How to find a boat buyer: SA’s ‘Big Five’ retailers compare notes

Derrick Levy, Rob Sharp and Bruce Tedder share their thoughts about the ocean’s most prized species – the buyer

Selling boats is a lot like fishing for marlin.  The buyers are out there; the trick is getting them into the net.

Rob Sharp with Sir Robin Knox-Johnson

Just as well therefore that South Africa has a group of wily retail ‘fishermen’ with enough collective experience to sniff out buyers even before they know they are buying.  David Abromowitz, Rob Sharp, Bruce Tedder, Derrick and Suzanne Levy: meet the Big Five of the South African brokerage scene. Put them all in the same room and you have enough marketing power to sell multihulls to Mongolia.

Collectively the Big Five represent most of the top brands in international leisure boating.  If there is a shapely power boat out there that has somehow slipped the net, rest assured they are onto it – and will soon have it tied up at a boat show near you.

Boat buyers can be pernickety; so too are boat retailers. Attention to detail is one of several attributes our top retailers have in common, along a customer network built up over years of sea miles and sundowners.

Derrick Levy

Experience counts, in other words, as Derrick Levy is quick to point out from his bustling office in Granger Bay. He himself has been in the game for over half a century – 52 years to be exact, he says through his trademark grin. In his case it started with his father, Arnie Levy, former owner of Arnie’s Botel on the Vaal River, which later became the Riviera Hotel. It was a family affair, both retail and water sports; the Levy family is synonymous with South African water sport.  When they weren’t selling ski-boats they were skiing behind them, often barefoot. “My dad bought the botel and we started selling boats,” recalls Levy. “We used to launch boats and sell boats from there.”

Derrick eventually took over the business, which had moved to Durban by the time his father reached his twilight years. “I was working for Volvo in Johannesburg and he said he wants to retire and I must come and take over the branch – that’s how I moved to Durban,” says Levy.

Eleven years later he and Suzanne moved to Cape Town just in time to participate in a retail boom that put South Africa firmly on the luxury boating map.

A history of water sport also led Bruce Tedder into the boating sector. He spent eleven years skippering large yachts all over the world before buying into David Abromowitz’s brokerage in Cape Town.  With over 120 000 sea miles to his name — and 18 Atlantic crossings – Bruce didn’t need too much training to distinguish a good ride from a rip off. He was instrumental in transforming the boating retail sector from a relative backwater to a regional hub, and recalls a milestone trip to The Moorings base in Tortola in 1996 with Abromowotiz: “When in Tortola we noticed NO catamarans in their fleet of Charter yachts,” Bruce says.  “Lex Raas, ex SA boatbuilder who was The Moorings boss at the time told us that “catamarans would never work as charter boats as people wanted to sail properly”!!. Abro and I were not convinced, so we asked Lex to give us his dream specs of the perfect charter catamaran — four equal cabins, i.e. eight guests, two or four heads, open aft area, etc, etc.”

Bruce Tedder

“We then got Alex Simonis to design his version of this vessel. We lined up John Robertson as the potential builder. Next was to get a presentation set up to make a formal proposal to The Moorings. The rest is history. Robertson and Caine started building catamarans for The Moorings starting with the award winning Leopard 45.”

Sailing experience was also a springboard for Rob Sharp, who entered the retail sector after an accomplished navy and ocean racing career which included a famed Atlantic crossing on Voortrekker II.   Sharp proved a key asset for Cape Town’s Central Boating, then owned by Abromowitz. Once again ‘Abro’ proved a worthy mentor in the retail game and 22 years later Sharp joined his brokerage as a partner. “I wouldn’t do anything else — have a look where my office is,” says Sharp of his business headquarters looking on to the V&A marina. He can’t help chuckling: “I don’t own a suit and a tie.”

It’s the kind of no-nonsense philosophy you’d expect of somebody whose guiding passion is miles of open water. It also helps explain why SA’s top retailers maintain a healthy rivalry founded on mutual respect; they are all made of similar stuff.  A shared love of boating and commerce, a generally outgoing personality, and the ability to spin a good yarn – there are some obvious similarities in the character makeup of the retail crew. Whatever tensions might linger between them are well hidden from view, if they exist at all, and there is a sense of cooperative governance that extends into the various organisations overseeing the sector.  Says Tedder: “Yes, I love the rivalry. But we do very often work together to ensure the buyer is looked after. Buyers are crucial and must have a safe and happy experience as we all want them to stay committed boaters into the future. There is an unwritten code amongst the professional brokers in SA to make 110% sure the buyer is treated like a king as one bad move gets all brokers tarred with the same brush, as has happened.”

“Local buyers are spoilt for choice. All the world’s major boating brands and of course all of the SA brands are well represented in SA by professional brokers. The buyer is the winner with sharper prices, more options and top notch service.”

Derrick concurs – the local rivalry is good for business: “David (Abro) has been very accommodating when I have discussed things with him. Same with Bruce. I don’t believe they are the enemy. We believe all of us are working for the marine fraternity. If there is an opposition it is people building commodities other than boats.”

Derrick describes Abro as a pioneer who helped inspire his competitors, including Suzanne and himself. Abro’s decision to launch Princess into the market was a big step and not without a risk, for sales were initially slow to take off, Derrick recalls. “Suddenly they sold about six, and we knew the only way to keep up was to get a different type of brand, a more cruising brand. That is the only reason we took on Fairline because we were only Riviera in those days.”

“Then as we grew we took on other brands (namely Jeanneau, Fountaine Pajot and SunReef),” Derrick says.

It was the same with fractional ownership, adopted by local brokers after initial success with the Moorings. “I think it has been good for both of us,” says Derrick.

For Bruce retail success was closely allied to the Lagoon brand, with which he has been associated for over a decade. He was offered the dealership in 2006 but turned it down because it required buying and keeping stock – far too risky at that stage due to currency volatility: “They noted my interest in catamarans as I had built a few by then and was operating my 50ft GQ charter catamaran in the V&A Waterfront. One of the owners of the Steers Group had bought a Lagoon 500 and was bringing it to Cape Town and they needed a Dealer in place to look after the vessel, warranty issues etc. No Stock required. I jumped at the chance and we displayed that boat on the CT Boat Show in 2008.”

The success of premium sailing and power boating brands in South Africa is no surprise, says Bruce, who believes local conditions demand a quality build: “We have zero protected sailing or boating areas, no huge lakes and inland waterways. Just the wild open ocean. So our boats that are used at the coast must be the real deal or then we have trailer boats that are used inland or on a few of our lagoons. Nothing in-between.”

And what of future growth? With major brands now expertly represented in the local market, is it all plain sailing?  What are the major stumbling blocks for local brokers?

Derrick bemoans the shortage of local infrastructure, claiming there is definite room for improvement: “We found that South Africa is lagging in our marina facilities. Of course we are better than some, but for instance Angola is ahead of us.  I think if we had better facilities we would attract more up-market clients.  We don’t have lots of destinations (compared with the Caribbean, but we have boating throughout the year.”

Rob says marina and sailing development are key components of the local boating industry: “We could definitely do more with marina spaces here.”   South Africa’s success in ocean racing should also continue to act as a driver for leisure boating, with major international races adding an adventurous sheen to the boating lifestyle.

For Bruce the major challenge is access to finance for would-be owners. He believes entrepreneurs are the key economic drivers in the boating space, as evidenced by innovation in the form of fractional ownership and the recent Cape 31 racing project:  Lack of Finance for Buyers is the key. “What about Marine Mortgages? We have some of the smartest and finest banks in the world yet none of them have managed to come up with a simple Marine Mortgage scheme as in Europe, USA, Australia,” says Bruce. “It is a small market but the buyers are the top business people in SA, surely an attractive segment for the banks to aim at?”

You need patience and guile to catch a marlin, and conditions need to be just right.

Selling boats is just the same.

Fortunately there’s no shortage of bait.

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