Anyone who thinks that UK manufacturing is dead should visit the annual Schroders London Boat Show. At the latest event, held in January, there were many home-grown success stories amid the hulls in the Excel exhibition centre in London’s Docklands. One of the most encouraging is the rise of Sunseeker International, the luxury speedboat manufacturer based in Poole, Dorset.
The company now employs more than 1,500 people, accounting for around 5% of the entire UK marine leisure workforce. Its founder and managing director, Robert Braithwaite, frequently comments publicly on how much he values his staff. At this year’s show, he found himself with a new and pleasant task to perform – hosting an award ceremony for one of his young apprentices, named ‘Trainee of the Year’ by the British Marine Federation.
Michael Harris, a 21-year-old welder and metal fabricator, is in the final year of his four-year apprenticeship at Sunseeker’s Technology Centre – one of six sites owned by the company in and around Poole. It’s here that the company is piloting a modular approach to boat-building.
“We’re trying a car-industry model, with kit-form assembly,” explains personnel manager Paul Santer. “It’s safer and more efficient. We had wiring looms assembled in a hull with people clambering all over one another. Now, we can do the whole assembly in a clean-air environment.”
Santer explains that a culture of ‘lean manufacturing’ has been introduced in recent years by manufacturing manager Geoff Kemp, who has experience in managing supply chains for companies such as engineering group Smiths Industries.
“We’re doing things quicker and more efficiently now,” says Santer. “But we won’t roll out the modular process until we are absolutely sure it will have a positive effect in other areas of the business.”
Santer denies that such changes are de-skilling Sunseeker, and points to the 300 carpenters currently employed by the company as evidence that highly-skilled artisans are an essential part of the workforce.
“If technology ever did remove the need for certain jobs, then we’ve got the resources to retrain and redeploy our staff,” he adds.
Among these resources is a newly refurbished Marine Skills Centre, which accommodates 70 people and covers disciplines such as engineering, carpentry, upholstery and electrics. The centre used to cater solely for Sunseeker apprentices, but it now takes in trainees from across the company’s supply chain. It has received funding from the Regional Development Agency, and is aiming to achieve CoVE (Centre of Vocational Excellence) status in the near future.
The funding is not conditional upon a certain proportion of apprentices coming from other companies but, according to Santer, there is an unwritten agreement that Sunseeker supports as many as it reasonably can. Currently, there are six external apprentices.
Ensuring a continuous supply of skilled workers is essential. This, after all, is a business where products range in price from £175,000 to well over £5m, and where clients expect total luxury in the form of leather furniture, hardwood veneer panelling and state-of-the-art entertainment and catering facilities – all in a vessel capable of travelling at 40 knots or more.
Braithwaite says he regards apprenticeships as an essential part of the business – not only because it costs Sunseeker less to train its own craftspeople than to buy in talent from outside, but also because the company’s size and standing means it has unique obligations to the UK’s boat-building industry.
“We have a fantastic maritime heritage, and I have pushed very hard to create a British product that is respected throughout the world,” he says.
According to Santer, Braithwaite is as concerned with preserving jobs as he is with increasing profits. Santer says there have never been any significant redundancies at the company and, despite selling 99% of its boats abroad, the manufacturer has never offshored any part of its operation.
Secret of success
Braithwaite’s open management style is also appreciated by the staff, according to Santer. “[Braithwaite] frequently goes round to all the sites and speaks to everyone,” he says. “He explains what’s happening in the business, gives feedback from the boat shows, explains where he sees the business going in the future, what his plans are for future investment and where he sees particular challenges.
“He shares everything with everyone and is there to be approached if anybody has any problems,” says Santer.
A big part of Santer’s role is supporting and extending this openness. Under one initiative last year, every Sunseeker employee was given a DVD of the company’s latest dealership conference, an annual meeting of its international distributors involving around 170 people from 50 countries. It introduced employees from across the organisation to customer-facing colleagues, who up until then were largely faceless. It also showed how the products they had lovingly built are perceived by buyers and how they are sold. “Overall, it gave everyone an extra sense of direction,” says Santer.
The conference took place at a remote hotel in Lapland, continuing a trend for unusual, but memorable locations. In 2003, attendees had a chance to go skiing off-piste within the Arctic circle and witness the Northern Lights. Braithwaite takes personal responsibility for such events, and for HR-related issues among all the customer-facing employees.
Back in Poole, Santer has set up joint consultative committees, which include elected worker representatives from each Sunseeker site. These committees meet every two months to discuss personnel developments and to air any grievances. “We want all our employees to feel their issues are properly addressed,” he says.
In the recent past, unions have made requests for recognition at Sunseeker, but insufficient numbers were interested.
“I’d like to think that’s because we treat people decently, and give our employees fair employment packages,” says Santer.
Sunseeker’s average salary is around 26,500, with each employee getting 22 days’ holiday, increasing to 25 after four years of service. After four years, they also automatically receive private medical insurance. There is also a profit-sharing scheme, under which everyone is given nominal shares based on their length of service, with a bonus dividend if profit targets are exceeded.
Santer says these initiatives have improved staff retention. Since joining in 2001, more than 350 staff have been recruited, yet turnover has been reduced from around 17% to 11%, and the current average length of service is six years.
The fact that Sunseeker is a private company, with a small and dedicated management team, has also helped Santer to realise his ideas.
“All the senior managers see each other nearly every day,” he says.
Of the 1,500 staff, all bar 60 are based in Poole, so communication is easy and decisions can be made quickly. “It’s not a plc, so I don’t have to deal with impersonal shareholders or a remote board meeting,” says Santer. “The owners [Robert Braithwaite and his brother John, who is now design and technical director] are truly hands-on.”
Watching Braithwaite pressing palms at the boat show, it’s clear to see that he isn’t about to let go of a project he began in 1968, even though Sunseeker is now one of the most prestigious boat brands in the world.
“We hardly ever speak about succession planning,” says Santer. “At 60, he still has an enormous appetite to succeed and develop the business further.”
Paul Santer’s CV
Santer entered HR management in 1969 after leaving school at the age of 18. He joined textiles manufacturer Coats Patons (now Coats Viyella) as a management trainee, and stayed at the company for four years. He then spent 15 years in the toy industry – first at Pedigree Dolls and Toys, best known for manufacturing the Cindy Doll in the UK, and then at Hornby Hobbies, where he had his first experience of being a personnel director.
He then spent seven years at Triumph as UK head of personnel, setting up factory shop retail outlets and having to lay off a number of workers for the first time.
“I learned a lot from the experience, but it was no fun at all,” he says.
In 1996, at the height of the internet boom, he took a senior generalist role at Eurobell (better known as Telewest), setting up franchises in the south of England. He joined Sunseeker in 2001, and says he was relieved to get back to manufacturing. “It’s great to be working for a company with such a fabulous product,” he says.