Italian boatbuilding is an inspiration to the world, a fountainhead of style and innovation. And two men control most of it.
By Alan Harper - November 2003
These are interesting times for European boatbuilders. The motoryacht manufacturers that dominate the market today were all set up within a few years of each other, and most are still run by the men who, back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, let their hearts rule their heads and went into the boat business. They have shadowed each other through boom and recession all their working lives. But of all the competitive rivalries that have grown up among these entrepreneurs, none is more intriguing than that between Italy’s two biggest hitters: Paolo Vitelli’s Azimut-Benetti Group and the agglomeration of yards run by Norberto Ferretti called the Ferretti Group.
It’s a heavyweight bout. Vitelli controls Azimut, the Viareggio superyacht yard Benetti, and now the sportboat builder Gobbi. The group estimates revenues in 2003/2004 of more than $500 million. As for Ferretti, since embarking on an acquisitions program some five years ago, he now oversees some of the greatest names in boatbuilding, including Riva, Bertram, Pershing, and ApreaMare—and he claims estimated revenues for 2003 of more than $436 million.
The companies are fundamentally different in philosophy and outlook, and so are the men behind them. At 55, Vitelli exudes an air of studied caution: carefully husbanding the company’s resources, funding growth internally, and keeping a wary eye on the $120 million that he says the company has in the bank. On the other hand, Ferretti, 57, still seems every inch the Lamborghini dealer he started out as 35 years ago, with an aggressive, cheerful confidence, sharp suit, and slightly raffish air. He floated his company on the Italian stock market in 2000, bought it out again with the help of a merchant bank, and has borrowed “a considerable amount” to fund an extraordinary expansion program that includes three completely new manufacturing plants currently under construction. He now holds just 26 percent of the company that bears his name—the bank owns the majority share.
The differences between the two men aren’t only stylistic, they’re palpable. Vitelli’s Avigliana office is a large, L-shape room on the second floor, dominated by an oak boardroom table 15 feet long. At one end sits a large globe, and beyond it, bookshelves containing reference works, Jane’s Fighting Ships and Nautical Quarterly. The walls are adorned with certificates, awards, half-hull models, and a dark oil portrait of an old man in simple garb—his grandfather. Behind his small desk, striking a slightly surreal note, hangs a photograph of the king of Norway in full naval rig; Vitelli happens to be Norway’s honorary consul.
“Ferretti? We are friends,” he pronounces, hands on the table when I inquire about his rival. “He is a very good manager, a very good technical man. He chooses a way to grow that is different from ours—acquisition, not internal growth.” The three divisions of Vitelli’s group—boatbuilders Azimut and Benetti and Azimut Capital, which operates the boatbuilder Gobbi and various real estate ventures such as a new large marina complex in Varazze, near Genoa—are characteristically run by experienced managers who have worked alongside Vitelli for many years. “Do I want to know about every decision? No,” he smiles, “but in reality I do know. As long as they respect my ability to help them, they come to me. And as long as I respect their ability to run the business, I leave it to them. It’s a balance.”
This article originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.