Iain Smallridge on Pearl challenging the “big brands”
Founder and Managing Director of Pearl Yachts, Iain Smallridge has established the boutique British builder in Europe and the US, and is now setting his sights on the Middle East and Far East. Interview: John Higginson; Photos: Pearl
Pearl Yachts is best known in Europe and the US, so are you now hopeful of a push into Asia following the appointment of VP Yachts as your Hong Kong dealer?
We know that the brand and the product range should sell in Hong Kong. It’s just a case of developing that relationship with VP Yachts and trying to get some product there. We find that if we put Pearl yachts in any established boating market, it snowballs.
Getting the first one there is always the most difficult thing. We’re sold out for a year or so, so we need to see how we can get a boat there or at least display one en route to somewhere else. Once we show one to local clients, we know we can grow the market.
Smallridge with Vivian Chan of VP Yachts, which represents Pearl in Hong Kong
Why did Pearl create the tagline ‘Boutique Yacht Builder – Since 1998’?
Boutique yacht builder sums us up, as we produce a small volume of high-quality yachts. In 2023, we’ll deliver 12 units between 60-100ft, we’ll do 15 in 2024 and then we’ve scheduled 18 in 2025. We’re increasing volume but incrementally. We’re not going to be building hundreds of boats a year, but we’d like to build a handful of high-quality yachts each year in specific markets around the world.
Our key markets are currently Europe and the US, and it’s about a 50-50 split. We’ve just started in Australia and are looking to develop in the Middle East and Far East. They’re really the key markets.
Like all Pearl models, the 62 features a Bill Dixon exterior
Our current model range starts with the Pearl 62, which has been very popular since we launched it at Boot Dusseldorf in 2020. We just sold hull number 23 in January, so it has been a popular model.
Bill Dixon handles all your exterior design, while Pearl is the only production yacht builder to feature interiors with Kelly Hoppen, who has designed the homes, yachts and jets of many famous clients that have included David and Victoria Beckham. How did a ‘boutique yacht builder’ secure such A-list designers?
We’ve worked with Bill Dixon for about two decades, after Pearl’s current owners took over. Bill is one of the world’s most respected yacht designers and Dixon Yacht Design handles all the exteriors and naval architecture of our yachts, so the handling of our boats is one of our key attractions.
Pearl 62 with Luxury interior by Kelly Hoppen MBE
Kelly gives us spectacular interiors. Like Bill, she’s also from the UK and has made her name as a celebrity designer, working with a lot of celebrities on their residential properties and second homes.
She did a couple of superyachts before we commissioned her about a decade ago. In the yachting field, she now designs exclusively for Pearl and has done the interiors of all our models from the Pearl 75 onwards.
Master suite on the Pearl 72
We started working with Kelly as I thought we needed something different. Before that, the boat industry tended to have variations of the same theme. We went through the high-gloss cherry wood and cream leather phase that every boat builder did for 10 years. Then everybody went to satin walnut and cream carpets, and there was too much of that.
Back then, having an interior designer was seen as quite opulent and a bit nouveau riche, but we asked Kelly to give us a different angle and we’ve become renowned for spectacular interiors. We now have three different styles called Modern, Luxury and Indulgence. The customer can choose any of those schemes in any of our boat models.
Saloon on the Pearl 95
So, you can have Indulgence in the 62 and Luxury in the 95, for instance. Gone are the days when a client must sit down at a boardroom table with 1,000s of samples of materials, which a customer doesn’t really enjoy. The shipyard doesn’t enjoy it. You either end up with exactly what you saw at the boat show or a bit of a mishmash.
This way, the customers get the expertise of a designer interior, but they still have a choice. If they don’t want a light wood interior, there’s an option for a dark wood; if they don’t want a dark wood, there’s an option for a two-tone.
Master suite in the Pearl 95
We find it works well and most customers like the fact that they can select the boat and the interior: ‘I want that boat with that interior’. It’s one of the things we’ve become renowned for.
Considering the Pearl 62’s popularity since 2020, what’s notable about the new Pearl 72, which recently had its European debut at Boot Dusseldorf following its world premiere at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show last October?
One of Pearl’s big attributes is that every new model has unique features – several elements that make it desirable.
The Pearl 62 launched the brand’s new generation of models
Compared to other models in our size ranges, Pearl is renowned for having an extra cabin, an extra feature, a beach club or a garage that nobody else does. This makes customers want to explore further. For instance, the Pearl 62 has four guest cabins plus the option of a crew cabin or a garage, which is unique in that market.
Similarly, the Pearl 72 is the only boat in its segment to have four two-berth guest cabins with en-suite bathrooms.
Pearl 72’s European debut at Boot Dusseldorf 2023
Other models of that size may include a bunk cabin or three heads, but we’ve got four full head-height double or twin cabins, all with en-suites. It also has a proper garage for a Williams SportJet 345 tender, jet-ski and Seabob; there’s no other 70-footer in our market that has a garage like that.
The 72 also has a beach club with a fold-down sofa and wings that drop down to give you extra space on the water.
Aft storage on the Pearl 72
We also have fold-down sides on the Pearl 95, while the upcoming 82 will have dropdown wings on the cockpit level, as opposed to the swim platform.
How else does Pearl differentiate itself from competitors in the very competitive 60-100ft flybridge motor yachts sector?
Apart from the interior and exterior design, and unique features, another element that sets us apart is value for money. We’ve made sure all our boats are competitively priced against competitors, so we have a percentage advantage. Everybody’s prices are up and down like a yoyo, but we’re priced 10 20 per cent less than some of our competitors’ comparable models.
The Pearl 72
There’s also service and warranty. We offer a five-year warranty, which is the industry-leading warranty. People often ask, ‘Why would I buy a Pearl?’ There’s not one thing; there are several key elements and we work hard on all those. It’s the mixture of all those elements that adds the value for the customer. We need to do things differently to pull clients away from these big brands.
You look to be going from strength to strength with the upcoming Pearl 82, set for 2024.
The 82 is actually a really good-looking raised pilothouse design. The exterior may be the hardest challenge. It’s easy to build a boat with lots of volume that looks like a brick. However, try to create an 82-footer with a raised pilothouse and five guest cabins – which nobody else has done on a boat this size – and keep it looking sleek. This comes back to Dixon Yacht Design.
The Pearl 82 will launch in 2024
Its unique features are five guest cabins on an 80-footer including a main-deck master cabin with access out to the forepeak terrace. We’ve also incorporated access to the foredeck from the flybridge, where there’s a side door. The 82 offers full access around the outdoor areas, so the owner can go down from the flybridge to the foredeck, down to the forepeak and into the master cabin, without going through the interior. It’s all part of increasing accessibility around the boat.
We’ve got everything on our 80-footer that other companies have got on 100-footers for twice the price. And it has a garage that can house a tender, jet-ski, Seabobs and so on. Again, we’re trying to give maximum value, however that’s interpreted, to give customers a real reason to come away from the bigger brands. We’re quite confident the Pearl 82 will do that in the same way the 62 and 72 have.
The Pearl 82 includes a main-deck master cabin with forepeak access
We just need to keep doing it. I laugh because we’re starting to develop the next model and at a recent meeting with Bill [Dixon], we asked ourselves, ‘Where do we go now?’ How do we keep on trumping everything that everybody else does? Bill jokes that we may have shot ourselves in the foot because we’ve done everything on the 82, so we have to think about what to do on the next, bigger model. We’ll find something; we keep coming up with ideas.
How are sales of the Pearl 95, your flagship?
We’ve recently delivered number five and number six is being built. We’re doing just over one a year. In honesty, I’d like to do more, even up to two a year. The Pearl 95 is a really good-value 30m boat with a lot of attributes, although we can’t build dozens of them because we’ve got different production lines for the other new models. Sales are consistent for that size.
The Pearl 95 remains the brand’s flagship
It has become competitive in that size range. When we launched the 95, it was quite a unique design with a beach club and main-deck master, but since then, quite a lot of our competitors have added new models, which has made it more competitive.