Romantic notions of a career before the mast couldn’t have been further from the mind of Rob Moran – founder of Moran Yacht & Ship – when he first had a taste of the sea-going life from his father, a chief engineer on fishing boats in the English port of Hastings. What he remembered most – “the stink of fish and diesel that took your breath away” – was enough to put off any impressionable boy. “These were big commercial fishing vessels, with the ability to stay out at sea for long periods. Their fishing grounds were in the Atlantic. The catch was big and so were the rewards. My introduction to the sea was unavoidable but I didn’t aspire to being a fishing boat captain!” he says.
There was, though, an introduction to some of the miscellaneous mavericks you meet at sea, including the skipper of the fishing boat his father worked on. “The captain was one of the few German U-boat captains who had survived World War II. His knowledge of the English coast was vast. My dad said that the captain knew every contour, every rock along the coastline of the south of England, even in thick fog,” Rob says. This understanding of the importance of professional detail was to stand him in good stead.
A brush with the more comfortable end of the sea-going spectrum came on a post-college jaunt to Monaco. “I was 22, with a few bob in my pocket and a sense of adventure. I could not believe the size of the private pleasure boats! One night walking down the dock, we met some Australians working on a big motor sailer. ‘What do you do?’ I asked –’Nothing much. Just keep it clean and wash it down’. They got fed, they got paid and they visited the Caribbean in the winter. It was outrageous, but I wanted in,” Rob explains.
He returned a year later with a friend and soon found work as a deckhand. “For the first few months, the work got in the way of the parties – we were having a blast. The Australians were absolutely right. From that first year, I’d saved over ten thousand pounds. Back then, like now, it wasn’t easy to save money,” he says.
But Rob had ambitions beyond deckhand hedonism. “The people making the serious money were the captains. Most of the ones I met were old-school ex-RN or commercial. There were very few young captains, and I saw an opportunity,” he says. Rob started to log his sea time, to read books on navigation, and to spend time on the bridge. “One captain gave me some very good advice – every time we come into a port, look at the charts, look at the landmarks, keep your eyes open: the better you know the ports and the coastline, the better you will be when you are on your own. Just like that old U-boat captain!”
What started as a lads’ summer jaunt was becoming a career, and soon Rob was back in the UK to get his master’s licence: “I was there for a month and wasn’t leaving without my ticket.” When he got back to the South of France, aged 25, he had his licence and soon had a job aboard a 21-metre, where he stayed for two years, before moving up to a 30-metre and cruising from the south of Spain to Greece.
For the next eight years he worked on several yachts in the Med and the Caribbean. “I delivered one yacht to the US. The owners were Anheuser-Busch, the Budweiser people. The late Bernie Little, who was one of the top Budweiser guys at the time, asked if I would like to stay and work on the boat. Based at the Jockey Club Miami, we took her all over the USA – we were the promotions boat, giving gallons of Budweiser away in all the ports we visited,” he says.
Then in 1984 Rob was approached by Herb Chambers, the owner of a 70ft Magnum, to captain his new boat. “I was enjoying myself, but Herb was building a 130ft Feadship. It was one of the biggest yachts on the water. I joined the boat, finished the build and sailed her across the Atlantic,” he says. Excellence was soon established as one of the top charter yachts on the circuit.
In 1988 it was time to come ashore, and Rob felt he couldn’t go any higher as a captain. He found his new challenge in the brokerage business. “Over the years I had been in contact with many yacht brokers and one thing stuck in my mind: most brokers were idiots! Most had no background at sea. Having listened to these guys spout rubbish for years, I knew I could do better,” says Rob. He talked to some of the bigger brokerage houses and had offers, but something stopped him committing. “I had a formidable amount of contacts. So instead of joining an established firm I thought I’d go it alone.”
One thing he could call on was his savings from a career as a charter captain. “I went into business on my own, working from our modest house. My wife supported the idea, and my two young kids were delighted to have me around. Working out of the house was tough. My little office was set up in a bedroom next to the kids’ room. When the telephone rang you could guarantee the kids would start crying! I had to wrap the end of the curtain around my head and the phone in order to muffle the noise.” Those screaming kids, incidentally, still work with dad today: Rory Moran has just graduated as a naval architect, and Sean works in the office after serving for several years at sea, working on the Lürssens Madsummer and Phoenix.
“Of course, I needed to portray a busy, professional office to potential clients. I would answer the phone with an American accent, and pretend to put the client on to me, now speaking in my English accent! On reflection, going it alone was a huge mistake. I didn’t sell a boat for three years. My savings were dwindling,” he admits.
He started to look for a captain’s position again. “I actually accepted the job of captaining the 132ft Feadship Fiffanella, but just before I was scheduled to meet that yacht, I sold a boat. It was a 70ft Striker and I made a commission. A few days later I sold another boat. I never did go back to sea,” he says.
The ball was rolling. When Tom Worrell was looking to sell his 47-metre Feadship Mi Gaea in 1994, Rob got the job: “Every broker on the planet was chasing Tom to get the world’s biggest listing at the time, but I knew him and I knew Feadship. He gave me six months, and I managed to sell it. That meant a more comfortable financial cushion.”
It set what has become a trademark of Moran Yacht & Ship: the biggest listings. Moran had opened their Fort Lauderdale office on 17th Street in 1991, and that is still the focus of what is now a global operation, with 16 people working there, ten in Moscow, five in the UK, four in Monaco and three in Newport.
As the team grew, another trademark Moran feature emerged: a very particular way of doing things. “We get a lot of enquiries for jobs, but I never hire from outside my close circle of friends and acquaintances. Every member here is trusted and has a history in some way related to me,” he says, citing the example of a programme he started five years ago to bring younger people into the business. Some of those now working for him played baseball and soccer in the park with his kids when he was coaching. And it works: “You will never see people back-biting or falling out in our team.”
Rob’s own MO is also hands on: “I do all my own emails, all my own letters. I don’t need to waste time asking an assistant to make telephone calls for me.” It’s all part, he says, of offering a personal approach to his clients. “They are all tough, successful business people. They don’t want to be messed with and they are looking for somebody they can trust.”
And it’s clearly working well – he says with some pride that 4% of the brokerage houses are doing 96% of the business. “Today, things have never been better for us. We have 11 boats in build with some of the world’s top yards, and we have delivered for our clients over 20 new-build projects in the past ten years, which include some of the finest yachts ever built – Ace, Quattroelle, Phoenix 2, Valerie, Madsummer and Northern Star. Clients come to us because we have the first-hand experience and the practical ability. We have been in the engineroom, we know how a boat works from stem to stern.”
He’s built his company to reflect the values he’s learned throughout his working life. Now Rob Moran’s hard-won success looks set to be rolled out to a new generation of superyacht owners.