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Dutch courage

Royal Huisman has 129-years' experience in delivering some of the world's finest yachts. Fifth-generation chief executive Alice Husiman talks to CampdenFB about its roots and its move into the superyacht market.

The Dutch know their yachts. They, after all, invented them more than 500 years ago to pursue smugglers around their coast. One hundred and a few years later the good burghers of the Netherlands started seeing the potential of these “jachts”, as they called them, as pleasure crafts. The rest is history.

Dutch shipyards are still famous among sailors for building some of the finest yachts on earth – and not least among these shipyards is the 129-year-old Royal Huisman, maker of a number of the world’s largest and most advanced superyachts.

Jan Jans Huisman (pictured with his family, right) – the man who started the family dynasty – began building wooden fishing boats in 1884. He also helped build some of his country’s first and now famous coastal defences to protect the Dutch coast from the wrath of the North Sea. Ironically, these efforts eventually led to the demise of the local fishing industry that the family business originally catered to. Better sea defences and a new dam led to land reclamation, cutting the boatyard off from open water.

It was up to the second generation to reinvent the business, which they did, focusing on Huisman’s now famous pleasure yachts. Later generations made their mark by building super-lightweight aluminium racing yachts. Since the 1980s the company has focused exclusively on superyachts. In 1984, on Huisman’s 100th anniversary, it was granted its “royal” prefix by Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

The business is now managed by the fifth generation under the watchful eye of managing director Alice Huisman (pictured, left), who recalls the process of taking over the job in a very male-orientated business wasn’t easy. “My father [Wolter] didn’t expect any of [his three daughters] to succeed him,” she says. “He was of the opinion that anyone who was chosen to take over the shipyard should be more technically orientated – and unlike my predecessors I had no engineering degree. He also knew it was a very difficult business to be in – we make beautiful products, but it is a difficult business – and maybe he didn’t want to put that burden on me.”

Nevertheless, after his initial reticence, Wolter realised she was the best person for the job, and under her leadership the business has delivered more advanced yachts than ever. Her youngest sister Mirjam also works in the business, while middle sister Caroline worked there for 20 years before founding her own wellness company.

The Huismans very much want to keep the shipyard in family hands, with members of the sixth generation learning the ropes in their spare time. But like any protector of the precious family business, Huisman is clear next-gens will need the skills just like any member of staff if they are to “take a responsible position” within the company.

Royal Huisman had revenues of more that €50 million last year (superyacht Arcadia on her Arctic passage pictured, right). As well as building superyachts, the firm offers refit services for yachts, and also builds mast and deck equipment for other shipyards. All this is done just a few miles away from where the original boatyard was located. That helps to build a sense of history and place at Royal Huisman. This is confirmed by the shipyard’s strong links to the community, with the majority of its 360-strong workforce coming from the small town of Vollenhove and the surrounding area; around 100 kilometres northeast of Amsterdam where the shipyard is based.

As Huisman says: “Our links are obviously important to us and will continue to be so for years to come.” 

Images copyrighted to Luc Hardy and Hans Westerink 

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