British native and lifelong yachtie, Alex Lees-Buckley is undoubtedly one of the most successful superyacht brokers in the business. Going from crewing and running boats fresh out of school to returning to dry land to expand his superyacht horizons, today Lees-Buckley is senior sales broker at Camper & Nicholsons International. Still going strong after 30+ years in the competitive and ever-changing world of brokerage, over the past three decades Lees-Buckley has been responsible for the sale and management of some of the most significant milestone-projects in yachting. Here we catch up with Lees-Buckley to get a snapshot into the life of a successful superyacht broker, and his advice to those looking to do the same. Photo: Tom van Oossanen / SuperYacht TimesAlthough you are one of the world’s most accomplished brokers, you are a pretty elusive man at least as far as a digital presence goes. Tell me about yourself.
Well, firstly I wouldn’t say I’m elusive… rather, quite simply, not one that thrives on attention! But I am quite old school, I suppose, in many ways, with an established and loyal clientele of whom many are multi-repeat clients. I’ve probably avoided the digital sphere to my detriment - that’s what everyone keeps telling me, anyway!
But about me, I grew up around the water in the South of England and the Med and started working on boats from about the age of 16. I returned to shore at 24 when our son Gaston was born. We chose to settle in the south of France which was the beating heart of yachting at the time, and I joined Camper & Nicholsons at the age of 28. I was delighted to join C&N, being the oldest name in yachting and the most respected brokerage firm at the time - without question. I also had the privilege to work closely with some of the industry’s pioneers including George Nicholson himself - someone I have the greatest respect for.
Although there have been moments with various shareholder changes where I’ve thought, ‘Crikey, this isn’t what it was…’, on balance I’ve always been happy here. Particularly in terms of the support of a great team who have remained consistent. For me, the grass has always been green enough with Campers, and I’m confident that the shareholders and management in place today aim to bring the brand straight back up to that number one position.
You’ve been part of a number of prestigious new build projects. Tell me a few of the most important and how they impacted your career.
From tenders and day boats right up to the 140-metre, 8500 GT Fincantieri monster, Ocean Victory, delivered a few years ago - I have indeed been part of many new build projects. They are, however, all just as important as each other, learning more and more with each project and taking that knowledge on to the next.
My involvement in new build projects really just happened to fall that way. A client of mine who I used to work for as captain just couldn’t find anything on the market that suited her, so I said, ‘Let’s build something!’ And off we went into the horizon. It was a 50 footer, a very small boat today but not so small at the time. That went well, and then another client came along and we did something slightly bigger and on it went. Before I knew it I started to be known for my expertise in the sector. At one point I had eight boats under my construction - all of varying types and sizes and for some very different individuals. That was tough work, but focusing on the right yard to satisfy the client and from there surrounding myself with good, suitable, capable people, I could orchestrate the complex process efficiently.
Becoming involved in new build projects had a massive impact on my career as a broker. It changed everything in how I was working, as new build projects are naturally very time consuming compared to the sale of used vessels. I still love the process and have just delivered a wonderful Pershing 92’ that reaches in excess of 40 knots in pretty much any weather. She is a proper high-speed boat, built for a family to whom I delivered a 65-metre Feadship 10 years ago. My next project is a heavy displacement 60-metre, so there is still a great deal of variety in what I do. Photo: Benoit DonneYou have sold a substantial amount of Benetti and Feadship superyachts - perhaps more than any other broker. Can you talk about your relationship with these two yards?
Yes, I have sold and followed the build of eight Feadship projects from a 39-metre to the largest volume Feadship at the time at 2,200 GT, as well as over a dozen Benetti's from 30-metres up to their largest to date at 90-metres. But my involvement with other yards is also notable, with three significant Perini sailing yachts, Jongert’s largest project to date, the 46-metre Wellenreiter, amongst several others. With Feadship and Benetti, our relationship simply grew organically as I was becoming more and more involved in new builds. The first Feadship I was involved in I came in halfway through construction. It was an opportunity that I saw for a client of mine who had a smaller boat and wanted to acquire something bigger but didn't want to wait or go through the entire process again having had a bad experience prior to our meeting. He soon learned that successful boat building is all about working with the right match of people. From there I spent time in the shipyard and someone else came along having difficulty finding the right boat and I again suggested we build at Feadship. So I developed a bit of a reputation amongst certain clients. Word of mouth recommendation amongst friends is really everything in this business - and life in general for that matter!
What are some of your most memorable sales over the years and why?
Privacy really is an integral part of my role as a superyacht broker, so without going into too much detail, without a doubt, my most memorable sale and project over the years is the 140-metre Ocean Victory, which was delivered in 2014. Unsurprising, one might say, but not purely due to her size. This build was a huge step away from what one experiences in traditional yacht building, entering a whole new world on this massive scale. This was a ship. I have, however, had great satisfaction from all of them irrespective of size, as in the main they have been fully custom to meet the individuals’ particular requirements. To be part of fulfilling that dream is very satisfying.
The build process varies tremendously from yard to yard and the various traditions and cultures involved make it fascinating. In new build projects, things are forever changing, with few projects following the original spec. The key role to successful brokerage - and often the biggest challenge - is to keep both sides happy. Whether that’s two clients in a sale, or a yard and a client in a new build project. Apart from generally orchestrating, that’s my main role, to be a mediator and ensure that there are no disputes and that everyone wins. Photo: Benoit DonneIn 2016, you were awarded the first Richard Earp award from Fraser. You stated: “Through this award, I am confident that his name will live on in yachting for a very long time as the reference as to how we should all strive to be.” How should the brokerage community strive to be?
The industry has grown to such an extent that today, there are all sorts of people out there working in the world of brokerage. There are some very good brokers - straightforward, diligent, honest individuals - and then there are those that like the idea of being a broker and making a fast buck. The latter may not uphold the qualities you would expect of a good broker. It’s the same in any industry I think, and unfortunately, you can’t stop these people from damaging the reputation of the brokerage community. Will they get better? Well, do leopards change their spots? In my experience, rarely...
But to answer your question, the brokerage community should strive to be, quite simply, as Richard was: honest, hardworking, respectful of others, putting the client first at all times and, not least of all, humble in the process. Richard was also gifted with a wonderful and charming nature and great humour.
As one of the most experienced yacht brokers in the world, tell us your thoughts on how the superyacht market has evolved.
The market has changed dramatically in every way. When I started with Campers over 30 years ago builders were few and yards were small. Only a handful of yards were building over 40 metres on a regular basis, and 30 metres was a pretty large motor yacht. I remember looking in awe at a Swan 65’ that a friend was running, thinking how huge it was. Today it takes a 65 metre to have the same effect. In the beginning, there were also probably less than a dozen individual brokers in Europe. We all knew and respected each other and wouldn’t dream of approaching anyone else’s clients
Whilst motor yacht production continues to grow, changes in the sailing boat market have seen the slow down in the 35m+ sector with the loss of several prominent yards, legendary builders and designers themselves, but the reason for this decline still escapes me. This seems to be freeing up now, however, with several recent sailing yacht sales and much more general interest. Let’s hope it continues.
The length and volume of the motor yachts is not the only thing that has also dramatically changed, with design evolving exponentially. Motor yacht A and Sailing Yacht A are classic examples of someone wishing to push the boundaries in design and to such a degree revolutionising the industry in the process, setting new standards and trends which is marvellous. Photo: Benoit DonneWhat are your thoughts on the future of yachting?
I think one would need a crystal ball to answer that with any degree of accuracy other than to say that whilst the trend over the last couple of decades has been for increasingly larger and more opulent motor yachts, which I see as a natural progression to some degree, I do sense a slowdown coming in the top end, certainly over 3000 GT. Nevertheless, demand can change rapidly as we have witnessed in the past with evolving economies, so who really knows what tomorrow will bring?
Explorer yachts are of course becoming much more popular with the rise of adventurous cruising and people generally being more outgoing and sporty in their lives. Asia is still growing which will be one to look out for in the future. It’s not growing at an alarming rate and I thought that it would develop quicker, but it is moving forward.
In terms of the future, do you see less conventional ownership models coming to the fore anytime soon?
I've heard this for years and years in regards to things like fractional ownership or timeshares. In my experience, it doesn’t work. The designing of it and the level of maintenance and the level of work that one puts into it, from the type of cushions to the kind of crew one employs - I find it very difficult to get that right for one owner, let alone several. Chartering makes more sense if you can't afford, or prefer not to afford to own a certain type of vessel outright. I think if you talk to anyone who has or has had a partnership in a yacht, they probably wouldn’t do it again.
Brokerage will always be there to assist owners in finding the right kind of yachting experience for them - whether that be charter or purchase. In terms of new build projects, you see a lot of management companies representing clients now, whilst in the past, it was largely the broker in this role as there were very few management companies. Campers actually set up the first yacht management division shortly after I joined them. I don't think management companies taking this over is a bad thing if it's done correctly, and I don't think it's a bad thing either if the broker is responsible if he is knowledgeable. The most important thing, absolutely, is to do it right. This requires not only knowledge but also a high level of cooperation between the parties. The word custom is thrown about a lot in the business, although a clear definition of custom or semi-custom vessels does not exist. What is your definition?
From what one reads, descriptions and interpretations are, indeed, endless in this respect. I feel that there are three basics starting with standard production boats, customised production boats (or semi-custom vessels) and fully custom. Naturally, customisation can range from simply altering decor, different layouts, personalising the exterior styling, and installing alternative machinery and propulsion, right the way through to total one-off projects… the latter of which is the obvious definition of full custom, in my opinion.
What is your advice to young brokers who wish to carve out as impressive a career as yourself in the world of superyacht brokerage?
Firstly to those that think they are going to get rich quick: dream on! The world of brokerage is incredibly competitive today. I don’t think I would want to get started nowadays. The timing was perfect when I got into the business, a mere cottage industry at the time, and by working hard and doing my best at all times I rode the wave of expansion to where we are today. My advice to anyone starting out is to always put your clients’ wishes and needs first and foremost and if you don’t know the answer ask someone who does. And finally, focus on customer care and service and building long-lasting relationships.
This article is featured in the latest edition of the SuperYacht Times newspaper. Subscribe now to receive your copy straight to your door and never miss another issue.
SuperYacht Times - The State of Yachting 2020
Being the intelligence partner for the top shipyards and yacht brokers in the world, we have learned to analyse and track the market in great detail. Each year our leading market report is used by investors, CEOs, owners and other key decision makers to inform themselves on the state of the market and future developments. Find all the information you need on the market, fleet, construction book, ownership nationalities and much more in our report.
#weknow - do you want to know? Buy the report now for only €299!