Interview: Rose Damen, financial director of Amels

This year Amels, one of the largest and most renowned Dutch luxury yachts manufactures, celebrates the hundredth anniversary of its business in shipbuilding industry. We met Rose Damen, financial director of Amels, at the company’s headquarters in Vlissingen to ask her about the achieved milestones and future ambitions of this special member of Damen Group.

First of all, could you explain the origin of the name Amels?

The shipyard was founded in 1918 by the Amels family, so it is a Dutch last name. The family was from the northern part of the Netherlands which we call Friesland; it is almost three hours up north from our headquarters in Vlissingen. And it is literally how big Holland is.

What was the state of affairs at Amels when your father bought the shipyard?

Amels has a long history with ups and downs. When we bought it as a family in 1991, the company was struggling. Shipbuilding, although I love it, is a difficult business because it depends very much on supply and demand. Its typical state is slight oversupply; therefore it is difficult to make high margins.

In combination with the worldwide economy condition there were some other things happening: one of them was a large order for a custom yacht which Amels took on in the late 1980s. It was actually for Donald Trump and was supposed to be the biggest yacht to be built at that time. I don’t know Trump personally but I think we have all seen much more of him lately. Whether you like him or not, he is an interesting person and very creative. He did a refit of his Trump Princess on Amels and ordered a new one. But eventually he ran into financial trouble himself as well and it was difficult for him to cancel the contract with the shipyard without losing money. So what he did instead is the fact that he bought the whole shipyard. He canceled the contract on very favourable terms for him and then the yard changed ownership a few times.

  • In 1929 Amels was already a large and successful shipyard

If you look at the Damen Group and the acquisitions that we have made over the years, you will see that ideally we prefer to buy distressed assets and turn them around. My father’s idea for yacht-building was to apply a business model similar to the model that he had also applied earlier in commercial shipbuilding industry. He was in fact very much inspired by standardization and economy of skill which he saw in automotive industry where the better and more affordable cars were being made in a relatively short time period. And his idea was always to do the same — why shouldn’t it work with yachts? But a lot of people in our industry at that time didn’t really agree with my father. I believe that one thing we also needed in order to build a standardized technical platform was the money to finance the working capital of that business model. But in the early 1990s we were still a little bit smaller than we are today, so I think we bought Amels with the idea of implementing a larger degree of standardization in the product range, but it took a while for us to actually do it until the early 2000s. That was down to a few reasons: first of all, there was a lot of disagreement with my father. People used to say, “You know, Mr. Damen, it is fine what you do for work-boats, but luxury yacht owners will not accept it.” And secondly, it was also a matter of money.

Which lesson after the 100 years of Amels history was the most important for the future of the company?

We have definitely learned a lot during the 1990s and it was an expensive lesson. In our industry challenges and pitfalls come with full custom projects and demanding clients, since it is so different from other businesses. We have also learned that we had to come up with something exceptional and unique to set ourselves apart in the industry. And the Limited Editions line is the result of those lessons, persistence, and being stubborn.

What was the most competitive period for Amels over the years and who were the main rivals?

If you look at the industry, there is a number of shipyards that are relatively stable and also a lot of shipyards that have popped up and disappeared. Some of the key Dutch, German and also Italian shipyards that exist today were also around in the 1990s. From our point of view, we have probably changed very much and we have really grown and managed to stick with our vision and philosophy over the years. That’s what really helped us. We have found a sort of a niche in the industry and believe that building the standardized platform several times really improves the quality because you get a good feedback loop and know exactly what you are offering to your clients. We can tell exactly what the performance, time planning, and budget will be, and there will be no surprises. And, of course, you can also sit down with your suppliers and subcontractors to come up with a long term plan because there is a learning curve not just for the shipyard but for everyone else. You also see results in our after sales team where we have specialists on each model of the Limited Editions range, spare parts in stock and the ability to provide much better service to our clients in the long term. We should not forget that our clients play an important role in that as well because in the end they are the users and are very important in the whole feedback. And they come back: we sell almost 80% of our larger yachts to the repeat clients!

Could you describe the development of the relationships with Russian clients: when did you sign the first contract and what was the main instrument for attracting customers from our country?

The first Amels yacht for a Russian client was delivered in 2004 and since that time Russia has been our most important market with most loyal clients. When a relationship of trust is established, both parties tend to stick to it. We are also loyal to our customers and that is something they don’t forget. Russian clients are warm and welcoming but also demanding and fair. They are very loyal to our brand and are very good ambassadors for us. One of Amels’ key advantages is short delivery time, and that also agrees with the Russian market where customers don’t want to wait for 4 to 5 years. They are also a challenge to us because our first clients for Yacht Support Vessel (YSV) and SeaXplorer range come from the Russian market. They are not afraid to explore new parts of the world trying new things, and in the case of YSV they saw that this can be a smart way to basically stretch the yacht and add more flexibility in terms of what you can do.

How will Amels celebrate its 100th anniversary within the company?

We Dutch people are hard workers but also very down to earth. We celebrate by going around with a big smile because I and also my colleagues and workers feel very proud of the company and what we have achieved. We had a party this summer with our partners and their families. Having demanding clients, sometimes we ask a lot from our employees and their families; so we would like to thank them for helping make Amels successful.

How tight is the connection between Amels and Damen in terms of shared know-hows, production sites, and finances?

I would say very tight. Amels is an integrated part of the Damen Group and one of the advantages is the possibility to build the hulls at Damen shipyards. Also Damen spends around 5% of its revenue on research and development and Amels uses the results as well. For example, building ships for the Navy is about 20% of our business and one of their real specialties is reduction of noise and vibration. It is also important for yachting; so we can borrow these in-house developed technologies. Then finally, of course, we can start building hulls without clients and can offer short delivery time, sometimes as short as six months, but it requires investment.

  • Front staircase at Damen Group headquarters. One can see the names of completed vessels 

Unlike some other Dutch shipyards, Amels doesn’t need to solve the location/expansion puzzle but probably has its own priority tasks for securing the future. What are they?

We moved to Vlissingen from northern Holland in the early 2000s and the new location is our great advantage, since vessels have to pass only one lock to get into the open sea. We are the largest yacht-building facility in the Netherlands and have the ability to expand. Talking about the future I can say that our business model is to develop the right new designs and to find sweet spots in the market. That’s quite a challenge because you can’t just find a client and build a yacht for him. You have to take his feedback and create a design that is appealing to a wider audience. We want to find the right balance of customization and develop something what we can build 25 times over, offering to the clients advantages in terms of quality, cost, service, and reliability.

What is the life cycle of the current line and why did you decide to return to full custom yachts?

We will surely be bringng new developments to the market: now we have six Limited Editions designs and this number will increase. Some of the new designs may be close to one of the older designs. We have seen our repeat clients growing up with us through the range but at some point wanting to get something larger. At the same time we have also grown as an organization and are 100% ready to take full custom projects. For the shipyard creating the 83-meter Here Comes the Sun was also custom build in terms of whole process because it is the first of the series and is very similar to the 78-meter full custom project which we are building now. In any case, one will always find Amels working with top exterior designers and of course #1 focus will be quality and customer service.

How would you rate the level of general conservatism of Amels in comparison with other Dutch shipyards?

We find it very important to keep tight control of our project management and planning and in those terms we are a little conservative. At the same time, we build a lot starting at our own cost which is possible because of being part of the Damen Group. From that perspective and also because of investing into YSV and expedition yacht development we are quite progressive. We are trying to balance timeless designs and very recognizable yachts like Limited Editions 206 which really stands apart. We are not afraid to experiment.

Do you remember the day when your father brought you into the construction sheds for the first time and what did you feel?

No, because I was probably just two weeks old! But I remember that my parents worked a lot. Now we are a big company, but when I was born we were much smaller. We could always come along with our father and when I wanted to see him I would walk to the office and play there even on Saturdays and Sundays. Later on, when I was a teenager I had to do summer jobs in the company and my first job was driving a fork truck. At some point I worked in the maintenance department. Often at the end of the day we would go on board of the boat for the short round on the river.

Was there a gentle pressure on you to be a part of family business, or did it emerge naturally?

I’ve never felt it as pressure and my parents have always been very open about it. When I was 14, I attended a shareholder meeting for the first time. I was interested and my dad said, “Yeah, sure, come along,” and started to show me bit by bit explaining what an estimate and a balance sheet is… he talked a lot about it. Also he traveled a lot to meet clients and we would travel with him to Latin America and other parts of the world. At that time our customers often were also family businesses, so we would have dinners or barbecues in the evening together and while my father was building relationship with the clients I was playing with their children. Some of them now also work in the business.

Have you ever considered studying interior design?

We are four children, my elder sister (50) is a photographer and she is involved in the business but not working full time. My elder brother (48) is on the board of the Damen Group and my younger brother (31) has a record label working in music and film industry. So we have two creative minds and two business minds, but also creative in that way. And I don’t consider myself as an expert on interior design. But again one of the challenges when you build super yachts on speculation is that you also have to be somewhat involved in selecting luxury interior. We work with the most fantastic interior designers and have great project managers who keep an eye on the cost, but sometimes to strike the right balance you need someone acting as an owner. However, my sister built a couple of houses including our family house on Ibiza and she is quite good at interior design which is not about just selecting the most expensive things but balancing high qualify furniture and arts on board in combination with some sensible things as well. So she is quite involved in our interior designs.

What are your primary goals for the next five years inside Amels?

We are on a stable course and I think for us it is important to stay loyal to our core markets while also looking for new markets. At the same time we also want to keep setting new challenges. We will launch new designs and want to become the market leader in the expedition yachts niche with SeaXplorers. Also, I would like to build new office facilities for Amels!

Words by Anton Cherkasov-Nisman Photo Ruud Rodermond, Amels

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