If starting at the bottom really is the best grounding for someone who wants to make headway in an industry, Marcello Maggi has better foundations than most. These days, the co-founder and director of sales and marketing heads International Shipyards Ancona, a company of 500 people, but in 1986 he was, in a very literal sense, at the bottom, staring up at the hull of a yacht in the CRN yard in Ancona. “I was a poor student, studying economics and I offered to do some exterior cleaning jobs for the yard. I was only paid in small tips, but I was passionate about superyachts. CRN’s 30-metre yachts were the biggest on the water then. They were Ferrari Maranellos – the icons of the city!”

Marcello Maggi

Marcello Maggi

The young economist and boat cleaner could have taken a position in his father’s successful furniture export business after graduating, but the pull of the shipyard was strong. “I got more involved there. At one point I heard someone at CRN asking for a driver with a Mercedes who can speak German. I can speak German and I thought, ‘My father has a nice Mercedes’, so I put myself forward. My father found out about it when the car wasn’t in the garage! But in this way I started to develop a good relationship with customers of the yard. ”

The knowledge base continued to grow. Marcello spent five years in CRN’s refits depart – “my real university”, he calls it. “It was a true learning curve. There were very good people on the floor, very good maestros. I learned so much about what worked and what didn’t work. I learned about customers, crews, and managing a team.”

There was a dream, though, that was to become International Shipyards Ancona. “I had always played with the idea that one day I would open a shipyard and I talked about this with a few colleagues of mine who also have this disease of being addicted to the fumes of welding. When CRN became part of the Ferretti Group, I thought very hard about my career. I was very happy in charge of a big part of a multi-million-pound business, but I was 36 and thinking ‘what’s next?’ Did I want to stay as a ‘great white collar’ in a big company or start something for myself? This was the spark for ISA.”

Together with three other former managers from CRN, ISA was born in 2000. “We could see a possibility. Just a group of us in an apartment in Ancona and a blank sheet of paper, and that was how it started,” says Marcello. But, of course, there was a steely determination. “Half of our finance came from Gerard Rodriguez, who knew us very well. The Rodrigues Group was the ideal partner. Out business plan was to build three 47-metres, but we started without a client,” he says. It was a risk that paid off handsomely. “We were lucky enough to sell the first – April Fool – and the second followed, with the third soon after. I will always be eternally grateful to April Fool’s owner for giving us the energy to get ISA really started.”

Alexandar V

Alexandar V

At that launch of the first yacht in 2003 it was also a time for reflection: “I only realised what we had done at that moment. There were 2,000 people there, about 90% of whom were workers and their families. It made me realise what a responsibility we had. And all this from just a few friends with a crazy idea in an Ancona apartment! It was an amazing and touching moment.”

To date, 28 yachts have been delivered, and in a little over a decade ISA has reached the top table of superyacht builders. These days, Marcello’s main duties are on the international sales side but he is still regularly at the yard, as are his fellow founders Gianluca Fenucci, Daniele Sochi and Antonio Longobardi. “There are not many yards where the founders still have a day-to-day involvement,” he says.

By 2006, the Rodriguez stake was sold to the Yachting Investors Group, a London-based fund set up to invest in the superyacht sector. “We were growing pretty fast and the business needed some industrial planning. It perhaps didn’t suit a commercial company. We needed some guidance on making the business operate at a higher level, while preserving the skills of the artisans we have here,” he says.

He is very much involved with the Yachting Investors Group today as a board member, though it currently has no other superyacht interests, which reflects both how the market has changed since the heady days of 2006 and also how it has been canny with its resources. “The Yachting Investors Group enabled us to have the financial tools to make ISA strong – we have maintained our credit lines throughout the crisis. They are good financially and organisationally, and we know this market; it’s a perfect combination. The Yachting Investors Group has been perfect for helping us to move into second gear,” Marcello says.

The economic downturn brought with it a fresh challenge, which, judged purely on the consistency of the orders since, the yard has risen to. “In a crisis period you have to do the door-to-door job. We had a solid order book with solid customers, but the industry was changing and ISA had to change, too. We carried out a deep study of what the new generation of owners wanted. I have a lot of contact with owners and we worked with a number of architects to put all these ideas together. We are specialists and we do not mind looking for a niche rather than a mass market,” he says. This turned into the 39 Classic, a three-deck displacement yacht in steel and aluminium. “We are looking to attract the unhappy customers who have a similar vessel in glassfibre! I think we have a good opportunity to attract those owners who want a yacht this size and want to cruise the Atlantic or in heavy seas.” This Andrea Vallicelli-designed platform is now available over several sizes, and the first of the brand-new 41-metre Classics has just been sold (the interior of which, incidentally, is being designed by ISA founder Daniele Sochi).

Liberty superyacht ISA

The 50m ISA Liberty was launched at the 2011 Monaco Yacht Shpw

Also new last year is the Granturismo line, running from 32 to 66 metres – a 66-metre has been sold this year. “The idea is to create a lot of outdoor space, although it is a steel and aluminium displacement yacht,” says Marcello.

Though these platforms dominate the range, ISA remains open to one-off projects. “While there is much appeal in a platform that has been tested and works well, we must always be available to build a custom yacht, as we are doing with the 54-metre Project Panorama. The client came to us with his own designer and design. But we have staff who can offer full interior and exterior design. ISA can offer a 360-degree package.”

It is this open approach that explains much of ISA’s success but Marcello is also keen to underline that a careful engagement with owners is paying dividends. “We are competing against shipyards who have been around for decades, and I feel as though we have to do much more. Three out of the last four yachts have sold to repeat owners and the fourth is a repeat broker – people are coming back. We’re always there for the customer and our teamwork is strong. There are no primadonnas – only the owner can be treated like a primadonna! Every supplier and all the employees need to be happy.”

Marcello is now based in Monaco: “It is a good ‘think box’. It’s somewhere I can keep in touch with customers and brokers,” he says. “I wanted to contribute more to the sales part of the business and it is easier to do it from Monaco. I can never live somewhere where I can’t see the sea. I was born in a little town called Numana on the sea near Ancona, and I have been boating with my father since I was a baby. This is how I got my passion for yachting. But I am settled in Monaco. The kids are at school here, and my wife has a fantastic restaurant in Eze. If you emigrate, Monaco is not a bad place to end up!”

But with over 200 days spent travelling last year he is not easing up, and neither is project ISA. “We have great potential to expand. We’ve built a new space for megayachts to dock at our refit centre, which is expanding its business every year. We can dock and service yachts, and we have a winter programme for our own yachts – they come in October, and we keep them protected, and they leave in March. Our new giant shed will be able to take a yacht around 100 metres. Today, we can build a 67-metre with no problems and in the near future 100 metres will be possible.” All this from a yard that’s still in second gear.