Behind the Success of Savannah Yacht Center

By George Bains

Dedicated as an all-encompassing service destination for luxury superyachts, Savannah Yacht Center has swiftly earned a glowing international reputation since its major transformation in 2019. The shipyard, located on the East Coast of the US, boasts state-of-the-art facilities for all scope of superyacht refit and maintenance. The success of Savannah Yacht Center owes not only to these world-class facilities, but also to the customer-centric philosophy which has built trust across an ever-expanding client base…

Savannah Yacht Center is part of the family-run Colonial Group, one of the largest privately held companies in the United States. With 365m of floating docks, 140m of dry dock, a 3240-tonne shiplift platform and 2350m2 of warehouse woodshop, Savannah is well-equipped to look after the world’s largest superyachts.

What resonates with Captains and Owners, perhaps even more than the incredible amenities of Savannah Yacht Centre, is the attention and care that is given to each visiting yacht. The shipyard is led by a senior management team with extensive experience from different spheres of the industry.

Savannah Yacht Center’s Jim Berulis (Vice President), Houstoun Demere (VP Business Development), and George Whitehouse (Business Development Director) sat down with Superyachts.com to talk about the reasons behind the shipyard’s spectacular rise.

How does Savannah Yacht Centre best serve some of the largest superyachts in the world?

George Whitehouse (GW): Savannah Yacht Center was specifically built for large yachts, where in the US there hadn’t been any other shipyards that could handle bigger boats out of the water. Historically, large yachts didn’t come here for shipyard work as there were very few yacht shipyards in the States, especially on the East Coast. This place was built specifically on a property that could handle quite a few large yachts at one time with deep-water access from the Atlantic. We can handle some of the largest yachts in the world as the facility was specifically built for that.

As a relatively new facility, how were you able to cater to modern superyacht trends?

GW: The ownership saw a sign that a large yacht facility was needed here and it was specifically built to those needs. A lot of bigger yachts nowadays are American owned, so we’re finding that a lot of American owners are welcoming that they finally now have a spot in the US to service the yacht, whereas before they really had to book far in advance for a Northern European yard or Mediterranean yard.

What scale of work can be completed at Savannah, from the smallest of tasks to full refits?

Jim Berulis (JB): We can do almost anything between our staff, and we have a large number of very skilled affiliate subcontractors. In this day and age, the yachts are very specialised and to be able to work on some of the equipment really takes a technician who specialises in a certain aspect of it. What we’ve brought together is a group of affiliates all with their own speciality. We have companies that are very experienced, from electronics experts to diesel experts and leading companies like Pinmar. The shipyard provides a place for all those people to work. We’re capable, with proper planning, to handle a job of any scale.

We have a relatively small crew. We have mechanics, electricians, welders and carpenters, but as the scope expands, we then bring in sub-contractoers to supplement our team. If a boat normally uses a particular contractor, then we’re then happy to have them come to the shipyard, this happens frequently.

GW: A lot of these yachts have such proprietary equipment onboard that it requires those specialist sub-contractors to physically be here as well. The last year was a little difficult as nobody could travel so we ended up in situations where we could Zoom call the technician in Germany, for example, and try to make it work that way, which it did. The proprietary equipment really needs those specialised people here on site. That goes across the board from electronics to the engines, controls, and numerous different things. It is important to supplement our staff with those specialised people from around the world.

What key experience does the senior management team have? How does that benefit the company?

JB: I’ve been in the yacht construction and repair business for about forty years. For fifteen years I was with Trinity Yachts in a minor ownership position and built a number of large yachts there. I was for a time Vice President of shipyard operations at Rybovich and then here I have brought in people, like George (Whitehouse) for example, who is a very experienced Captain on large motor yachts.

Many of the guys we have out in the yard have long experience working with yachts. Often, it is difficult as you can get a good electrician but who’s never been on a yacht before. Fortunately, we have been able to bring onboard people who have years of experience doing this type of work.

(To Houstoun Demere) What advantage does your family’s ties with the Colonial Group bring to operations at Savannah Yacht Centre?

Houstoun Demere (HD): Our whole philosophy in the other businesses is about doing things the right way, looking not to the short-term but long-term and doing things right first time. We are bringing this to the yacht world. You may pay a little bit more but in the long run you end up with the better product.

(To George Whitehouse) How does your experience as a Captain help when engaging with clients?

GW: I’ve been a Captain for 32 years, so I grew up in this business and a lot of my friends did the same. As we graduated up the size of the boats, it is amazing how small the yachting world really is! I befriended people from every cruising destination, so I have a lot of personal friends in the business across many spectrums, from brokers to builders and Captains.

In this business, those personal relationships are so important. With that experience and trust it can certainly help that concersatin to get started to bring a boat in. It is very difficult to break people’s habits of where they go, and when we started out just a couple of years ago all these big yacht Captains had a pattern and a way of doing things – people they go to. To break those habits is challenging, but with everyone here in this room there is great trust that helps with those decisions. They know I’ve done the job, so they understand I know what they’re going through with a shipyard period.

What are Savannah Yacht Center’s Other Advantages as a Shipyard?

JB: We focus hard on customer service. We know these yachts can go anywhere in the world to get their work done. We try to understand the needs of the vessel. They need to get in and out quickly, get things done now, and we try to respond to everything in a positive way. Customer service is the real centrepiece of what we do.

GW: The biggest acknowledgement of that is a return customer. If you don’t do it right the first time, the chances are that you’re not going to see them back. It is important they have a great experience through the yard and the town of Savannah as well. Our biggest salespeople are the yachts that leave. They are the ones that are going to spread the word, so it’s important that they all leave satisfied.

HD: Whatever problem a Captain or yacht is having, we see it as our problem. To add to the location, Savannah has phenomenal deep-water channels, but the experience that downtown Savannah city offers for crew, it means they can go out and enjoy themselves when they’re not working. A lot of Captains appreciate being able to give their crew a place like Savannah to enjoy themselves, and it makes it somewhat of a vacation even thought they are still working.

What is Savannah Yacht Centre’s vision for the future of refit?

GW: Right now, the yachting build business is in a big up-swing, especially with the larger categories. Big refit projects are quite rare because we find time a big factor for yachts coming in. I think we’re going to see a constant maintenance program put into place where yachts come annually, but those big refits are going to be few and far between in the next couple of years. Eventually that will happen as the building goes down, the bigger maintenance and refit projects go up, that’s generally how history has shown to be.

"The biggest acknowledgement is a return customer. If you don’t do it right the first time, the chances are that you’re not going to see them back."

George Whitehouse, Business Development Director Savannah Yacht Center

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"The biggest acknowledgement is a return customer. If you don’t do it right the first time, the chances are that you’re not going to see them back."

George Whitehouse, Business Development Director Savannah Yacht Center
By George Bains