Life Lessons: Paul Grange on yacht sales
Co-founder and Director of Azimut dealer Marine Italia, Paul Grange has spent almost three decades in yacht sales. In a Column for Yacht Style Issue 57, the Brit offers insights into the sales process, differences between European and Asian boating cultures, the benefits of technology for buyers and sellers, and why it’s sometimes worth setting two alarms …
I’ve been around boats since growing up on England’s south coast in Poole, a hugely popular boating area that has one of the world’s largest natural harbours and is the home of Sunseeker. When I was 18, my friends and I bought an old 16ft ski boat and during our first summer with it we proceeded to run aground on every sandbank in Poole Harbour!
The following year I went out on my first Sunseeker, a Tomahawk 37, which was being tested by my friend Sean Robertson (Sunseeker’s current Sales Director who has been with the company since 1986). At the same time, my father bought himself a 29ft sailing boat, so my passion for boating just grew.
In 1990, I was a young assistant manager selling unexciting building materials when my boss urged me to develop a career in something that interested me. I took his advice and followed up on a university course I saw advertised in a boating magazine. Eight weeks later, I’d left my job and was at Southampton University studying the water-based leisure industry and have been in the yachting world ever since.
I was initially focused on working in marinas, but knowing I wanted to be my own boss, I realised owning a boat sales business was more likely than owning a marina!
After a work placement in Salterns Marina, I started as a yacht broker in Poole in 1992, working for Tony Pauffley. Tony is the most upstanding yacht broker you could meet and taught me the importance of accurate information, attention to detail, honest advice and paperwork. In three years, Tony and I sold over 200 boats from Cobbs Quay Marina, and I learnt something new from every single negotiation, contract, survey and handover.
As such, I already had great sales experience by the time I joined Sunseeker Sales UK in 1995. Harry Dodd, my boss, taught me a lot including the importance of setting two alarms when your boss is flying you in his private plane to meet a client to sign a new boat order. I was still asleep when he took off without me!
This incident was made worse because Harry didn’t know the details of the deal, the client or even where to meet – just which airport to fly to. Very sheepishly, I later did my part over the phone and the client purchased the boat as planned. However, as I wasn’t there to complete the sale in person, Harry kept that sale for himself, so that ‘lie-in’ turned out to be an expensive lesson.
In 1999, I fulfilled my initial career goal and opened my own brokerage, Grange International, a company that I eventually sold after I moved to Hong Kong in 2012 to join Simpson Marine.
BRIDGING EUROPE AND ASIA
Harry was the one who taught me to “ask for the order”. It sounds obvious, but you’d be amazed how often a salesperson doesn’t actually ask the client if they’d like to order the boat. Having managed international, multi-office sales teams in Europe and Asia, it’s an approach I’ve employed many times,
but in Asia, it can sometimes be difficult to convince local sales teams of this.
At the Shenzhen International Boat Show in 2014, I was helping one of our newer Chinese sales staff with a client interested in a new Azimut. The client was asking detailed questions about the purchase process, payment, handover and if we could fit additional equipment to the boat. To me, it was clear the client wanted to buy the boat, so I advised the salesman to ask: “If I can agree to the terms you’ve requested, will you sign a contract and pay a deposit for the boat today?”
The salesman point blank refused to say it, explaining it was rude in Chinese culture to be so direct with a client. I explained we were just trying to help the client buy the boat. I then told the salesman that if he didn’t ask, I would. Reluctantly, he asked the client. After a brief pause, the client said yes and signed the contract on the spot. The salesman was absolutely stunned.
While in Asia, I’ve tried to be mindful of the cultural differences and one of the most interesting aspects of moving here was having to re-learn many aspects of how to do my job effectively in a completely new arena.
If I were to generalise differences in boating cultures, I’d say European clients are often more concerned with the technical operation and useability as many operate the boats themselves, with captains much less common on boats under 80ft.
In Asia, they might be more focused on how suitable and flexible the configuration might be for family use one day then corporate entertainment the next, rather than the technical details.
In addition, it’s more common in Europe to enjoy weekend and longer holidays aboard. In Hong Kong, even if owners do stay overnight, it’s not often for extended periods, so there’s often less importance placed on cabins, for example.
REPUTATIONS AND RELATIONSHIPS
In the Asian markets I’ve operated in, reputation is hugely important and normally well earned, whether good or bad. Even between mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore, clients often have common connections, so having a professional reputation and simply keeping your word are crucial to ongoing success.
The level of attention and responsiveness are also especially important to local clients. They’re usually busy business owners and boating is often a small part of their lives, so they want and expect prompt, knowledgeable and efficient service (but then I guess we all do!).
After nearly three decades as a salesman, manager, company director and company owner, I can honestly say the level of attention and customer service that my business partner Thomas Woo provides to our clients is second to none. Thomas and I joined forces in 2015 to form Marine Italia and knew from our previous joint Azimut projects that we worked very well together and that our different styles complemented each other.
My style is very client focused and detailed, but Thomas is another level and he also has extensive technical knowledge. He builds fantastic relationships and client loyalty, which I’ve learnt can often make the difference in a close-knit, competitive market like Hong Kong.
Having such confidence in your business partner is a luxury that enables me to focus more on other aspects of the business. These include our relationship with Azimut, which is important for both parties as we are their largest dealer in Asia and among their most successful worldwide.
I’ve managed manufacturer-dealer relationships with leading brands such as Sunseeker and Azimut since 1995 and it’s one of my strengths. As Azimut dealers, we sometimes need their support and sometimes they need extra help from us. Understanding that it’s a two-way street is key to getting the best out of the relationship, which translates to better business for both parties.
If I had to highlight one element that determines success in this industry, it would be relationships. As the yachting industry is relatively small, relationships are more relevant than in much larger industries and strong connections can help you ride the waves.
AFTER-SALES AND DIGITALISATION
In terms of winning new business and retaining clients, I also can’t overstate the importance of after-sales support. In Hong Kong, we operate our own full-service shipyard company, Marinetec, so we can control the level and speed of our service.
In my opinion, second only to the actual choice of boat, after-sales service has the biggest impact – both positively and negatively – on a client’s ownership enjoyment. It can lead to repeat custom and good or bad referrals, all of which are crucial.
For me, the overall sales and purchase process hasn’t changed that much since I started selling boats in 1992. I still show clients boats and brochures, discuss their requirements and help them choose the right boat for their needs.
However, the boats have got bigger and communication is now more digital. In fact, with the quality of 360-degree photography and walk-through videos, modern technology has made it very possible for dealers to sell a boat without the client seeing it in person.
The super-realistic quality of digital renderings of pre-production models make it easier for clients to understand and appreciate new models before they’re built, giving them the confidence to order without waiting. We use these technologies to assist our clients whenever possible.
Recently, in times of travel restrictions, Azimut’s online lounge and digital boat shows have proved effective resources for both clients and us. In the last three months of 2020, we sold new models in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan and Singapore exclusively by using digital marketing tools.
You have to learn to adapt. When the protests affected Hong Kong in 2019, we saw a drop in sales as the local business community waited to see what was going to happen. Then when Covid started, I feared the combined effect of this and the protests would impact the yachting industry to the same extent the financial crisis had on the US and European markets in 2008.
I was working in Europe when the financial crisis hit and couldn’t believe how quickly and extensively new boat sales were affected. I learnt then that in difficult times, boats are the first thing that people stop buying and the last thing they start buying again when times improve, as they are a luxury.
Fortunately, my worst fears were allayed and by March and April travel restrictions created a huge surge in demand for boats in Hong Kong. Ultimately, 2020 proved to be one of our most successful years and 2021 looks equally exciting, so it shows that no matter how much experience you have, you never stop learning.
With business partner Thomas Woo, Grange is a Director and cofounder of Marine Italia Ltd, Asia’s leading Azimut Yachts dealer, covering Hong Kong, Macau, southern China, Taiwan and Singapore. Grange and Woo also represent Absolute Yachts and Four Winns, and operate their own independent shipyard, Marinetec Ltd, in Hong Kong. Grange was formerly Head of Azimut Yachts for Simpson Marine (2012-2015), having started his boat sales career in the UK in 1992.