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3 Italian Super Stars

Bassani, Ferretti and Vitelli are the heartthrobs of the yachting world today, thanks to the passion they bring to their businesses.

October 4, 2007
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They may not sing quite as well as their tenor counterparts, but the trio of Italians who have lately dominated the yacht industry have displayed comparable artistry and promotional sense. Luca Bassani, Norberto Ferretti and Paolo Vitelli are nearly as well known now in the U.S.-at least, to the yachting U.S.-as in their home country. Together they have been largely responsible for taking the Italian yacht industry onto the world stage.

Bassani is the power behind the Wally Group, Ferretti the head of the Ferretti Group and Vitelli heads up Azimut. The Ferretti Group and the Azimut Group are in direct competition in the motoryacht market, turning out glamorous and distinctive designs; the numbers show Azimut a step ahead in a market that, despite years of growth, only seems to be taking off. Bassani presently stands out from the crowd because the main thrust of his empire has been towards building magnificent sailing yachts. Yet that is how Ferretti started off, too-by building sailing yachts for his first foray into the field.

Aside from the spectacular quality and style that is an attribute of all three, what is amazing is that these major groups started off from humble beginnings and reached world leader status in just 30 years-or less.

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Much less for Wally. Bassani only started production just over 10 years ago, though his passion for sailing goes much further back. He has been racing sailboats since 1969, for a 48-year-old quite an achievement; his competitiveness in the tough world of offshore sailing bordered on ruthless. As recently as 1997 he took up racing in the Mumm 30 class and in only one year was World Champion.

Ferretti is another World Champion, this time in the tough arena of offshore powerboat racing. When the Ferretti company started building motoryachts in 1987 a separate Engineering Division was established to cope with the increasingly complex engineering of the onboard systems. “Racing has been an incredibly important part of the business,” says Norberto Ferretti. “There has been an enormous feedback from the racing boats back into the production boats, particularly in terms of developing reliable onboard systems. Racing has also been brilliant for brand recognition.”

Vitelli also has a competitive passion-centered on making Azimut the biggest and the best in the world. Watching Vitelli at one of his press conferences, you can see the pride as he talks about the achievements of the Group; you can sense the drive as well. Though Vitelli does not get behind the wheel in any races, he knows the value of competition: Back in 1988 the Azimut Atlantic Challenger very nearly set a new nonstop record across the Atlantic, only to be let down by an engine failure. That competitive glint still twinkles in his eye, so don’t be surprised if the Azimut name crops up in lights again.

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Back in 1969 Vitelli’s passion for boats was transformed into a business, first by distributing boats for others; by 1975 he was building his own. No child of the yachting milieu, he emerged from the harshest of demimondes, owning a nightclub at an early age. It was the disappointment he found in the quality of the first cruiser he bought for personal use that persuaded him that he could do better building his own; combined with his club-honed skill set, this consumer-driven mentality is probably what allowed him to prosper in a business where so many fail so spectacularly. The Azimut Group was pretty much an instant success in an age when quality and style were still nascent in the power market. Today the Azimut/Benetti Group has an annual turnover of over $500 million and is the largest superyacht builder in the world.

The Azimut growth has been largely internal, though Vitelli saw the opportunity in acquiring the ailing Benetti Shipyard when it was about to close. A more recent acquisition has been Gobbi, but the main thrust still has been from growing the existing businesses. This is in sharp contrast with Ferretti, whose growth has come almost entirely through the acquisition of Bertram, Pershing and Riva-each bringing lustre to the long list of existing Ferretti Group names, each to its market niche. The two strategies reflect the different styles of the men at the top: Vitelli liking close hands-on control while Ferretti prefers to let the individual management operate each company.

Ferretti drives his vintage Mercedes 300 SL as an outward sign of the wealth he has generated and he has now moved into a more relaxed lifestyle, spending more time cruising in his 30-meter Navetta, which of course was built by the Ferretti Group. In contrast, Vitelli is still passionately hands-on about his company and he sees opportunities in expanding the superyacht sector-his recent link with the Italian state shipbuilding group Fincantieri being an example of how to open up new areas. “We have reached absolute leadership in our market, but there is a demand for yachts over 70 meters that could not be met by Italian yards,” explains Vitelli. “Our partnership with Fincantieri puts us in an excellent position to meet that demand.”

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With Bassani you can see the same enthusiasm in mid-life. When, having become a major force in the sailboat market, he turned his hand to the power sector, you might have expected a somewhat conservative approach. But that is not Bassani’s style. Even the spectacular Wally tender gave hardly a hint of what was to come: It takes huge courage to invest in a market-changing project like the high-performance 118-foot Wally Power, a 65-knot superyacht like no other. When Bassani is involved the market is never the same again. You can’t help feeling that it is his heart rather than his head that rules his business empire, yet nobody can deny the success that he has achieved. “When it comes to yacht design I am prepared to back my judgment,” he says. “In much of the yacht market few people are prepared to do something different.”

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