The fifth floor of the Paris Boat Show in 1965 was crowded with dinghies, but people were scarce. The throngs congregated elsewhere, paying little heed to the small fry. Attendees preferred to gawk at the sleek oceangoing sailboats, and the luxury power yachts drew plenty of lookers, too. The vast majority of boats were built from wood with plank-on-frame hulls, teak decks, and glistening brightwork.
The lack of traffic worried André Bénéteau and his sister Annette. Bleeding red ink, their boatbuilding company was on the financial rocks. They had banked everything on the success of a diminutive 16-foot sloop dubbed Flétan. It had a roomy cockpit and a small cabin forward with giant windows, all packed into a teacup-size fiberglass hull.
The fact that the Bénéteau siblings were even at the boat show marked a major departure for them and their company. The family had been building tuna boats and fishing trawlers since 1884, when Benjamin Bénéteau, grandfather to André and Annette, set up shop in the fishing village of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie. The fishing industry in France was in decline, prompting Annette to encourage André to design sailboats for recreational use. She believed the move would pay off, and she was right in ways even she couldn’t have imagined.
What happened next may be apocryphal, a story that has sprouted up around the origins of the now legendary Bénéteau empire, but some sources say one man stopped by the booth, liked what he saw in the design, and placed an order for 30 boats, presumably to set himself up as Bénéteau’s first sailboat dealer. An additional 70 orders apparently came in that weekend, sparking the birth of what eventually became Groupe Bénéteau, the company that Annette Bénéteau-Roux, now 70, has guided to the top of the heap as president and CEO from 1964 to 2004. Her current title is vice chairperson of Groupe Bénéteau’s supervisory board, and she is president of the Bénéteau Foundation. In honor of her numerous innovations and accomplishments in the marine industry she received the AIM Lifetime Achievement Award.
The company is known for its sailboat brands—Bénéteau, Jeanneau, Lagoon, and CNB—but its Bénéteau, Jeanneau, and Prestige powerboat brands are making moves to further expand the powerboat segment, which the company has catered to over the years with such series as the Antares, Flyer, Swift Trawler, and Barracuda. In 2009, Bénéteau launched the Monte Carlo Yachts range of luxury power vessels over 50 feet.
Roux is still involved in charting the future course of the company, but she’s also having some well-deserved fun after four decades of hard work growing a nearly bankrupt company into a global titan.
— David W. Shaw