‘We’re not in busi­ness just to keep our peo­ple busy’

The new boss of Oys­ter Yachts bought the boat­builder on a whim but is de­ter­mined to sail a new course, dis­cov­ers Alan Tovey

The Sunday Telegraph - Money & Business - - Business - Richard Ha­dida

Most big busi­ness de­ci­sions are made af­ter long and care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, rather than on a whim. None­the­less, it was heart rather than head that drove soft­ware en­tre­pre­neur Richard Ha­dida to buy Oys­ter Yachts, the lux­ury boat­builder af­ter it went into ad­min­is­tra­tion in Fe­bru­ary.

“I was on hol­i­day at a friend’s apart­ment in Cape Town and saw that Oys­ter had col­lapsed. I thought, ‘That’s my destiny’,” says Ha­dida, sit­ting on a sofa in the com­pany’s wa­ter­side of­fices in Southamp­ton. “It’s a ter­ri­ble cliché but I felt it was my call­ing.”

While a spur-of-the-mo­ment de­ci­sion, there’s a big­ger story be­hind the deal. Ha­dida, 53, wasn’t just some land­lub­ber. He sailed in his youth and got back into it al­most 20 years ago, gain­ing his skip­per’s li­cence so he could char­ter a boat to ar­rive in style at a fam­ily wed­ding on a Greek is­land.

“I’d got the idea it would be fun to go in a yacht,” re­calls the softly spo­ken Ha­dida. “Dawn was break­ing as we ar­rived in Les­bos; it was a spe­cial mo­ment.”

A young fam­ily forced him to take an­other break from sail­ing but he got back out on the water about five years ago, char­ter­ing Oys­ter yachts in the Caribbean. Through this he be­came friendly with ex-for­mula 1 team owner Ed­die Jordan, also a keen sailor. “We’d talked about buy­ing a boat to­gether,” Ha­dida says. “In fact, I was at Ed­die’s apart­ment when I heard about Oys­ter and de­cided to buy it.”

Fund­ing for the deal came from Ha­dida’s stake in Evo­lu­tion Gam­ing, which pro­duces live-ac­tion gam­bling for cus­tomers such as Wil­liam Hill.

“High-stakes gam­blers don’t want a com­puter telling them they’ve lost, they want to see a real ball bounc­ing around a roulette wheel,” Ha­dida says, adding that Evo­lu­tion is “a proper uni­corn”. It now em­ploys more than 5,000 staff and is worth more than £2bn. “Evo­lu­tion’s given me the pock­ets to do this,” he says mo­tion­ing around the of­fice.

Oys­ter had been founder­ing for some time be­fore col­laps­ing. De­spite a record £70m or­der book, it had barely made a profit on steady annual rev­enues of about £40m.

Things were com­pli­cated by the loss of the Polina Star III in 2015. The al­most-new 82ft Oys­ter yacht, sank off Spain af­ter los­ing its keel. No one died but it raised ques­tions about the com­pany’s rep­u­ta­tion for build­ing “go-any­where” ves­sels. A le­gal bat­tle fol­lowed, and Oys­ter took a £5.2m hit as a re­sult of the in­ci­dent, drag­ging it to a £7.4m annual loss.

“Polina Star was one of the nails in Oys­ter’s cof­fin,” says Ha­dida. The sink­ing is the sub­ject of a le­gal dis­pute but not some­thing linked with the new owner, whose lawyers made sure he bought only “the brand, the as­sets, and the good­will”.

Ha­dida also ac­quired the busi­ness which makes Oys­ter yachts’ hulls.

“Polina Star should have never of hap­pened, no ques­tion,” says Ha­dida, who now has ev­ery part of the hull-mak­ing cer­ti­fied by Lloyds.

“It was some­thing I needed to do, not just for Oys­ter, but for me to sleep at night.”

While the sink­ing gen­er­ated em­bar­rass­ing head­lines, the real trou­ble was that Oys­ter was loss­mak­ing. Ha­dida says un­der his own­er­ship, prices will rise and ef­fi­cien­cies will be made.

“Boat­build­ing is a tricky busi­ness to make a suc­cess of. You have to build it on strong fi­nan­cial ground­ing,” he says.

“It’s easy to slip into dis­count­ing to get the deal but you have to stand up and say, ‘These are the prices be­cause I need to make a profit. If you won’t buy them I won’t build them’. We are not in the busi­ness of just keep­ing peo­ple busy.”

The com­pany cur­rently builds about 16 yachts a year rang­ing from 45ft to 120ft. The largest can take sev­eral years to fin­ish. Ha­dida wants to cut that through more ef­fi­cient con­struc­tion, and is con­sid­er­ing in­tro­duc­ing a smaller ves­sel “to bring more peo­ple into the Oys­ter fam­ily”. At £1.4m for the en­try-level – al­beit be­spoke – yacht, he ad­mits it’s an ex­clu­sive club.

He leads a tour of the boat shed, where Oys­ter pro­duces its larger ves­sels. The smaller mod­els are made in Nor­folk, along with the hulls, which are driven to Southamp­ton for fit­ting out of the larger ves­sels.

Ha­dida scam­pers over the decks of yachts in var­i­ous stages of con­struc­tion, greet­ing staff, ex­am­in­ing work and point­ing out de­sign fea­tures.

He’s par­tic­u­larly keen on the aft state­room’s large win­dows.

“Ly­ing in bed you’re look­ing out at water level,” he says. “When you’re un­der way and the yacht heels over, the win­dows on one side are un­der­wa­ter. You can see dolphins swim­ming along­side – it’s mag­i­cal.”

Back in the of­fice, Ha­dida sets out his busi­ness plan, but cheer­fully ad­mits he “knows noth­ing about boat­build­ing”. He’s clear about what he brings to the busi­ness. “Money,” he says bluntly. “It’s ex­pen­sive do­ing this. But I also bring pure pas­sion, I know how to doggedly and re­lent­lessly make things hap­pen.

“And as a yachts­man, I know what cus­tomers want.”

He’s gath­ered a board which in­cludes Ash­ley High­field, the for­mer boss of John­ston Press. “If any­one can run a lean busi­ness, it’s him,” says Ha­dida. Other di­rec­tors in­clude in­vest­ment banker Ivan Ri­tossa, yacht de­signer Rob Humphreys and Ed­die Jordan. Ha­dida won’t be drawn on how much he paid, turn­ing the ques­tion around. “It was sub­stan­tial. How much do you think?” he asks.

Tele­graph’s guess that he is likely to spend “tens of mil­lions” over the first few years isn’t tor­pe­doed.

The pur­chase caused tough con­ver­sa­tions with cus­tomers whose yachts were be­ing built. Ha­dida wouldn’t buy their con­tracts as they were not prof­itable.

“Oys­ter own­ers tend to be suc­cess­ful busi­ness­peo­ple so they un­der­stood we have to make money to sur­vive, so we rene­go­ti­ated,” Ha­dida says. There’s spec­u­la­tion he may be get­ting a new, larger yacht of his own in the form of the or­phaned ves­sel from the cus­tomer who didn’t rene­go­ti­ate.

The en­tre­pre­neur’s for­tune puts him in the “lucky” po­si­tion of not hav­ing to make money from the get-go. “If I have to run it at breakeven for­ever I will do,” he says.

“But I can­not be­lieve that will hap­pen with the build­ing blocks I’m putting in place. Who knows what we can do?” It’s a bold am­bi­tion, one that stems from his youth. Ha­dida re­calls drop­ping out of school aged 17. “My fa­ther and three of his old­est friends took me to see the cricket,” he says. “They were all en­trepreneurs and had risen to the top of their fields. One of them said, ‘Look at us, we’re mil­lion­aires and haven’t got an A-level be­tween us.’ I dropped out the next day with the idea of be­com­ing an en­tre­pre­neur.”

Ha­dida says his hero is Ho­ra­tio Nel­son. He’s amassed one of the largest col­lec­tions of mem­o­ra­bilia of the leg­endary sailor out­side the Na­tional Mar­itime Mu­seum. It in­cludes the watch Nel­son had on him when he died on HMS Vic­tory at the Bat­tle of Trafal­gar, as well as a piece of the ship’s flag.

“The flag’s in­cred­i­ble,” he says of the arte­fact. “It’s got mus­ket ball holes in it, it’s a real piece of history.”

Nel­son has been an in­spi­ra­tion. Know­ing pieces of his col­lec­tion were han­dled by the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure have “helped get me get through some tough times”, Ha­dida says.

Sail­ing is an­other link he feels with Nel­son. “You can sail round An­tigua to­day and know that’s the same way Nel­son trav­elled around,” he adds.

“That’s the thing about sail­ing,” Ha­dida says. “It’s ro­man­tic, the orig­i­nal form of world trans­porta­tion. It can take you any­where in the world. You get in your Oys­ter and you could go any­where in the world. That’s ex­cit­ing. We’re build­ing ad­ven­ture ma­chines.”

Get­ting Oys­ter back into shape is cer­tainly go­ing to be an ad­ven­ture.

‘Boat­build­ing is a tricky busi­ness to make a suc­cess of. You have to build it on strong fi­nan­cial ground­ing’

Richard Ha­dida bought Oys­ter Yachts out of ad­min­is­tra­tion and although the soft­ware en­tre­pre­neur ad­mits he is no boat­builder, sail­ing is in his blood

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