beginnings mean they have not experienced the rivalry and animosity between crew and brokers which has been a common industry problem in the past.
‘My guess is it exists but neither of us has worked for another company and so we have little experience of it,’ says Gary. ‘We also prefer a personal touch in dealing with captains and crew and we try to meet them as often as possible. A crew dinner or a few beers at the bar go a long way in ensuring a closer, friendlier relationship with the guys we work with, which I hope helps the guys understand us and what we do. There’s not much that Charlie and I haven’t done on a boat, whether it’s painting the bilges, scrubbing it down or driving it, and that gives you a very good grounding. Ultimately, we are all working for the owner.’
What’s the most crucial factor to successful yachting?
Gary: The crew and captain are the most important factors. You’ve got to have a great owner and a great company ashore but if you don’t have a great captain and crew, it falls down very quickly.
What is your biggest buzz?
Gary: I love days when things go well. Last week, Charlie was in San Francisco and I was in Holland and we had a week where everything got achieved. You can live off that and occasionally, when things go wrong, the challenge is to keep that buzz going to get you through the tougher times.
What’s the best thing about being based on the Côte d’Azur?
Charlie: There are some amazing new places - Montenegro and some new marinas in Bodrum and Greece on the horizon - but those are places where yachts go occasionally. This coastline, Monaco to St Tropez, is undoubtedly the centre of yachting, where yachts get serviced and provisioned and where crew like to spend their winters because of the local services, the quick connections to UK and further afield and, of course, the skiing. And being 30 minutes from Nice airport is a big plus!
Is it an exciting time to be in yachting?
Charlie: The last 10 years have been exciting, even when we were weathering the financial crisis. As a new generation of owners come in, buyers and owners will be challenging us, whether it’s on yachts being more sustainable, engines that perform on less fuel or looking at bio fuels, hydrogen cells or other technologies. They will certainly expect the same developments in yachting that are occurring in everyday life. In the end it will benefit us all and it will have an effect on every yacht and that will make the next five or 10 years exciting.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
Gary: In the office for sure. Perhaps a little less….. but then, maybe not. I love what I do. There is a 16 year age difference between Charlie and me and he will naturally be doing this when I am sitting on a beach somewhere at some future time but I’m not retiring anytime soon. I don’t know that Y.CO will necessarily get much bigger. We will get better at what we do. With 10 years under our belt and the economy improving, the next 10 years should be very good for our industry and we are well placed to benefit from that.
Do you get out much on the water now?
Gary: The Y.CO rib runs between Monaco and St Tropez each summer, helping our managed or charter fleet and delivering crew mail or special packages that are urgent. It also makes for a great weekend run-around. Some summers, we get to bareboat charter a catamaran in Croatia and others, we grab a few days on a yacht more locally when the (rare) opportunity arises!
All photographs courtesy of Y.CO