From selling surfboards out of his trunk, to selling some of the most beautiful yachts in the world, the story of Yacht Consult is quite the page turner. Founded by Manu Deceuninck, a Belgian yachting enthusiast who turned his experience sailing at seven World Championships before the age of 17, into a luxury yacht consultancy, Yacht Consult has gone from strength to strength over the past decade and a half.Having just moved into an exclusive new property overlooking Mercator Marina in Oostende, SuperYacht Times stopped by the office to sit down with Manu and discover more about the business and its extraordinary journey.
From surfboards to superyachts is quite an evolution, how did it all happen?
When I returned to Belgium after my last world championship I didn’t have a huge amount of money to my name and started working in bars and restaurants until I had enough saved to start my own business.
By the time I was 19 I was able to get my first business off the ground and initially worked with some surf brands, selling boards from my car. As that grew I began to connect with people from my sailing background and before long I was involved in the sale of my first boats. The business quickly built up momentum and continued to grow and then at the age of 24 I sold my first big boat, a Ferretti Yachts 800.
By that time I had partnered with Sipke Halbertsma and we were selling everything from small sailing boats, motor boats and bigger yachts. At that time it was a bit of a crisis period in the brokerage industry and we got a lot of attention from the bigger businesses because we were selling a huge amount of boats. That enabled us to go to the Cannes boat show for the first time where we met some of the industry’s biggest builders, such as the team at Ferretti Yachts.
You then became the exclusive Ferretti Group dealer for the Benelux region, can you tell us more about that partnership?
Exactly, by the age of 28 we’d signed a three year deal with Ferretti Group to represent them in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. That deal was renewed after the first three years and now we are a sub-deal for Ferretti Group in Belgium, which has been an amazing experience. I would say that my knowledge of the Belgian market is much stronger than that of the Netherlands and in the end that was a disadvantage because like here in Belgium, it is quite a closed market.
As the business has grown over the last 15 years I have certainly recognised that my strength lies here in Belgium and now my focus is very much to deliver a world-class, personal and direct service to our local clients. In addition to the Ferretti Group partnership we have also built a relationship with the Polish shipyard Sunreef Yachts and have had a huge amount of success with that brand as well.
What does Yacht Consult look like today?
Sipke and I worked together on the business for four years, before he took a fantastic opportunity at Feadship as a sales manager, which I think is a demonstration of the expertise we had built over those years. Wouter Vanderelst came onboard shortly after Sipke and I went separate ways, and today Wouter, who is a highly organised and structured sales manager, is my right hand man.We are a small team which I think is a huge advantage because we are agile, able to build personal relationships with our clients and they know exactly who is going to answer the phone when they need us. We also have a network of trusted people across the globe, from both inside and outside the industry, who I have worked with for years and who I can rely on to assist our clients wherever they are. We do €20-40 million in deals each year, despite being a small and mostly hybrid team.
It’s unusual for a brokerage house to be based in Northern Europe, rather than in the South of France or Palma, do you think it works to your advantage?
We have built our business around our client base and being here, in the heart of Belgium we are the first company that comes to mind when a Belgian individual considers buying a yacht. That is what I wanted to build. It is of course also an advantage that we speak our clients language and understand their culture.
Belgian owners, much like Dutch, are highly discreet, and they come to us because they know we will treat that need for discretion with respect.
It sounds like fairly smooth sailing, but have you faced challenges over the years?
Absolutely, there have been challenging times. We had a client who invested in the business some years ago who had a very different way of thinking and who I eventually decided to buy out. Unfortunately that major decision came in tandem with Sipke’s decision to leave Yacht Consult and so at the time it felt like things were very delicate, but actually we came out of it incredibly strong.
Today we are celebrating 15 years of the business, with no debt, no mortgage against the company and with full ownership in our own hands. We are a healthy company in an excellent position to serve our clients without risk!
Why did you decide to call the business a consultancy rather than a brokerage?
For me brokerage always felt misaligned with my character. My dream when I started this business was to help people enjoy yachting. There is a saying ‘the best days of your life are when you buy and sell your boat’ . I hate that, and wanted to eradicate that experience completely. I see myself as a partner to clients, a partner that helps them enjoy their time on their boat, rather than a broker always trying to sell them something.
Yacht Consult also facilitates charter, can you tell us about your other services?
We have a relationship with the charter company Yacht Story from Jill Zwaans. Jill and I founded the business together about two and a half years ago in order to offer boutique charter services to our clients at Yacht Consult.
Jill is the major shareholder of Yacht Story and I am not involved in the management of the business because Wouter and I focus on the clients yacht ownership journey from A-Z and we see charter as a complementary business. At Yacht Consult we are able to assist with everything from construction to crew and we make it our business to know the client and their issues personally.
Finally, what do you believe is Yacht Consult‘s unique capability that sets it apart from the competition?
I believe that the service we offer our clients here in Belgium and in the wider Benelux region is unique in its personal and professional touch. Wouter and I are the ones at the end of the phone to ensure our clients needs are met, and we are incredibly successful and finding the right yachts for our clients.
We have come a long way from my humble beginnings selling surfboards out of my trunk and I think that demonstrates to our clients that we are hard workers, passionate people and that we do what we love so that they can love their experience with their boat.