Mention Plymouth and thoughts of an insouciant Sir Francis Drake playing bowls on the Hoe might spring to mind, along with Sir Walter Raleigh’s return to the harbour carrying samples of a strange vegetable called a potato, or the Pilgrim Fathers’ departure for the New World aboard Mayflower.
Fast forward four centuries, and Plymouth is still making significant contributions to maritime history – not least through the efforts of luxury yacht builder Princess, which has expanded from the small Newport Street industrial unit where it was founded in 1965 to occupy a site that now covers 1.1 million sq/ft in the city’s Stonehouse area.
Part of the giant LVMH luxury goods group since 2008, Princess currently employs 3,250 craftsmen, engineers, designers and administration staff, operates 13 offices across Europe and sells its boats around the world through an extensive global distribution network.
It’s a set-up that has made Princess Yachts Britain’s most successful builder of luxury yachts ranging in size from the sporty but beautifully appointed R35 dayboat to the 95-foot flagships in the maker’s ‘X’ and ‘Y’ class categories.
And much of that success can be put down to the bold re-branding embarked upon by outgoing Chief Marketing Officer Kiran Haslam and his team who, when he arrived in 2015, set out to shake things up in a way the yachting world had never seen before.
‘Prior to 2015, Princess was – quite proudly – the best kept secret in the superyacht world,’ says Haslam.
‘But, being close to the LVMH group, the way Princess is perceived and the message it conveys should be the absolute heart valve of the operation. And that was the specific challenge: to turn the fi rm from being just another boat builder into a true luxury brand, and the 50th anniversary [in 2015] presented a great opportunity to start doing that.’
Typically, according to Haslam, superyachts are promoted using ‘visceral, masculine images’ showing chisel-jawed men piloting boats at high speed while ‘wafer thin girls wearing oversized sunglasses sit on the foredeck.’
‘Those are the sort of cheesy, 1980s images that are still used so often to depict the lifestyle of the rich and famous,’ he says. ‘To me, it all seemed totally outdated. We needed to get away from all that, to become more gender neutral and to change our tone of voice so we were no longer telling people how they should be enjoying life, but asking them how they wanted to enjoy it.
‘We also began to emphasise the interiors of our yachts, working on our presentations to show them using high quality content of the type associated with brands such as Chanel and Louis Vuitton in order to bring Princess fully in-line with the luxury segment.’
The new approach quickly began to improve the brand’s ‘cool’ factor – and, suddenly, the Princess name appeared in a diverse range of publications, including Rolling Stone, and Wired; partnerships were formed with craftsmanship magazine Hole & Corner and the Ocean Photography Awards; and the annual NME Awards even benefited from being sponsored by the company.
Taking inspiration from the car industry, Princess also worked with art students from Plymouth College to create a ‘dazzle’ camouflage for the prototype of its R35.
The launch was subsequently teased through TV broadcasts featuring Japanese manga and anime-style illustrations, with the campaign culminating in a final Red Thread reveal film shot on the Colombian island of Santa Cruz del Islote.
Even more radical, meanwhile, was the creation of a marketing campaign for airing on connected TV (a first in the yacht world) and the appearance of Princess in an ad break during the season eight finale of Sky Atlantic’s Game of Thrones – a series seen in 170 countries that attracts an audience of tens of millions.
On Haslam’s initiative, Princess was also the first yacht brand to appear across UK cinemas in the trailer reel for the 2019 Quentin Tarantino film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and even created its own cinematic film, a six-minute single, continuous shot that follows a ‘real life’ family as they enjoy a day aboard their Princess M-Class yacht.
‘The aim was to get away from the idea of yachts being purely ostentatious and to recognise the fact that, for most owners, the luxury is not about having to put on a tux to have dinner but to feel totally at home on their boat and to simply have time to lie around with their families and enjoy a beer. It’s all about taking a down-to-Earth approach,’ he concludes.
That same ‘down to Earth’ approach also prevails at the Plymouth yard where every Princess yacht is hand-built and, unusually, 80 per cent of the items required to complete each commission are made in-house – meaning everything from the moulding of hulls to the crafting of luxurious interior fittings is carried out by specialist teams drawn from the giant workforce that’s spread across six sites.
It’s a system that enables all of the larger models – and many of the smaller ones – to be ‘tailored to taste’ to meet the specific requirements of each buyer, meaning a remarkable 500 individual items are completed by the various Princess workshops each week, with every one starting life as a raw material such as resin, glass fibre, oak or walnut.
‘It’s that in-house production that sets Princess apart from other yacht builders,’ says Manufacturing Engineering Director James Smale. ‘It gives us a level of control that ensures an unwavering level of quality and enables us to stick to strict time frames.
‘We have always done things ourselves at Princess for two simple reasons – one is that we have had to, since we are based a relatively long way from most suppliers, and the other is that the remarkable heritage of boat building in Plymouth and the surrounding area means we have an incredible supply of really skilled craftspeople to call upon.’
At the heart of the operation are the Coypool joinery workshops, unofficially known as the ‘kit parts’ building, where the exquisitely finished interiors of every Princess yacht take shape.
A robotic army of seven CNC machines (for ‘computer numerical control’) run for up to 18 hours per day to enable the mind-boggling 40,000 individual pieces of timber needed for the larger models to be cut, trimmed, planed, punched, shaped and smoothed to hairs-breadth precision before being set in individual racks where, between them, they create the ‘kits’ that will be used by the Princess cabinet makers to hand-build superb quality furnishings for models such as the 80 and 95-foot X and Y Class models.
The laser-accurate CNC machines are often able to produce even intricate components, such as louvred grilles, from single blocks of timber. Luxurious cappings of the type that are found, for example, on an X80, are shaped through a precision laminating process which International Sales Manager Bill Barrow describes as ‘engineering in wood’.
‘Veneers that are almost paper-thin are joined together and moulded into often very complex shapes,’ says Barrow. ‘But whether a part is large or small, it is treated with the same attention to detail to ensure it will fit perfectly when it is taken by the bench joiners to create one of the 110 furniture units that they complete each day,’ he adds.
The ‘units’ range from simple cabin lockers to gleaming stateroom sideboards and elaborate dining tables, with all gloss-finish furnishings being treated to as many as eight coats of lacquer in order to ensure a surface that is both practical in use and beautiful to look at.
One of the reasons a Princess yacht can be so well appointed is that the firm has established itself as a world leader in maximising every available inch of hull inside and out – so a model such as the 29-metre X95 ‘Superfly’ (which Princess calls its ‘luxury SUV of the seas’) offers around 10 per cent more deck space and an impressive 40 per cent more interior area than traditionally designed yachts of the same length.
Those are the sort of numbers that have enabled Princess to sell more than 20 X95s since the model’s unveiling in the autumn of 2018, a quantity that very likely makes it one of, if not the, most successful contemporary superyachts on the market.
In 2021, Princess built and delivered more than 200 boats, ending the year with a packed order book that, by the close of September’s Cannes Yachting Festival, had seen deposits taken for 50 units of the recently announced Y72 model with first deliveries scheduled for later this year. There is already sufficient work to keep the yard busy until 2024 – and it has a retail value of more than $1bn.
As impressive as the numbers are, however, many people might struggle to see the relevance of a company that makes very expensive toys for very wealthy people in a world that, we are told, is heading towards self-destruction as a result of global warming – which is partly caused by just the sort of gas-guzzling internal combustion engines that power superyachts that, in turn, are made largely from difficult-torecycle glass re-inforced plastic (GRP).
But it seems the times they are a changing – and the benefits of the success enjoyed by Princess Yachts reach far beyond the relatively small band of customers who can afford to buy and enjoy its products.
Haslam again: ‘One thing that we are especially proud of is our apprenticeship programme, which provides jobs for between 40 and 60 young people every year and recently won us a Royal Award,’ he says. ‘The last intake saw a significant up-swell in the number of young women being accepted, with 25 per cent of the new arrivals being female – a huge change from the small number we had only five years ago.
‘It’s also good to see that they are working across all areas of our business, but increasingly in the carpentry and engineering fields.’
They have joined Princess at an exceptionally exciting time, says Haslam, as the firm is on the verge of ‘re-inventing’ its manufacturing process by increasing the flow and efficiency of its many and various departments – and will soon be able to take advantage of Plymouth’s recently awarded ‘freeport’ status.
An important area of the yard, the historic, 18th-century Ropery buildings, will soon fall under freeport jurisdiction, which, says Haslam, has positive implications above and beyond the obvious tax and customs duty advantages.
‘The financial aspects are, of course, important – but what’s really exciting for us is the fact that the freeport will attract a huge amount of talent and many like-minded businesses and will undoubtedly become a melting pot of innovative suppliers,’ says Haslam.
And much of that innovation, he anticipates, will focus on improving the environmental image of boat building through the dramatically increased use of natural and recycled materials.
‘The industry has suddenly woken up to the amount we can do in terms of helping the environment. It’s something that has happened very quickly, largely as a result of developments in the car market,’ explains Haslam.
‘Many boat buyers now feel completely comfortable with the idea of electric propulsion because they have electrically powered cars – and, if they have already bought a Porsche Taycan or ordered a Battista electric hypercar, for example, they want to know what we can do to supply them with a boat that’s also kinder to the planet.’
To that end, Princess already has a partnership with Plymouth University that has seen the creation of the Marine e-Charging Living Lab project – the UK’s first marine charging network – and is working on ways of re-cycling GRP (used extensively in hull manufacture since the 1960s) to create everything from wash basins and worktops to doors and floors.
‘We are looking at the ecological aspects of everything from the materials we use to make parts to the way we run the yard,’ says Haslam. ‘There are around 27,000 components on a 50-foot boat, and that boat will have a life expectancy of 30 to 50 years,’ he explains.
‘That means we need to think about every aspect of every one of those components in terms of its long-term effect on the environment, both while it’s in use and after it becomes unserviceable. As a result, we’re developing some very interesting new materials that will not only be suitable for boat building applications, but could also end up being used for other things – who knows, the next home you own could be partly built from re-purposed GRP hulls.
‘We’re also adopting a lifecycle analytics tool that will enable us to calculate the carbon impact of components, both in terms of where the original material came from to the energy used to process, move and store it and the chemicals or odours it might leak into the environment during its life cycle.’
Haslam emphasises, however, that a ‘green’ approach is nothing new for Princess – as far back as 2016, the firm set out to eradicate single-use plastics at all of its events and determined to serve only sustainable foods. It has also funded an extensive and ongoing turtle tagging project in the Turks and Caicos islands, was the first boat yard to work with MarineShift360 (developer of the aforementioned analytics tool) and is well on the way to producing hybrid power systems for its boats in conjunction with engine manufacturer MAN.
And something Princess is especially proud of, says Haslam, is its funding four years ago of the first eco-mooring project at Cawsand beside Plymouth Sound.
‘We established the first three eco-moorings there in 2018 using a system that protects the sea grass that, with conventional moorings, gets destroyed by the motion of a boat as it changes direction due to winds and tides,’ he explains. ‘The scheme was so successful that it will now be rolled-out nationally.’
Perhaps surprisingly, the changes forced by Covid have also provided Princess with a way to work in a ‘greener’ fashion when it comes to selling its products.
‘Until now, we had always been completely reliant on in-person relationships, physically meeting people face-to-face,’ says Haslam. ‘Inevitably, that meant flying staff all around the world on a regular basis, be it to a boat show in Europe or to a client consultation on the west coast of America. When Covid put a stop to all that, we had to find a way to show customers that we were still with them – and we achieved it not by the obvious route of staging virtual boat shows using lots of CGI, but by using our imagination.
‘That meant connecting directly with buyers via Zoom so that, if they wanted to, they could discuss their needs with our CEO Antony Sheriff; we sent out backgammon sets with playing pieces made from the same woods used on our boats; we created individual playlists for owners to listen to on board and made the greatest minds at Princess available for direct consultations – we even had sales people doing filmed walk-throughs, opening cupboards and disappearing down hatches so prospective owners could see every bit of what their boat would be like.
‘It’s a new world that we were forced in to, but we’re now delighted to be able to embrace it because it has shown us another way in which we can help to preserve the environment – and that’s something that is hugely important to our clients, because their own children are starting to insist that they ask the right questions about the things that they are planning to buy,’ concludes Haslam.
‘I don’t call it sustainability, I call it “regainability” – we have to actively search for a path back to a balanced planet, and that’s something that Princess is determined to play its part in.’