Peo­ple

Tilli Antonelli of Wider Yachts.

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Tilli Antonelli, founder and CEO of Wider Yachts – whose 150 Genesi is set to be­come one of the stars of this year’s Monaco Yacht Show (see page 24) – got the en­tre­pre­neur­ial bug early in life. It was af­ter spending his early work­ing life un­der sail com­pet­ing in var­i­ous yacht races that he de­cided, un­equiv­o­cally, that: “I didn’t want to be a skip­per all my life.” That de­ci­sion was helped, no doubt, by ex­pe­ri­enc­ing the 1979 Fast­net Race, a night that lives long in the mem­o­ries of Bri­tish sailors, when 18 per­ished in the Au­gust gale that bat­tered the big boats of the fleet, in­spir­ing the big­gest mar­itime res­cue effort since Dunkirk. “It was cold and it was tough, but we didn’t break any­thing,” is how Tilli puts it, phleg­mat­i­cally.

He’s al­ways been a son of the sea. Born in Ravenna – “ten kilo­me­tres from the sea now, but it was a port in Ro­man times” – the lure of the water was never far away. “I re­mem­ber when I was a young kid I was walk­ing on a win­ter’s day with the fam­ily by some big wooden fish­ing boats tied up in the port. I ran over and pushed one, and it moved. It re­ally caught my imag­i­na­tion,” he says.

While that imag­i­na­tion drove him to sea ini­tially, it was a busi­ness brain that was work­ing on­shore. A few months at the Cantieri del Sole ship­yard was enough for Tilli to learn what could be achieved and what could be done bet­ter, and in 1981 he and two friends that he’d met at Cantieri del Sole started a ship­yard that would later morph into Per­sh­ing. “We had a good set of skills be­tween us. I had a lot of ex­pe­ri­ence of sail­ing, while one of my friends was a good draughts­man and the other a good tech­ni­cian,” he says. Tilli ad­mits he was at the age when he had “noth­ing to lose”, but for his two col­leagues it wasn’t so sim­ple – they were just mar­ried and had fam­ily to consider – and he pays trib­ute to them for hav­ing the vi­sion to grasp the en­tre­pre­neur­ial net­tle.

“Be­fore they would come with me, they wanted to see ev­i­dence of a cus­tomer. We found one client who was build­ing a 50ft wooden schooner in an­other ship­yard. That ship­yard was not able to finalise the build, so we made a con­tract to fin­ish it. We signed it in his lawyer’s of­fice, and he gave us a 20 mil­lion lira down pay­ment. With that money we went off to rent a shed and to buy ma­te­ri­als!”

Which­ever way you look at it, this was an ag­gres­sive de­ci­sion to start a yard af­ter only a few months in what was ef­fec­tively a new in­dus­try, and to de­cide that he could do bet­ter. “There is noth­ing wrong with quick de­ci­sions. If you think about it too much, there is some­thing wrong. I met the lady who was to be­come my wife at the end of Novem­ber, and we were mar­ried in Fe­bru­ary. We have been to­gether 35 years. What’s the point in wait­ing?” he says.

Cantiere Navale dell’adri­atico opened in 1981 build­ing wooden sail­ing boats and of­fer­ing re­fits. The first Per­sh­ing came along in 1985, an open 45-footer that set some­thing of a tem­plate for Tilli’s ca­reer: it dared to be dif­fer­ent. “It was some­thing very in­no­va­tive at the time. Open yachts were noisy and had lit­tle cabin space. We had room for three dou­ble cab­ins and three bath­rooms,” he says.

The brand was an im­me­di­ate suc­cess and the yachts started to grow. In 1998 the Fer­retti Group put in a bid. “At the time, a lot of au­to­mo­tive com­pa­nies were join­ing to­gether and the Fer­retti Group was strong,” Tilli says, so in 1999 Per­sh­ing joined the Fer­retti fam­ily. It was a de­ci­sion that was vin­di­cated as in less than a decade Per­sh­ing went from turn­ing over $10 mil­lion per year to $200 mil­lion.

Things would prob­a­bly have con­tin­ued swim­mingly if it wasn’t for the small mat­ter of a global fi­nan­cial cri­sis. “I wasn’t per­son­ally happy with the pol­icy of the banks at that time, and in Fe­bru­ary 2010 I put in a per­sonal bid to

buy out the Per­sh­ing yard,” he says. “They thought about it for a month be­fore telling me that they wanted to keep the Per­sh­ing brand. So at that point I left.”

Less than a month later, Wider Yachts was born. “I could have made a copy of the Per­sh­ing, but what cred­i­bil­ity would it have had? It wasn’t a good idea to im­i­tate. The mar­ket con­di­tions were tough, so it would have to be smaller. I also wanted to cre­ate some­thing that hadn’t been seen be­fore. This is how the Wider con­cept came about – a yacht that gets wider!” Tilli says. The com­pany started with just Tilli and Paolo Fav­illa, former CEO of Per­sh­ing – “I sold him the idea of the con­cept, and he joined me in Wider. I held 70% of the com­pany and he held 30%.” The Wider 42 was cer­tainly an eye-catch­ing sight at boat shows, with mid sec­tions that open the beam of the boat to cre­ate a unique day­boat-cumwa­ter­sports plat­form. It also caught the eye of a Malaysian yachts­man and busi­ness­man, who was soon to come on board as an in­vestor.

An en­thu­si­ast for the Wider 42, Tan Sri Lim Kok Thay had met with Tilli and dis­cussed Tilli’s plans for the great leap for­ward that was to be­come the 150 diesel-elec­tric Genesi. “He was in­ter­ested in be­com­ing a share­holder, so we flew to Kuala Lumpor to dis­cuss things. He was very pas­sion­ate about water­sports and loved the 42, and he re­sponded very pos­i­tively to the de­signs of the 150. He loved the lines and the diesel-elec­tric propul­sion.” In fact, he liked the ideas so much that he ended up tak­ing 50% of the com­pany. That gave Wider the im­pe­tus it needed to get started on the 150 for the new in­vestor. De­signed by Ful­vio De Si­moni (who also de­signed the Per­sh­ing 45 in 1985) and the Wider team, the 150 was cre­ated around the guid­ing phi­los­o­phy of a yacht for an owner who de­sires large out­door spa­ces and yet de­mands the in­door com­forts of home, and an in­no­va­tive engi­neer­ing pack­age. It also gave rise to a big­ger sis­ter. “Dur­ing the 150’s build, the owner would call me and say, ‘Tilli, I want a sub­ma­rine on board.’ The next thing he wanted was a heli­copter land­ing space. I told him that these things wouldn’t work on the 150 plat­form, so there was only one so­lu­tion: we cre­ated the 165!” says Tilli. The build of the 165 is now pro­gress­ing well, and she is due to be launched in 2017, while the 150 is now for sale.

Owner driven or not, that leap from a 42ft day­boat to full su­pery­acht sta­tus, miss­ing out all the de­vel­op­ment steps in the mid­dle, is one of the punchier ex­am­ples of yacht build­ing in re­cent years. “To be hon­est, the 42 isn’t a huge com­mer­cial suc­cess, but it was a won­der­ful thing to set the tone for the com­pany. Our aim was al­ways to build the big yachts. The 42 was the per­fect way to cre­ate a brand name.”

The key el­e­ments of the 150 were sim­ple: “all alu­minium, en­gine­room for­ward, and a plumb bow”. “Ini­tially,” says Tilli, “the plan was to cre­ate the 150 in com­pos­ite, but alu­minium was a much bet­ter choice when we started to de­velop the project. It saved us a year in creat­ing the moulds and plugs.” Wider su­pery­achts are built in An­cona, a fa­cil­ity it oc­cu­pied once the or­der for the 150 came in. Wider’s fu­ture plans in­clude a 125 and a 220.

“The one bad thing about my job is that there is no time, and what time there is, is run­ning out! It’s a re­gret that I didn’t get my fam­ily out sail­ing at an early age. I wish I could sail more. I like to spend my time on a boat but at the mo­ment I sail once a year. At least I had that time on the water when I was younger, and I sailed the world. It was a kind of free­dom, and I am very glad of it. I’d like to own a big sail­ing yacht my­self, but I will have to sell some more boats first!” You wouldn’t put it past Tilli to be on his big yacht sooner rather than later. SYW

“It was a WON­DER­FUL thing to set the tone for the yard”

Right: Tilli Antonelli: in­no­va­tion is key. Above: The Wider 150 Genesi on the water. In­set, top right: Tilli sail­ing with Raul Gar­dini in 1974.

Top left: The as­ton­ish­ing Wider 42, with its open­ing mid sec­tion. Above left: Where it all started – a Per­sh­ing 45. Top right: Tilli has plans for fur­ther yachts up and down the Wider range.

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