Incoming Gemini chief executive is a busy man
We’re in Epping industria but it might as well be California. I’m staring at a laptop image of Elon Musk’s space capsule surrounded by boats in the Gulf of Mexico. An index finger, sleek as a booster rocket, glides past my cheek and points at the screen. “Do you see it?” the finger waggles at something in front of my nose, “do you see it right there?”
I do see it. A vessel, South African-made, cozying up to the half-submerged SpaceX capsule, two helmeted crew on board.
“That’s our boat.”
Gerhard Neethling is stratospheric with pride. A deep smile sets in his face as he toggles his laptop for more images of this seismic event: two WR780 Rigid Inflatables from his yard have made it all the way to the centre of the media universe – a SpaceX splashdown off the coast of Florida – and Epping Industria will never be the same.
Standing in his office Neethling and I exchange a look of mutual understanding: the SpaceX splashdown may be one small step for Elon Musk, but it is a giant leap for Gemini Marine which now looks set to reap another order from the giant US space technology company. This is boatbuilding heaven, Hollywood, and Nirvana, all rolled into one with some corporate-branded tinsel on top. In anybody’s books it is a remarkable headline: home-grown Cape Town yard ferrying astronauts back from the stars.
It is also a timely boost for Neethling himself who is taking over the chief executive reigns at Gemini following a management buy-out. He can draw from 13 years experience with the company – much of it as head of global sales and marketing – as well as from the deep well of collective experience of the outgoing executives who remain linked to the company. Neethling is quick to credit his predecessors with gifting him and his team a 40-year-strong brand that is already a powerhouse in various sectors: leisure boating, commercial, military and rescue. “I was lucky in that the previous guys were good teachers,” he says of his early days with the company. “On the one hand they threw you in deep end, but if you needed something you just had to go into the factory and learn.”
It was a lesson in hands-on career development that he has happily incorporated into his management style.
What else is important to Gerhard Neethling? And who exactly is this man behind the Gemini mask? Neethling shifts in his seat as the interview shifts into personal mode; he can market RIBS to Rajasthan, but he isn’t used to marketing himself. Like his predecessor Jeff Stephens he is unassuming – a Gemini trait? – and more at home in a company narrative than a personal one. It speaks to the central role that work plays in his life. He can be persuaded to talk about himself but comes across as somebody more interested in the bigger picture, with himself just a small part thereof.
Or maybe he is just more interested in the future than the past.
Neethling’s past is interesting, however, not least because it reveals what led him to the helm of a major yard.
He grew up in Cape Town, attending three primary schools and finishing in Stellenbosch. “My family moved around quite a lot,” he recalls with maybe a hint of regret. As a scholar he did what he needed to pass, but admits he was more interested in his motorbike than algebra and English grammar (he still loves his motorbike).
Nevertheless upon matriculating he knew he wanted to work “and not go goof off in London for a year like everybody was doing.”
He was drawn to marketing straight away, even while working as a barman to fund his motorcycle habit. Interesting he describes being rebuffed by the Red and Yellow School of Business as a turning point in his life – he had wanted to study marketing but was told he was not creative enough. “Strangely enough that was not off-putting,” said Neethling, who promptly set about doing it anyway via the IMM Graduate School of Marketing.
There is more than a glint of street fighter in the way Neethling smiles at that personal triumph. “I mean my hobby is marketing and reading about marketing,” he points to a pile of related books on a side-table and gets up to show me one; “if I walk through the factory and I see a hull that doesn’t have Gemini on the hull, then for me that is quite a serious thing.”
“We have seven lines of communication at Gemini, including Facebook and Instagram.
Neethling also studied branding at Cape Town’s AAA School of Advertising, grooming himself for a future that still had not quite taken shape. For a while he worked in commercial property, but realised he needed more security: “You can sit for three months and not earn anything.”
For him it was a reality check, and it coincided with a small advertisement for a job at Gemini. “It was my dad who spotted the newspaper clipping. He cut it out and brought it to the house and said I think you need to apply for this.”
“At the time I was one of two people shortlisted for a job at another firm.”
“But I came here and met the team.”
It helped that Neethling already had a RIB connection; his uncle was involved with Infanta Inflatables. He had also grown up among boats during family holidays in Vermaaklikheid in the Overberg (these days he holidays in Stillbaai). He quips that he would have preferred a job selling motorbikes, but boats was close enough – and seems to have turned out for the best.
Fast forward thirteen years and the guy who did what he needed to pass is now riding a wave of excellence. His yard has 15 different models, each with customized deck layouts to match customer needs. He has relationships with the top engine and marine electronic stakeholders, and travels the world to meet customers and attend boat shows.
He also has two young kids, whose artwork adorns his office wall, next to family snapshots and cryptic sales and marketing notes. His biggest challenge? Finding time to juggle it all, and separate himself from his cell phone. “Just before Corona I did six countries in nine days – that is quite a bit. Now I can’t afford to be away for too long.”
“That is the biggest challenge going forward – to let go of certain aspects that I liked so much, the marketing and branding. That’s why I’m constantly on my cell.”
“These days the 8am to 5pm job is out the window. Now New Zealand and Oz want to talk to you first thing in the morning, and America from 3pm onwards.”
Add to that the 4am wake-ups to deal with little children and it’s easy to see why Neethling is now insisting his staff take leave when they need it.
“This is a part of my life, it is not my life,” Neethling says defiantly, ignoring the cell phone buzzing at his elbow. “People need to understand it and I don’t have an issue to tell someone that I’m spending time with my wife and family and that I’ll see them tomorrow.”
And lockdown has only amplified that conviction, says Neethling, leaning back in his chair to reflect on the point. “I think that has been part of the wake-up of lockdown – to see how quickly things can be taken away from you.”
Certainly he is not wasting any more time judging by activity inside the yard where RIBs of all shapes and sizes jostle for position amid a flurry of activity. In a world of viral storms and spacemen falling from the sky, Neethling is settling in for the long haul.