Southern Wind founder Willy Persico gambled on South Africa – and hit the jackpot. His colleagues remember him as a man of honour and creative spirit. 

Southern Wind Shipyard founder Willy Persico, who died suddenly on May 12, has been remembered as a boat building pioneer who revelled in the free spirit of post-Apartheid South Africa.

In an interview with SABBEX Southern Wind shipyard financial director Alberto Del Cinque paid tribute to Persico as a ‘father figure’ who helped transform the South African boat building environment at a time when many perceived the country as a risky commercial proposition.  “Who on earth would have invested in this country in those years (pre 1994)? – it was looking like the beginning of the end at that point in time but he had a vision and he knew where he wanted to take the company,” Del Cinque said during a telephone interview. “He came here for the first time in 1990 to build his own yacht, and he ended up buying the yard because the company went under and he had a half-built yacht.”

“At that point in time the yard was a little shed with ten employees, and he managed to completely transform it into a yard well-known around the world, that employs about 300 people,” Del Cinque said.

He said Persico had a particular affinity for South Africa. “For him South Africa was a symbol of freedom. He travelled to Cape Town for a week every second month, and that week for him was like freedom. He was feeling free here, free to fly.”

It was here that Persico was able to express his “volcano” of creativity, Del Cinque said. “He was like a volcano erupting all the time (with ideas), and it was up to the closest people around him to tame him, because sometimes he was flying too high and we had to bring him down all the time.”

“For example he would be launching a new project and he was already thinking of the following one,” Del Cinque said, adding that he personally had started working with Persico at the age of 26. “He was like a father to me, a mentor and a true gentleman.”

“I have received messages of condolences from some boat owners who called him a real renaissance man — like a man coming out of a different century where shake of hand was a sworn contract. A man of honour in the best possible meaning. An example to follow,” Del Cinque said.

Persico was also meticulous about avoiding debt and ensuring the company was not ‘strangled’ by banks.  Said Del Cinque: “Everything was self-financed. Whatever the profits, all was reinvested in order to make the company better. As a result we own the property and are self-sufficient. That was always his non-negotiable: do what we can with what we have. And he was proved right.”

Image courtesy of Southern Wind

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