New MD Rob Brennan talks to SABBEX about the tragic loss of Duncan Lethbridge and how he and his team plan to build on the Lethbridge legacy.
1) Firstly condolences. These past few months must have been harrowing. How is everybody holding up?
[Rob] It has been an extremely difficult period both for Cathy, the family and the company as a whole. We are slowly recovering from the shock & trauma it caused not only to us, but the whole community of St Francis Bay. Duncan was a pioneer in all that he did and we are determined to continue in his honour.
2) I imagine Duncan’s death has in some ways brought certain things into focus, in that the new team must have been united in dealing with this difficult situation. Has it brought everybody closer together?
[Rob] Yes it has definitely brought us closer together as a team, I have found that every employee has a determination to continue building on Duncan’s legacy and the foundations that he built within the company. The employees are all extremely proud of the work they do and the part that each one plays in the outstanding quality of the finished boat.
3) You’ve taken over a very proud business and brand — quite different to starting from scratch. This must have both positives and negatives?
[Rob] Apart from losing Duncan there are no negatives . It is a great personal honour for me firstly to have worked with Duncan and to have shared with him his ideas and visions for the company and the boats that he so loved and was so proud of, and that he had the faith and trust in me to select me to run the company upon his retirement.
4) You have very firm ideas about what you want to achieve. Have you been encouraged by the way people have come on board, or has it been a slow process to get buy-in to your vision?
[Rob] I have only had positive feedback from every employee, our brokers, suppliers and our existing customers. One of the first things I implemented was a documented continuous improvement programme based on customer feedback and employee input. Every employee is part of this programme and we have monthly meetings of all employees to discuss changes or ideas for product improvement. Each employee has an equal say in the decisions we make and the actions that are required to implement each one. So far we have made 56 changes based on these meetings ranging from improving the resin infusion process to moving the spice rack in the Galley. We are currently working on another 22 items, so as the name suggests it is definitely Continuous Improvement
5) You’ve spoken about wanting to bring out new models, to update the St Francis Catamaran range. What do you have in mind?
[Rob] We have decided to first stabilise the current production process of the St Francis 50 at a maximum of 6 boats per year for the next two years. This will give us the platform to add a new model in time for the Annapolis boat show October 2021. We are currently in discussions with Angelo Lavranos our naval architect about the design and construction of the new model. We have not established the design yet but will hold face to face discussions with Angelo at the upcoming Cape Town Boat show
6) You’ve also spoken about wanting to get into the charter market. I presume your experience is a big help in this regard?
[Rob] As you know I was Quality Assurance Manager for R & C for 15 years so I was extensively involved with them in the supply of charter boats to both the Moorings & Sunsail. We are not intending to compete in that market but in the smaller island based charter fleets. There is a lot of scope in this market in the Indian Ocean Islands, Australia around the Great Barrier Reef, The Mediterranean as well as places like Vancouver and the Great Lakes in USA. We plan initially to supply 3 boats a year to this market and based on its results gradually increase that to a maximum of 12 per year over the next 10 years.
7) You have your sights set on Oz, NZ, the US and Europe. Do you think there’s much potential in Africa in years to come? With a growing middle class could we see more leisure boating in SA, or would you say there’s a ceiling?
[Rob] I don’t think there is much potential locally on a large scale in our segment of the market — maybe one or two boats per year. We have developed a six-metre Power Catamaran for the local market which will be shown at the upcoming Cape Town boat show. This boat is adaptable for use on inland waters, rivers and out to sea and is an ideal platform for fishing or it can be adapted as a water taxi in remote areas. It can be fitted with a single outboard or twin outboards depending on the requirements of the customer.
8) Are there any design trends that SA builders need to be aware of? Globally there seems to be a move towards bigger boats. But then one doesn’t want to price oneself out of the market. How do you see it?
[Rob] I think the major trend for the next decade will be more towards Greener environmentally friendly products, electric propulsion, Aqua drives, Solar power etc. We have investigated Electric propulsion and consulted with many experts in the field, it is one of the options we are considering if & when we bring out a new model, of course if one of our clients requests it we will consider it now.
9) Are custom projects first prize?
[Rob] We would like to establish our charter division as our bread & butter and the Custom projects as the cream on top. I am having plans drawn up to extend the current factory and re design the layout of the existing facility to make it more production friendly and increase productivity.
10) Thanks to you and Balance, St Francis Bay has become a regional boatbuilding hub. Do you think there is space for more builders? Could the town further expand its manufacturing base? What are the competitive advantages?
[Rob] St Francis Bay is a fantastic location both for the factory and as an area to live in. We have a large local population to draw on if we need to increase our labour force, I would rather Balance and ourselves increase our capacities than have another builder here, we have a gentleman’s agreement not to steal each others employees and we both have very stable employee bases. I have 38 employees 10 of whom have over 13 years service and 5 with over 20 years. For me this is a fantastic platform to work from their job knowledge and work integrity is a lasting legacy to Duncan and his vision. Our longest serving employee has been here 29 years and started with Duncan at the beginning.
11) As a company where do you want to be in ten years time?
[Rob] Stabilized at 12 boats ( one a month) per year, with 10 employees with over 20 years service and 5 with over 30 years
12) Where do you want to be yourself in 20 years time?
[Rob] I think I will be well past my sell by date in 20 years.
13) What is your favourite pastime?
[Rob] Apart from sailing which I am fortunate enough to be able to do frequently I have recently taken up Lawn Bowls and find it very relaxing as well as sociable.
14) Favourite music?[Rob] ACDC as loud as possible
15) Favourite destination in South Africa?
[Rob] Kruger Park or in a bush camp, living by the sea and being on the sea a lot it is nice to get into a totally different environment.
16) Will the springboks win the World Cup?
[Rob] I hope so but I don’t think they will unfortunately.