Tilli Antonelli of Wider Yachts.
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.