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Interview with Antony Sheriff

Simon de Burton talks with Antony Sheriff, Chairman and CEO of Princess Yachts.

Antony Sheriff
Antony Sheriff has been the Chairman and CEO of Princess Yachts since January 2016. Courtesy Princess Yachts

Antony Sheriff, 59, has been the Chairman and CEO of Princess Yachts since January 2016. He previously spent 10 years as Managing Director of McLaren Automotive, during which he established McLaren’s core range of luxury sports cars.

Why did you want to take the role as head of Princess Yachts?

After a decade launching and growing the road-car arm for McLaren, I was looking to join another business where luxury and technicity were key and that had a great deal of potential for development. Princess was it.

But why Princess? What makes it different from other luxury yacht manufacturers?

I could see one very important difference – the enormous depth of substance in the company. Princess has a long history of supplying great boats, made by people who go boating, for boaters. What it didn’t have was the confidence to flourish in the way it could, but I think we are now making that happen.

What particular changes have you seen in the company?

The one clear difference is that, while Princess Yachts continues to make technically exceptional products, it is now very firmly established in the luxury arena.

How have the events of the past two years, notably Covid and Brexit, affected the company in terms of what is built, released and marketed?

As far as Brexit is concerned, I would say that it has been a non-event for Princess. Covid, on the other hand, has made life very complicated indeed from an industrial point of view. The principal problems have been in the supply chain, where our suppliers have not been able to deliver components as a result of their own suppliers not being able to deliver materials, and so on. Our approach to the situation from the very start was not to slow down but to continue going hot and heavy both in terms of fulfilling existing orders and developing new models. It required a great deal of fancy footwork, but forging ahead despite the problems enabled us to introduce great new yachts such as the Y72 and Y95 motor yacht, the X80 super-flybridge yacht, and V50 sports yacht, all of which have been really well received. And, strangely, I would say that Covid had some positive effects on our business because it helped many people to discover that a yacht provides an opportunity to spend true quality time on the water with one’s family in a safe and controlled environment.

Sustainability is currently a major issue. How is this reflected in the superyacht business?

I think it’s fair to say that there is an awful lot of noise in the superyacht industry about sustainability, but very little happening that’s of real substance. Our style at Princess is to go our own way and do what we can to help, but only if it means doing things that make rational sense. Comparisons are often made between superyachts and the development of electrification in the car industry, but it is completely unrealistic to think a large yacht can rely purely on electric power – a car only has to be pushed through the air, but water is a whole lot more viscous and, therefore, a great deal more energy is required to achieve the propulsion needed. We did a back-of-an envelope calculation and concluded that if an X95 was to run purely on electric motors it would require a battery pack that weighs twice as much as the boat itself in order to achieve similar range and performance. Instead of going down that route, we have been focusing on our hulls and now have the most advanced designs in the industry. They are up to 20 per cent more efficient, meaning that the yachts consume less fuel and are, therefore, kinder to the environment.

We have also worked very hard on the packaging of our yachts, so the X95, for example, has the same floor area as our old 35-metre, despite being almost eight metres shorter. The smaller size means less resistance and the boat, therefore, delivers a huge improvement in efficiency. The yard is also working on ways of building boats more efficiently, using more bioresins and eco-materials, reducing waste and so on.

What are the rules and regulations surrounding building cleaner boats and creating less pollution?

The rules, such as they are, are very much in flux. We’re pushing the authorities not to mandate specific technical solutions, but rather to set performance goals so as to encourage creative technical solutions. One problem is that, once built, boats tend to stay on the water for a long time. That means there are a lot of old, inefficient yachts out there, so we should be
thinking of what we can do to improve them and make them better for the environment. The impact made by new yachts, which are more efficiently built and more eco-friendly in use, is relatively small by comparison. We are, however, working very closely with powertrain suppliers and looking at alternative fuels, most likely hydrogen or biofuels, but they bring their own challenges in terms of infrastructure. Large yachts are intended to explore in out-of-the-way places – most of which won’t be equipped to supply alternative fuels for years to come.

Yachting is reliant on the state of the seas – what is Princess Yachts doing to ensure they are protected?

We’re adding to our efforts all the time. In 2016, Princess became the first luxury yacht manufacturer to officially partner with the Marine Conservation Society. We’ve worked together to support marine environments, preserve reefs and sea life, with the company becoming the custodian of the Eddystone Reef, an offshore ecosystem outside of Plymouth.

What does it mean to be a UK-based business?

I think it is important that we are a UK company, but what is even more important is where we are based – which is why our logo says ‘Princess Yachts, crafted in Plymouth’. This city has a huge maritime heritage both in terms of the place and its people, and I really believe that lends an added authenticity and credibility to what we do. Princess has been here since its founding in 1965 and all of our manufacturing happens in Plymouth, where we employ more than 3,000 staff across our five sites. We also try to source as much material as possible from local businesses, and items we can’t find locally are largely acquired from other UK suppliers. Our supply chain helps to support around 13,500
additional jobs up and down the country.

What can we expect to see from Princess in the next few years?

Wonderful things! We are certainly not content to sit on our laurels, and one of the things I like to do is to show people images of our previous generations of boats beside our new ones. From one year to another the improvements seem incremental, but when looked at across a five-year time span, it’s easy to see that huge leaps are being taken. We were understandably uncertain how the X-Class super flybridge yachts would be received, but they have proved to be an enormous commercial success – and, most importantly, they have been accepted as being ‘real’ Princess Yachts, even by our most loyal customers. Currently overall production is running in the low 200s of boats per year. Our plan is to get to an optimum output of around 300 yachts – and we’ll have many exciting new designs along the way.

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