Sunseeker 95
  • Telegraph
  • Business

There’s someone at Sunseeker whose job it is to go round replacing the many flags which dot the yacht builder’s Poole sites, and flap in the brisk wind coming off the Channel.

“I hate seeing any ripped flags,” says chief executive Phil Popham. “It’s a bone of contention. I hate seeing anything that is ripped.”

It’s a detail but this change encapsulates the turnaround of the business which was founded almost 50 years ago. Popham was brought in three years ago, not long after Chinese property and entertainment conglomerate Wanda Dalian purchased a 95pc stake in Sunseeker for more than £300m.

Popham, who came from Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) where he had been group marketing director, is far too astute to say it, but what he found was a company whose finances were in a mess with staff demoralised after a round of redundancies. Like the flags, Sunseeker had been beaten down by the market.

“The company had made a significant loss on a turnover of about £200m,” says Popham. Sunseeker, whose vessels start at £650,000 and go up to £20m-plus, had been hit hard by the financial crisis. “The market was 70pc down. It’s hard for anyone to paddle through that, if you’ll excuse the pun.”

A Sunseeker 95 yacht, which sits in the middle of the company’s range

Waterline Media

When your customers are high and ultra high net worth individuals “you’re insulated to an extent from downturns” says Popham, “but this was something of the likes not seen before”.

Very quickly Popham developed a strategy to get Sunseeker “back on an even keel” – he smiles at another nautical pun. Cash, working capital to run business and funding were top of the list.

Suppliers were hesitant about doing business with Sunseeker, fearing it might go under, an embarrassing position for such a prestigious brand.

“We were paying some suppliers on a pro forma basis. When you’ve got a 12 week to 13 month build time you can’t have that,” Popham recalls. “Working capital was funding past losses in some cases.”

Falling back on his motor industry past, where decisions are data driven and cars are on a seven or eight-year planning cycle, Popham said he “had no shame in copying and pasting what I knew worked JLR”.

Having brought in a chief financial officer from Bombardier – “together we had done planes, trains and automobiles”, says Popham – the pair worked with suppliers to give them some certainty Sunseeker wasn’t about to sink, allowing better deals and payment terms to be negotiated. The better structured business also meant the practice of selling boats at discount just to get desperately needed cash into the business could also be ended.

Joanna Lumley opens the Sunseeker stand at theLondon boat show

Joanna Lumley opens the Sunseeker stand at the London boat show

Eddie Mulholland

A three-year turnaround plan borrowed from the “discipline of the motor industry” was thrashed out and Popham had the tricky job of asking to guarantee bank loans to fund new models and improving facilities. “We’ve got strong and supportive owners,” says Popham.

An examination of how boats were constructed to find efficiencies also helped. “We looked at the order we built things and are now going for a zero-tolerance approach,” says Popham. “Building modules that we can drop into the hull speeds things up.”

The strategy worked and on revenues of £252m, Sunseeker reported earnings of £6m for 2016, reversing the previous year when it was £7m in the red on the same measure.

“Our three-year turnaround plan has now become a five-year growth strategy,” says Popham, adding that the company is now sitting on its strongest ever order book: 2017 production is sold out, about 80pc of 2018’s is nailed down, and almost a third of the following year is spoken for.

What attracts Sunseeker’s customers is the yacht’s “distinctive DNA” says Popham. “You know it’s a Sunseeker, the look of the floor to ceiling windows graphics, performance and craftsmanship.”

But as the company’s vessels have got bigger – it’s now built more than 120 vessels more than 100ft in length and claims to be the world’s biggest producer of yachts over 85ft – they have moved away from the focus on performance that the founder Robert Braithwaite had.

Phil Popham on the bridge of a Sunseeker yacht

At the controls: Phil Popham on the bridge of a Sunseeker yacht

“In the early days, Sunseeker was all about small performance boats, doing 50, 70 knots,” says Popham. “After a good day at sea in St Tropez, having a Sunseeker meant you were the first one back to shore to get the best seat in the restaurant.”

But the move up in size naturally slowed Sunseeker’s yachts down: costs rise exponentially to get such high speeds out of big, heavy yachts.

However, the growth strategy means that Sunseeker is looking to its past to define its future, with a return to smaller yachts. “Not smaller and cheaper,” says Popham. “But more performance focused.”

There’s going to be expansion at the other end of the scale, too. Sunseeker’s brand is such that customers often “walk up” range, loyally staying with the company as they order new boats until they hit the current limit of 155ft.

“The limitation for us is how big can we build yachts out of glass reinforced plastic?” says Popham. “We need to go into steel and aluminium and we need to bring in expertise for that. The question is do we do it alone or do it with a partner?”

The company is currently investing more than £30m in new products and entering this “megayacht” territory will require more support from Wanda.

However, Popham is confident it will happen: “We know we want to go there, we know we can make it work. I haven’t got the answers yet of how we will. We know we’ve got customers who are willing to support it.”

And who are the customers who buy Sunseeker’s products? “It’s not an easy answer,” cautions Popham. It boils down to people who he says “are clearly affluent, this is a 100pc discretionary purchase”. If there’s one common characteristic, it’s that Sunseeker owners “are not a flamboyant group. They are self-made, successful and discerning. They are rewarding their success.”

Sunseeker 155 yacht

The largest yacht Sunseeker has so far built is 155ft – but the company now wants to go bigger

One of the most pleasurable aspects of Popham’s job is helping prospective owners specify exactly what they want in their vessel. “It’s an emotional purchase. Deciding how they want it to look is not an hour’s job, it’s a day’s job,” he says. “We get to know those people and build a relationship with them.”

But some need to be reminded that they are buying a boat – and that comes with limitations. “The thing people sometimes don’t realise is that boats float,” he says. “If you want a feature that’s heavy, unless you can find something that balances it, pretty soon you are putting in unnecessary weight to balance it.”

The company says no to clients’ plans “quite often” Popham says, but the real skill is steering them in a particular direction of what is possible. Solid marble may be out but lightweight honeycomb marble isn’t.

Discussing the pros and cons of multi-million pound yachts might seem a long way from shifting Jaguars and Land Rovers, but Popham says it is fate that saw him land at Sunseeker.

marina in Puerto Banus, Spain

Phil Popham got a call about taking on the Sunseeker job after looking at one of the company’s yachts in the marina in Puerto Banus, Spain


In August 2014, he was on holiday in Puerto Banus, Spain. “I was in the marina and took a photo of a Range Rover next to a Sunseeker yacht,” he says. “The yacht was called This Time Next Year and I sent it to a mate because we had a small portfolio of shares and we’d joked that when we made our fortune we’d buy a Sunseeker – something we’d been saying for years.

“Later that afternoon, I was still in Puerto Banus, and I got a call from a headhunter asking if I was interested in taking on a job at Sunseeker.”

Popham said he’d told his previous boss, Ralf Speth, that he wanted to run a company. However, with the JLR chief showing no signs of moving on, and Popham likely to be facing off against what he describes as “very hard hitters”, getting the job running the £24bn a year company was far from a certainty.

He knew what he was looking for. “It would have to be premium, British would be nice, something I would aspire to, and be challenging,” Popham says. “Sunseeker had all the same disciplines as JLR, and in terms of brand presence despite being much smaller financially, it was right up there. I wasn’t quite aware what the financials were, though.”

However, Sunseeker’s relatively small size means the new chief executive has made it easier to stamp his personality on the business.

“We’ve built up a culture here from a time when morale was low, there was no investment, and we were making losses,” he says. “Now we’ve got staff proud to wear their branded workwear in Poole’s pubs.”

“It’s a big change.”

A sea change for Sunseeker, even – as evidenced by the new pristine flags blowing in the wind.


  • China Watch: lab students




  • From Lee McQueen to Alana Spencer: where are the Apprentice candidates now?


  • Business latest

  • Aeroplane


  • Nissan factory in Sunderland

  • Trump

    Roger Bootle


    Roger Bootle

  • Ether


  • Angela Merkel

    Liam Halligan


    Liam Halligan

  • Engineer in control room of nuclear power station


  • Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban

  • Businesses are planning to get around new rules limiting credit card fees


  • Goldman Sachs

  • Google logo

  • Dow Jones

    Jeremy Warner


    Jeremy Warner

  • Markets


  • Jeremy Corbyn

    Ben Marlow


    Ben Marlow

  • John Cryan

  • Cambridge

  • Blue Planet II

    Haakon Overli


  • Donuts


  • Russian President Vladimir Putin is welcomed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in the Hungarian parliament building of Budapest in February 2017


  • Water


  • Wall Street


  • Shares


  • Please support us by disabling your adblocker

    We’ve noticed you’re adblocking.

    We rely on advertising to help fund our award-winning journalism.

    We urge you to turn off your ad blocker for The Telegraph website so that you can continue to access our quality content in the future.

    Thank you for your support.

    Need help?

    Click here for instructions