Michael Schutte on the Origins of Brilliant Boats
About one year ago Michael Schutte, the founder of the Brilliant Boats design studio, decided to widen his gaze from the drawing board and acquire a shipyard to add a new dimension to the business. We spoke to Michael Schutte to get an idea of how Brilliant Boats came into existence and how the new shipyard is keeping them ahead of the curve.
Brilliant Boats has been around for 15 years now, how was the studio founded?
“Although I had decided by the age of 10 that I wanted to be a Naval Architect, my first degree was in Industrial Design. I had a mildly successful business in the UK where we did design and build contract interiors and exhibitions … One of our Interior Design clients was a private bank ... They loved what we did for them, and as they had just embarked on building a corporate yacht, the Boss asked me to get with the Naval Architect and “help” with the interior so that it was more in keeping with their new corporate image and modern look. This was the early eighties, footballers had mullets, private banks looked like Victorian Gentlemen’s Clubs and yacht interiors were almost universally tiny dark boxes with bright varnished teak … My proposals for larger holes in the sides to let in a little light, opening up the interior to improve both flow and functionality, and swapping the baby-poo brown teak and mud-blue Dralon for limed ash and actual colours were met with horror. Each suggestion was variously shot down, eloquently emphasised by prods from the pointy end of a well used slide rule. I was being “educated as to the realities” facing Naval Architects.
What I actually heard was blah blah structural integrity, blah blah stability, blah blah Class Rules. When what I was really thinking on the long drive home was “Hang on a minute!”... “I can do better than this!”
Within 6 months I had sold up my entire life and was enrolled in Southampton Institute studying Yacht and Small Craft design, and beginning to understand fully where a modicum of success and a mountain of arrogance can land you.
After graduating, I first went to work for Howard Apollonio, and then Jack Sarin, both massively talented Grand Old Gentlemen (sorry guys) Naval Architects of the Pacific Northwest, where I began to learn my new trade. After a few years I returned to the UK and brought with me a job … I had been doing a little supplementary carbon engineering for a boat eventually called Stealth and all of a sudden had to produce an actual invoice. Not worrying too much about what it said on the top, as I was sure this was only a temporary gig, I wrote ‘Brilliant Boats’ on it and sent it off. That was about 15 years ago now – never did imagine I would be lucky enough to ever send a second.
What inspired you to move the office to Turkey?
Isn’t it funny how apparently innocuous choices end up driving big changes? The office had been in Cannes for years when I was asked to take on a monster project in the USA. (Poseidon Undersea Resort) There was never any question about whether I would do it or not … After nearly two years on this project I found myself back in France, facing either re-establishing BB there or making a jump to somewhere more pro-business (as in anywhere other than France) I had maintained a tiny office in Dubai for many years, so this was one serious option. I had been working on a carbon fibre foremast cum rescue boat crane for a very large motor yacht being built in Egypt, and ended up having this built in Turkey. One thing led to another, and out of the blue I was offered a three boat exclusive with one of the (then) “up and coming” Turkish yards – a 47m, a 52m and a 60m. The only catch was that I would have to open an office locally to provide them with tech support. I went for this, shut down in Dubai, and moved what remained of the French office from Cannes to Antalya. We did the 47m and in spite of the money drying up after 3 months, stuck it out. The 50+ never got signed – a different story on that one, and the 60 became a 63m. Unbelievably, the money dried up after 3 months on this job as well.... Already having established that I am not a fast learner, maybe this will surprise you less than it did me. Needless to say, we no longer have anything to do with this yard, though our lawyers and theirs are probably best mates by now.
Silver linings etc, but in all honesty, this move marked a turning point for Brilliant Boats both in terms of critical mass and longer term strategy.”
There are many good reasons to choose Turkey as a place to build your yacht. As an employer and investor, there are also very good reasons to choose Turkey as a place to do business. Turkey has enjoyed a healthy yacht building industry for decades now, and while it would be disingenuous to pretend that everything goes according to plan (it usually doesn’t), or that everyone who has done the math, and then taken the plunge, has set sail from here with an ear to ear grin while pocketing the millions they saved (they often don’t), it is a proven fact that there is an experienced body of competent, hardworking, and honest people here to get the job done. If you do your homework and surround yourself with the right people there are major benefits to be had, but never has caveat emptor been more relevant than here and now.”
You made the leap into yacht building after acquiring a shipyard last year, how has this helped Brilliant Boats evolve?
Where I come from there is an excellent saying that goes “Building yachts is a great way to make a small fortune, you just have to start with a big one”! This tree of wisdom is firmly rooted in the fact that if you really do everything it takes build a yacht properly, you will for sure not make any money. There is always a detail that can be improved with a little rework or a benefit to be gained from moving that pipe by 20mm up, down or sideways. Those of us that think this way are perhaps ill suited to be in the yacht building business if making money is the object of the exercise. But let’s be clear - there are other rewards to be had if your yardstick is not marked only in financial increments. The journey from sketch pad, through computer and build shed to the sea is an amazing one. Anyone properly plugged in to this process can’t help but be consumed by it, and that is just for starters.
Was it a smart move to become a builder as well as a designer? Absolutely. There is a big difference between sitting in an ivory tower, popping out jpegs, and blaming the builder when it all looks a bit pear-shaped when viewed from the aft quarter, and facing Mehmet Usta, the Turkish welder with a problem because the parts you gave him don’t fit. Our job doesn’t finish with the construction drawings getting a pretty stamp on them from Class – the production engineering is down to us as well, so when Mehmet Usta has a question he is never shy about getting in someone’s face for an answer. Our faces are never more than 50m apart to start with.
I believe we are in the right place at the right time. We have a unique skill set. We have all of the advantages of doing business in Turkey and a 50m x 15m shed bang on the shores of the Mediterranean to do it in. I have no crystal ball, but in terms of making ourselves available for success as a builder I believe we have done everything possible. It has already been a huge success for us as designers – our tool box is fuller every day because of what we are all learning.. Our first two vessels will be launched in the spring next year, and then you can decide for yourselves whether we have learned enough. Certainly everyone who comes here to see for themselves what we are up to has left making surprised but positive sounding noises. We must be doing something right.
How will the new yard enable you to work on future projects?
Being able to deliver an actual product, rather than just the project is something we are all just beginning to get our heads around. We really haven’t marketed this at all to date, as we have been kept pretty busy just doing it. From recent conversations at MYS and FLIBS I am beginning to understand just how powerful a combination this is, if we can get it right. I am quoting a design and engineering job right now that came from Ft Lauderdale, and for a certainty it was the fact that we have the yard facility that we were even in the frame for this. They were looking for a yard and found we could actually help them get ready to go there as well. Are they happy to be dealing with a one-stop shop? Hell yes! It makes life much easier for them – not may owner’s buy yachts because they like the hassle of building it and keeping it ready for sea, and the fewer moving parts involved in making this happen, the better for them and their management teams. If I am completely honest, I am not at all sure what is coming next, but I do know that we are up to the challenge. If we can successfully communicate what we are doing here to the rest of the industry, there are plenty of others out there who can work their calculators far better than we can – I am sure they will be very happy to help us keep the lights on.
Can you tell us anything about these future projects?
Things swirling around in the hopper right now include a handful of smallish motor cats, a monster sport fisherman, and some go-fast grey boats.
There is definitely huge a gap in the market between 50 and 80 feet for motor cats for individuals instead of PAX-max charter machines. We have been working on some catamaran crew boats for the wind farms and have had an amazing number of enquiries for yacht versions. One is very interesting as they want to be very, very lightweight, and actually know what that means – no Class, no frills and one piece of hand luggage per guest, thank you. I am looking forward to this one as it will be a major departure from what is out there today – also an opportunity to attack the structural design from first principles as opposed to a Class driven formulaic approach. Optimising for weight and performance as a priority is a cool thing to do – if less is more, how little is a bit too much? We’ll see.
An on again-off again conversation about a +/-50m sport fisherman has kept us all paying attention over the last 18 months – we have actually been pricing up structures in titanium with an ex-Russian military yard in the Ukraine for this. Can you imagine a 50m yacht weighing in at less than 300t and capable of speeds approaching 30 knots with less than 5kbhp? AND that sips fuel like a displacement boat at any sensible speed? Got a mental picture? Now add a dirty great big turbine on CL for sprint speeds of over 40? We are not only imagining it – we are drawing it....roll on actually building it!
Whatever is coming I am sure it will be an adventure for all of us. The best (and worst, sometimes) part of our job is that we never stop being challenged – we never stop learning – the only thing certain is that it will not be boring!
"Was it a smart move to become a builder as well as a designer? Absolutely. There is a big difference between sitting in an ivory tower, popping out jpegs, and blaming the builder when it all looks a bit pear-shaped when viewed from the aft quarter ... I believe we are in the right place at the right time. We have a unique skill set. We have all of the advantages of doing business in Turkey and a 50m x 15m shed bang on the shores of the Mediterranean to do it in."