In 1955, at the age of three, Dick van Lent would look out of the living room window on rainy days and know that his father Theo was working hard in the Van Lent yard just opposite, where he could see yachts coming and going. “Looking out of that window, I wanted desperately to be on or near the water,” he says. It was a good grounding in all things nautical for the man who is now CEO of the Royal Van Lent Shipyard and one of the driving forces in the First Export Association of Dutch Shipbuilders, better known as Feadship. Comprised of Royal Van Lent Shipyard based on Kaag Island, and Koninklijke De Vries Sheepsbouw based in Aalsmeer and Makkum, along with a clever group of naval architects called De Voogt in Haarlem, Feadship is today a powerful and highly sophisticated team, capable of meeting the expectations of the most demanding of superyacht owners.
Back then, it was all about learning the most important of values for a builder of superyachts – that of having fun on the water. “I spent most of the time doing what boys do best – fishing, building rafts with my family, rowing and of course sailing,” says Dick. At the age of six he would spend the afternoon sailing, followed by the surprisingly enjoyable task of boat washing and bilge cleaning. “I knew then that presentation was all important, and getting it meticulously clean was the only way to keep a boat,” he says.
With five other siblings, competitions were an everyday occurrence. “Very often all six of us would race to my father’s refuelling pumps – whoever got there first could refuel the boat and keep the generous tip given by the owner!” In those days the Van Lent yard built boats from nine to 20 metres. By the age of 13 Dick was a capable pilot through the Dutch waterways and relished any opportunity to show the owner of a new Van Lent yacht what it could do. Dick’s knowledge of the lock systems was invaluable to owners, and as a teenager Dick often found himself assisting English and German clients. “I could be on board for a day or a week. I was a yard representative advising on maintenance matters, an instructor and tour guide!” he says. It was a thorough grounding in the build process, living and breathing the precision craftsmanship that the yard was already renowned for. He knew the yard and the people who bought Feadships, too.
In 1974 Dick took up the official post of assistant manager and so began the vital role he would play in Feadship’s future development. Royal Van Lent Shipyard was now building yachts with an average length of 40 metres capable of crossing oceans. Dick was spending his time getting to know the ins and outs of the business. “I worked very closely with owners, captains, brokers, and the workforce – everyone needed to create the finished boat,” says Dick.
By the time the yard entered the 1990s, the average boat length had increased to 50 metres. “My greatest challenge – in a good way! – was the 63-metre Cedar Sea II, launched in 1986 with an exterior and interior by Bannenberg. For me, it embodied the amazing complexity involved in creating and building a modern custom yacht. The owner had initially commissioned a smaller yacht, but when I told him how full the order books were, he said: ‘If I have to wait three years for a 40-metre yacht, I might as well have a 60-metre!’” It was worth the wait with features including a 30-seat dining room, an underwater observation window set in a well, a medical centre, a computer room, and a swimming pool complete with waterfall and fountain. “The hydraulics on board needed much thought and innovation. The yacht’s Range Rover could easily be driven on and off the transom using two fold-out hydraulic gangplanks,” says Dick. “The owner visited every two weeks and my job at that time was to project manage, balance the costs, link all the departments together – a massive responsibility.”
Of course, the rise of Feadship to a widely acknowledged pinnacle of superyacht production hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Dick has always been keen to understand what is being offered by other yards from across the globe, though echoing the success of Feadship has proved elusive for many newcomers. “I have witnessed aggressive companies come to market over the years. They offer design and innovation at a price, and then discover that they cannot deliver the quality or simply run out of money,” he says.
One of Dick’s proudest moments came in 2001 when Van Lent was granted Royal status. “It was a wonderful feeling for everyone – yard personnel, suppliers and locals. The criteria was mind-blowing. All the boxes had to be ticked – staff behaviour, our position in the community, our ecological impact. The business must have been in the same family hands for over one hundred years. Everything was scrutinised from the past and present, and even our future plans. The day we opened our new dry dock was an appropriate day for Princess Margriet to visit the yard. She was greeted by more than 2,000 people eager to see the Royal accolade being bestowed. I also had
an enormous sense of well-being when we were awarded ‘Netherlands Company of the Century’, in 2001. It was a brilliant honour for Royal van Lent to be amongst such iconic brands as Heineken,” Dick says.
He was instrumental in securing investment for Royal Van Lent in September 2008 when LVMH signed an exclusive agreement with Egeria, an investment company based in the Netherlands, to acquire the yard. “I was looking at the future and I needed to be assured that Royal Van Lent had very secure financial stability going forward, as we have always had in the past. LVMH offers this – I am convinced they are stronger than a bank! The LVMH family has a proven track record in preserving the heritage of prestigious brands,” he says.
Heritage, of course, is a huge part of the appeal of the Feadship brand. The Kaag island shipyard goes back to the 1840s. Cees van Lent, Dick’s grandfather, started work at what was then the Akerboom yard in the year 1917. They established a reputation for craftsmanship under the Akerboom & Van Lent banner, before Van Lent was established as a separate entity in 1949, with Cees as director and his son Theo (Dick’s father) as technical director. Feadship as a co-operative group of companies came together in 1951.
One thing that hasn’t changed a lot over the years is the relationship with the most important member of the team – the owner. “The aim is to create something wonderful. I think decision-making can be fraught between couples and families, and our clients are made up from husbands, wives and sons and daughters – everyone with different thoughts, ideas and demands. It is my job to give everybody what they want. One owner once said to me, ‘You are an all-encompassing manager and marriage counsellor!’” says Dick.
And he certainly thrives on an owner-facing role. “Some owners order a yacht and pick it up when it’s built, but the majority have regular contact with the build and that is where I come in. As a percentage over the past 30 years we have had 40% repeat business. I really don’t think owners have changed in that time. At the end of the day they know quality and they know heritage. Then it is up to us to deliver the very latest in cutting-edge design and technology, year after year.”
He adds: “We all have one goal, one mission, and that is to create a wonderful experience together.” With the yard’s outstanding portfolio of yachts, 2012 launches such as the 78-metre Hampshire II (which you can see at the Monaco Show), and a healthy order book that includes hull 808 to come in 2014, it’s a case not just of mission accomplished but of adventures to come.
To see more images, click here: