Jonathan Beckett is the Chief Executive Officer of Burgess Superyacht Brokerage and one of the most successful, experienced and popular yacht brokers in the industry, orchestrating the sale of many of the world's most famous yachts.
You have been living and breathing Superyachts since 1981. What led you to working in the yacht industry?
As a boy, I grew up on the Norfolk Broads where I did all of my early years sailing and boating.
I just loved being on the water! I sailed and raced dinghies. At the age of 16, I became the youngest RYA qualified Senior Sailing Instructor in the UK.
During my school holidays I worked in a sailing school teaching sailing and canoeing. I loved that job. I was thinking of taking a gap year between school and university and I was originally planning a few months working in a ski resort during the winter months - followed by working in a sailing school in Spain during the summer months.
One of the sailing instructors at the sailing school where I was working had just returned from doing a winter season working on sailing yachts in the Caribbean and he said to me: “You have to do it! It is brilliant fun!” And so that is exactly what I did! I flew out to Antigua, I walked the docks, and I eventually got a job on the largest sailing yacht I had ever seen - a 55ft Sparkman & Stephens designed steel ketch. Incredible!
From that day on I just knew that I wanted to do something with boats and yachts.
You joined Burgess at twenty three years old, spending two and a half years in Monaco with the founder Nigel, before moving to London to open the Burgess London Branch. Nigel then gave you ten percent of the business and you bought a further ten percent for ten thousand pounds, which was a great investment! Please tell us about your experience of building the London branch?
Ha!! In October 1983 at the age of 26, Nigel said to me “I am putting you in charge of the London Office. I am going to increase your salary from £3,000 to £6,000 per year to match that responsibility. Do you realise that you will need to bring in £36,000 every year just to break even? That’s a lot of money you need to make!”
When I moved to London to open the “London Office” we found an office with a great address - EMPIRE HOUSE, 175 PICCADILLY, LONDON, W1. The annual rent was also great - it was £2,500 per year! However, the office itself was less great. It was absolutely tiny, 120 square feet, just big enough for a desk, a chair, a telex machine, two filing cabinets and two folding chairs for clients!
I worked in the office on my own for about one year, with no help at all. I did everything - including the cleaning, the accounting, selling yachts and making the tea. Lunchtimes often involved locking the office door and going stationery shopping: “6 envelopes, 4 first class stamps and 2 Bic biros please!” Today our stationery arrives by the lorry load!
In 1992 your mentor and friend Nigel tragically died in the Vendée Globe when he was lost at sea, three days into the race. How did you and the company navigate your way through this time?
This was an incredibly difficult time for us. Nigel was superstitious and didn’t like to talk about things like life insurance policies! We eventually persuaded him to take out 2 policies - each for £100,000 - and he signed the documents the night before the start of the race. One of these policies stated that it was subject to Nigel having a medical examination at his next port of call. As you probably know the Vendee Globe is a “Single Handed Non-Stop Around the World Race!” So, the next port of call was at the end of the race! Guess what, one policy paid out, and the other one didn’t.
We were just seven people in the company at that time. And of those seven people employed in 1992 - four of us are still here!
The “sharks” were out trying to steal our clients, trying to steal our staff, trying to discourage clients from dealing with us because we are bound to close down quickly, and worst of all they were trying to steal the company from the Burgess Family.
Somehow I persuaded the Burgess Family to sell me the business for £380,000 – which seemed like a huge amount of money in those days. They agreed that I could pay by instalments over 3 years. 1992 through until the early 2,000’s were a roller coaster ride for the business.
There were good times and there were bad times! We were building the business. There were times when we literally ran out of money, where we borrowed money and where we struggled to pay our debts and our financing. Then suddenly a large yacht sale would come along, only it wouldn’t be one deal, it would more likely be two or three deals!
I describe the large yacht market like “London buses” these deals never happen in ones! You can wait for what seems like eternity in the pouring rain in London for the number 14 bus to come around the corner to take you home. An hour later, not one bus, but three buses appear - one behind the other. Large yacht sales happen the same way!
We survived the roller coaster ride over those years. I learned a huge amount about cash flow and about the importance of having safe cash in the bank! Today we have a very stable and financially very strong business – thanks to those years of learning.
The Burgess family maintain a 3% shareholding in the business which is terrific and it is lovely to still have them involved and taking an interest in how we are doing and what we are up to.
He would be extremely proud of where you have taken the company. Under your guidance the company has developed into an all service company with specialist divisions in all aspects of the superyacht industry and multiple offices around the globe. What do you find most enjoyable about your work?
I often think of Nigel. I worked with him for almost 12 years and he was a great mentor to me.
We have taken the Company to the very clear Number One position. It has been a lot of work – but it is very pleasing. It has been a great journey!
The great thing about our team is that we all realise there is so much more that we need to do to reach our potential. We feel we are just at the starting line of where we can go.
The most enjoyable thing for me about our business today is all of our young people. We employ a lot of great young people aged between 25 and 40 years old. Many of whom have been with the business for 7, 10 and even 15 years. Many of them have worked alongside me or perhaps one of our other Senior Partners over the years as a “buddy”.
They are now at the top of their game, highly experienced in their field and many of them are “number one” in the world in what they do. It is absolutely terrific.
In 2016 you received the Leadership Award from the International Superyacht Society. What do you think it takes to be a leader?
Gosh! To become a leader I think it takes tenacity, determination, commitment, persistence, passion, time, great people skills, and of course, you always need that little sprinkling of luck!
To date, what has been your biggest high?
My biggest “high” in our business was back in 1987. As a 29 year old young man, we listed Adnan Khashoggi’s 86 metre NABILA for sale. Most yacht sales in those days were happening at between US$400,000 and US$6,000,000. The largest brokerage deal up until that time was at US$15,000,000. And here we were asking a huge US$35,000,000 for the World’s largest, most famous and most extraordinary yacht!
I will never forget it, one day in November 1987 and the phone rang in our Empire House office (all 120 square feet of it!) I was the only person in the office (in fact I was only one of two people working in that office!) I answered the phone and a voice said, in a strong American accent, “This is Donald Trump calling from New York and I want to speak to Jonathan Beckett about the yacht NABILA!” The very next day I flew to New York City and met Donald Trump at 2:00pm. We had a one hour meeting together on the 26th floor of Trump Tower. He offered US$30,000,000 for the yacht, and we closed the sale of NABILA to him “sight unseen” in double quick time. We earned a commission of US$1,200,000 from that sale. We had never seen that sort of money – ever – before!
What does the word Legacy mean to you?
To me, it means creating something great in one’s lifetime and leaving that something behind that others will remember.