With all eyes on Dubai for the opening of the delayed Expo 2020 this month, it’s ironic that the UAE’s largest shipyard has its sights set across the globe. At Cannes Yachting Festival in September, Dubai-based Gulf Craft revealed plans to expand across the EU, through new partners in Germany, Spain, the Netherlands and Portugal, among other countries. With one of the most successful periods in its 39-year history under its belt – the shipyard revealed its order book experienced a 42 per cent uplift in the first six months of 2021 – Gulf Craft will also push out operations across the Maldives, the US and Australia in the coming months.
The company, which is best-known for its Majesty fleet, made headlines last year with the launch of the world’s largest composite yacht. Now, under the direction of new CEO Talal Nasralla, Gulf Craft is looking to the future. Forbes met Nasralla on board the company’s best-selling model Majesty 100 to find out what makes the UAE shipyard so unique.
You joined Gulf Craft close to the start of the pandemic. How was your first year at the helm, and what key decisions did you make during the crisis?
The world went through a tough time in 2020, and our leadership team and Chairman made a very bold decision to continue building in the midst of the pandemic – a signal of strong faith in the business and strong faith in the team. It was a very unstable environment – you didn’t know who was vaccinated, you didn’t know who was getting ill, so it was a very challenging time. But, taking very steady steps, the company decided to continue to build. That decisions gave us a stock of boats at the end of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021 – we ended up with 17 stock boats and they flew out the door. We started 2021 in a very strong position. It was one of, if not the most, successful first quarter of a year – and a very strong first half.
Why do you think the boats sold so quickly?
A number of reasons. I think people learned very quickly that yachting is the best form of social distancing. The pandemic also taught us that time is limited and you want to spend it with precious people around you, while still maintaining a good work/life balance. So, we’ve seen some of our clients want to install offices on their yachts because they still want to be connected to their business but at the same time, spend time with their family and be out at sea.
The most interesting we’ve seen is that the average age group of clients has come down. Usually, most of our clients were more established entrepreneurs above 50, but this year we sold one of our boats (a 95 footer) to a 29 year old. They’re getting into the market exactly earlier and going bigger. Usually the younger crowd were going for the smaller boats, now we’re seeing them go straight for bigger boats. So, we’re seeing that shift in the mindset – people wanting to enjoy life more, and much earlier.
How were you able to meet demand throughout the crisis?
We can immediately cater to demand because Gulf Craft is vertically integrated. We have our own joinery, we have our own meta works, we have our own marble shop – we do everything in the house. Our production rate is probably a little faster than everyone else and we control a lot of our supply chain.
Everybody went through a tough time in 2020 but because we’ve been around for 40 years and we’ve been consistent with our suppliers, they stood by us. As we had orders coming in, we had to be very active and manage each supplier; get on the phone and go and meet them; look at the materials and the alternative materials – we had to really dig deep and find efficiencies everywhere we could. But we were already at an advantage being vertically integrated.
As one of the few representatives from the Gulf region, how does Gulf Craft stand out?
We have a unique product built in a unique part of the world. Our environment is very harsh. We have to deal with humidity and heat and water salinity – the conditions where we build are very poor. So, our product is bulletproof. We can handle our conditions and the Europeans love seeing our product when we come here, because we are built for even harsher conditions.
We’re also leading the world when it comes to building in composites, with the launch of the Majesty 175, the world’s largest composite yacht. We’re very proud of that.
What’s on the horizon for Gulf Craft in the coming year?
We are expanding into Europe with 12 new dealers. We are growing rapidly growing in the Maldives. We’re growing in Dubai as well. We now close to opening our Dubai office, which is going to be at Mina Rashid, the home port. It’s going to be such an interesting space for our customers, clients and suppliers. It’s going to have a design studio where clients can come and work the the designer, and a nice library of the materials we use. Also, 40 per cent of the boats in Mina Rashid are Gulf Craft so it’s easier for us to show them one of our boats. We’re making a conscious effort to grow our international presence but home is home and it will always be the main market for us.
Why is the Maldives becoming such an important market for you?
Maldives has always been close to our hearts. We’ve been there for 20 years. We have 85 per cent of the market already – we’ve sold close to a 1,700 boats in the Maldives – and we want to continue to be present and strong, and maybe export from there a little bit east. It’s a good hub for us. We’ve just announced we’re building one more factory there.
We also see a shift in the time people spend in the Maldives, so we seeing the business change. People are spending longer there. We’re also seeing more yachts arrive to the Maldives and the sizes are growing and growing, so we’re exploring every opportunity that is available. We’ve been building the smaller transportation utility boats and now we’re exploring where the growth is going to be.
Going forward, are you planning to focus more on larger yachts?
We take very steady steps. We don’t grow overnight, we grow in steps and we see the natural progression of the business. We go to the next size, the next size and the next size, but we also keep our fingers on the pulse to understand the market very well. One of the things that we are proud of at Gulf Craft is that we do our homework. We take our time to study the market and deliberate, but when we move, we move very fast. As they say, measure it twice and cut once. This way of working is in our psychology – it’s in our culture.