New R&C boss is looking comfortable at the helm of Cape Town’s biggest yard

Design accuracy. Attention to detail. Comfort.

I am talking about Theo Loock’s shoes, not his catamarans, though of course the same applies to both.

The new boss of Robertson and Caine greets me with trademark enthusiasm and a mug of coffee in the upstairs lounge of the company’s Woodstock office. I am immediately charmed by his pair of colourful sneakers which remind me of an outfit he wore at a public address in the Two Oceans Aquarium: a similarly colourful tracksuit-style top that shone like a beacon of fashion amidst a fog of boring business attire.

It is a suitable introduction to Theo, who is not a fan of business as usual. In his attire as much as in his personal philosophy, he strives to be original, which partly explains why he is sitting at the helm of the world’s second largest catamaran producer.   One suspects being the best, rather than the biggest, is the name of his game.

But being best and biggest might please him more.

Theo is clearly thinking big about his role at Robertson and Caine, and he is quick to steer our conversation into the deep end of business plans. He speaks in broad strokes of company history and global market trends, revealing his appetite for such things. Under his watch he hopes to champion innovation and technical design. He wants to be ever more connected to the customer. He wants efficiency, preferably uber efficiency, and streamlined economics. Smarter design spiral.  Optimal product. Industrialisation.

He is candid about his mandate: his role is to make a great company greater, by completing the journey from family business to humming global market leader; by making all the attendant tweaks in business management. He has to do this without messing too much with the company’s winning formula. It is a more fortunate position than somebody needing to do full frontal factory-floor lobotomy.

“A family–owned business is built on passion, on love for product and people,” he says of R&C’s humble beginnings in Cape Town. “John Robertson’s first boat was in his dad’s garage.”

“It is because of the focus on quality and perfection that they develop into bigger businesses, and that is where the family business needs to make a little bit of a transition. The market demands that the business must be professionalised – it is a critical stage.”

“I love that transition.”

Passion, quality and transition are keywords in Theo’s overarching narrative, although the word that crops up most often is ‘market’.  Theo Loock is inspired as much by the heart of R&C as the marketplace he sees lapping around it.  The added ingredient he brings to the R&C mix is a fascination in market dynamics, in style and fashion, born out of his own successful business career. Theo so loves the thrill of the market that he can’t leave it alone; he came out of retirement to join R&C, a move that he too seems to find surprising. He had always said he would retire at 55. He passed that milestone a year or so ago and seems to be speeding up, not slowing down.

If Theo is in love with transition it is partly because he is still busy with it, less interested in the sunset than in the boat he is sailing to reach it.

Cracking open Theo’s personal story doesn’t come easy. Like many top businessmen his narrative is awash with workplace concepts and ideas, with only occasional forays behind the corporate veil, although in his case one suspects the omissions are simply because he has too much other stuff to say.  He graduated from the University of Pretoria and says he is equally at home in the bush and at the coast.  He bought his first boat in Gordon’s Bay and has had a skipper’s licence for 30 years – a boating enthusiast who taught his kids to fish on a ski boat built in the Strand. He used to own a house in Harbour Island and more recently spent several years based in Istanbul where he retains strong business links. He is still crazy about Turkey, it keeps popping up in conversation – “ahh the beautiful bays and the beaches”, and “Turkish sailing yachts are magnificent”  Etcetera Etcetera.

He is married with four daughters.

On the business front Loock established himself as one of South Africa’s top businessmen, with a background in industrial engineering. He served several years as chief executive of Metair Investments; worked previously as general manager at Sasol Mining; as group divisional director at Aveng; and general manager for Dorbyl. He was regularly sought out for his business views and sector analysis.  “I’ve built trains, big pieces of mining equipment, cars, and have always been in manufacturing,” explains Theo. “I like to make stuff and make them efficiently.”

His extensive manufacturing experience would be an asset to any business, and is a significant boon for Cape Town’s economy at a time when government stakeholders, notably the City of Cape Town and the South African International Maritime Institute, are pushing job-creation in the marine sector.  Theo concurs, and believes he may just have saved the best for last – a chance to marry his industrial engineering with some of his other passions. “I also like art, and I think a boat is part of art,” he says.

There is another more personal reason why Theo must be enjoying his latest business incarnation at R&C:  he has always prized quality craftsmanship, possibly a throwback to his days studying woodwork at school. In Turkey this allowed him to marvel at the Turkish hand-made Gulet sailing boats. “The space on those things – they are just magnificent beasts,” he says of the Gulets. “No boat is built by automation, everything is touched by somebody’s hand. You get so much respect for carpentry and joinery.”

When Theo gets talking about Turkish Gulets one wonders why it took him so long to become a boat builder.

However his entre into R&C was largely fortuitous, prompted by a sailing trip with a close friend: “We had always had the idea together that at some point when we had time we would circumnavigate the world. He bought a performance cat and invited me to take delivery of the boat. I spent ten days with him.” Almost exactly a year later Theo by chance met Peter Giliam and heard that he was retiring, a meeting that was in effect the death knell for Theo’s retirement plans.

And just in case there was any doubt in his mind, fate then lent a hand in the form of a chance sighting of a new R&C cat, coming out of Neptune Street, on its way to the Port of Cape Town. Says Theo: “I was on my way to Blouberg to see my friend, and there was one of those magnificent looking cats.”

Clearly a sign of things to come.

Back in the R&C lounge Theo looks at his watch; our hour is up. He has boats to build and to deliver.  The tips of his colourful sneakers wiggle with pent up energy.

He may have walked the hard yards in the engine room of the South African economy, but he isn’t putting his feet up just yet.

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