Living the dream

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 2008, 12:00am

Olivier Decamps has enjoyed a nomadic lifestyle in the yachting industry during the past three decades

Some people love the comforts of home and familiar surroundings, and have little inclination to wander far from their native shores. In Olivier Decamps, though, you will find quite the opposite, for the 52-year-old Belgian has spent much of his life travelling the world, seeing countries and collecting experiences of which most of us could scarcely dream.

This was made possible by various roles in the yachting business which, for the past three decades, have taken him to far-flung parts of the globe and turned him into something of a nomad. Adopting a policy of being ready to move wherever an opportunity arose or whenever the time seemed right, he has supervised yacht construction projects in the Philippines and set up a brokerage office in Spain. But four years ago, he came to Hong Kong and, to date, has found that, as a base, the city suits him just fine.

'The work of a yacht broker involves so much travel that you end up seeing the world as a much smaller place,' said Mr Decamps, the general manager of Jebsen Marine. 'After all, you can sell yachts anywhere in the world. It's a very international scene.'

Having previously made regular trips to Asia, he already had an overall perspective of what was happening in the sector and liked what he saw. 'I saw how quickly the Asian market was growing with Hong Kong leading the trend, and I felt this was the place to be for the future development of the industry,' he said.

It turned out that his timing was perfect. His arrival in 2004 to work as Asia brand manager for yacht firm Simpson Marine coincided with the post-Sars upturn in the local economy, with local consumers and mainlanders again prepared to spend a little extra on leisure pursuits and some of the finer things in life. Since then, Hong Kong's yachting industry has grown at about 20 per cent a year, Mr Decamps estimates, and Asia is now the world's fastest-growing market for high-end cruisers.

To capitalise on this, Jebsen Marine was set up as a fully-fledged consultancy focusing on business in Asia, and Mr Decamps was welcomed on board to lead its initial forays into the luxury yacht market.

'We will be the first in Hong Kong to offer buyers a complete range of end-to-end services,' he said. '[This is] from the sale of yachts to matching clients with captains and crew, and offering moorings at the marina, right through to insurance, maintenance and after-sales support.'

The firm is already the exclusive dealer for four brands - two Italian, one Australian and one French - and plans to add more to the portfolio. Building a start-up venture, Mr Decamps has willingly assumed the role of jack-of-all-trades. One week, he might be concentrating on sales and networking with the local yachting community, the next, putting together quotations or attending an international boat show in Europe or the United States.

'Selling yachts requires tremendous patience,' he said. 'You have to follow up with clients all the time. With some people, it may take years to close a sale, for most, it usually takes about a month.' That is not surprising when you consider that average prices can be in the range of HK$3 million to HK$12 million. Mr Decamps has found, though, that if you are passionate about 'the product', this sense of enthusiasm is transmitted to the buyer and, ultimately, should translate into success.

'If you can excite people in this way, the sale is half done,' he said. 'You are effectively supplying the client, their family and their friends with a dream, so it is also very important to get to know them and understand what they are about. Much of this business is about developing relationships.'

Proof of that is the fact that many customers have subsequently become close friends and, wherever they are in the world, they still track him down if ever they want to buy a new boat. As an avid yachtsman, he also appreciates the need for in-depth technical knowledge in clinching any sale. Such know-how makes it possible to distinguish between the finer points of yacht design and explain precisely how the hardware and software work.

'People buying sailing yachts, in particular, tend to know about the technical aspects and will typically ask a lot of questions,' he said. 'A yacht broker needs to be in a position to discuss these specifics and advise on various aspects of the boat.'

Mr Decamps began accumulating such knowledge early in life. His parents owned a small boat they used to take out every weekend and on holidays, simply to unwind and relax. 'I began sailing in a little dinghy when I was four years old and later went on to race in Belgium and at international regattas,' he said. 'Sailing just became a 'virus' that never went away.'

After studying yacht design in Britain, he worked on the production side of the business for several years. At first, this involved overseeing repair work, and that led to managing yacht construction projects at Camper & Nicholsons, regarded as the 'Rolls-Royce' of shipyards in Britain.

Then, aged 22, Mr Decamps took to the high seas after agreeing to be skipper for a friend who was planning to sail halfway around the world. For two years, they cruised the oceans, stopping in sun-kissed Caribbean ports, the Galapagos Islands and Tahiti.

This was before global positioning systems (GPS) and hi-tech navigation equipment, meaning they had to rely on charts and readings of the sun's position to track their bearings.

'These days, it would be far easier because you get to see exactly where you are all the time,' he said.

Their adventures included storms, hurricane scares and one near-capsize, but they came through it all a little older and considerably wiser.

Subsequently offered a chance to move to the Philippines, Mr Decamps accepted a supervisory position in a shipyard there and found himself back in the manufacturing side of the business. He later engineered a switch to a commercial role, becoming a sales and brokerage manager and letting the work take him where it would to ports and marinas throughout Europe.

Mr Decamps still finds that he is ultimately happiest when out on the high seas. Fortunately, he can make time to go cruising and racing with friends and clients and, since moving to Asia, has competed in numerous deep-sea races, including those from Hong Kong to the Philippines, Vietnam, Hainan and Macau.

Tough as they were, he admits though that they still pale in comparison to an 18-day race he completed from Bermuda to Britain in 1976, a formidable challenge for any seafarer.

Briefly speaking

More than two decades of yacht-brokering experience in Hong Kong, France, Spain and Britain

Spent five years on yacht production; supervising and project managing the construction of boats

First job focused on organising repair projects for yachts of all types and sizes

Was a skipper on a two-year cruising expedition

Studied yacht design in Britain

Stepping Up

General manager

HK$125,000 or more

12 years up

Sales director

HK$75,000 or more

Eight years up

Sales manager

HK$66,000 up

Four to five years

Sales executive

HK$41,600 to HK$50,000

Two to three years

Sales co-ordinator


Entry-level position

Source: Robert Walters