Yugeshni steps up to lead Durban yard into a new era

There were early signs that Yugeshni Naidoo didn’t fit the mould of a typical Durban schoolgirl.

Like the time she and her cousins borrowed a canoe to row from Maiden Wharf all the way to The Block, where she got stranded when the tide came in. Her father had to fetch her in his boat.

“He was so upset,” says Yugeshni of one of many maritime adventures while following in the footsteps of her boatbuilding dad. “His work was at the bay, and we would fish off the jetty while dad was at work. I remember I was eight when he launched two boats in one day.”

“Only when you’re older do you realise how your parents mould and shape you,” she says.

Clearly Yugeshni didn’t fit the mould because she was encouraged to make her own.

Fast forward twenty odd years and that is exactly what Yugeshni is doing as owner and managing director of KZN Leisure Boats. She has not only jumped into the shoes of her father Vasy Naidoo, she is leaving her own footprint on the local boatbuilding industry where she stands almost entirely alone as a woman in a male-dominated industry. She is an anomaly in more ways than one, and proudly so, intent on honouring the memory of her father who died just under two years ago.

To take over the reins at the height of Covid, after an apprenticeship of nearly 19 years (she started work at the yard straight after her BCom degree) might have sunk somebody less committed to the cause. But Yugeshni insists she was never in any doubt she would succeed, a confidence rooted in her total emersion in her father’s boatbuilding world since her early childhood. “From the time of being a little girl, during school holidays or even after school, every single time I had a chance I was with my dad,” she explains. I was 19 when I joined him and I was learning from him right up until the day he passed. Since then we must have built 22 brand new boats.”

She credits many for supporting her during the transition, a process made easier perhaps by the buoyant market – boatbuilding was one of the few economic sectors to flourish during Covid as many voted to social distance on the open water.  Loyal clients not only remained with her, they welcomed her into the fold. “When I came back to work (after Vasy died), that same week I got a new boat order. I have had tremendous support from the industry – they kept bringing their boats. In some ways that first day (without him) was just a normal business day, just carrying on.”

“If I had doubted that I could do this I would have closed this business, but I had full confidence in what my dad taught us. He was a great teacher. I’m also very lucky to have long-serving staff, some for nearly 20 years.”

“Some people say we are one of the best boatbuilding companies in Durban,” she adds with a flush of pride.

Certainly the company has grown a solid reputation, not only for refurbishments and repairs but for solid new builds. Though not as big as some other KZN yards, they have punched well above their weight in the Bayhead for the past seven years since securing a berth in the harbour, where they have been ably supported by Transnet. They specialise in fishing vessels, but can make custom builds too if required.

Yugeshni believes the yard is well-positioned to take advantage of new industry initiatives aimed at growing not only boatbuilding but the entire blue economy. A solid foundation sees them joining a fleet of yards reporting bulging order books.   “During Covid we just got busier and busier, and yes I worked harder and harder,” she chuckles with trademark enthusiasm.

Yugeshni is clearly a font of positive energy; that much is clear even from a telephone conversation which crackles with life and ambition. She not only wants to build on the company’s success, she wants to take everyone along with her. She has prioritised skills-training and already hosts a youth development programme at her yard as part of her vision for a more resilient local industry. She is quick to acknowledge that most people would not have the advantage of a mentor father, nor the same overt support from industry; she would therefore like to give back wherever possible, which also accords with her religious beliefs. She also wants to uplift more women in the boatbuilding industry. “In this next part of my life I want to pull more people into this and bring more recognition for the fact that girls can do this as well,” she explains.

Yugeshni concedes that, despite widespread industry support, there were times in her career she nevertheless had to bite her tongue in the boat yard when her father was asked about his succession plan.  “Some friends would come around to the yard and say to my father that he should have had a son to take over from him one day. He just kept quiet, and I would also keep quiet, because at the time I didn’t know what the future held.  But a girl child can carry a father’s name and legacy, and people now say to me, you know your father would have been so proud.”’

Yugeshni is quick to credit her father not only for passing on his boatbuilding expertise but also his work ethic and love of innovation. Vasy Naidoo was more than ‘a name’ in KZN boatbuilding circles, he was literally part of the furniture in that he designed and made many of the moulds that underpinned the local industry.  He worked for AceCraft Marine before going it alone. “He was one of the main people who introduced fibreglass into AceCraft – that’s his background. He was a brilliant mould maker and had an excellent eye – one of those guys who just knew what worked and what didn’t work.”

“He worked right up until his dying day. He went home with his boots on, as they say,” says Yugeshni.

Unsurprisingly Yugeshni is up-beat about the future, a sentiment bolstered by recent media attention from a German documentary film team which decamped to the yard to tell her story. Photos of the visit feature on the company’s Facebook page and are testimony to the company’s positive momentum. Yugeshni’s boats reach far and wide, some even into the export market. “Two months ago we sold five boats in one day,” she says by way of illustrating the yard’s recent good fortune.

But while Covid definitely contributed to a market rebound, luck and circumstance can only take you so far; no matter how good the mould you still have to finish the job. Yugeshni likes the idea of making people’s dreams come true – an ethos she inherited from her father which underpins her career. She also inherited a sense of responsibility and civic duty, both in relation to her product and her broader contribution to the industry. Says Yugeshni: “My father used to say that with a boat there is no pulling off to the side of the road; if you can’t do this well then don’t do it at all. He stressed that we are building somebody’s dream.”

What Vasy Naidoo couldn’t know was that his daughter would one day build on his dream, and make it her own one too.

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