Though the superyacht business is a relatively small industry, it is packed with international professionals from all walks of life, and it can certainly be easy to get lost in the sea of faces we are presented with at boat shows, yachting events and beyond. In this series of articles, we take a step back from rushed business meetings and hurried networking and sit down with professionals from across the wide spectrum of the superyacht business to learn more about who they are and what they do for the industry. In this week’s episode, we get to know Daan Balk, the CEO of Balk Shipyard in the Netherlands.
Balk has a very long history and heritage, and I was wondering if you could talk to me about the history of the yard and why that’s important to you.
Balk has a long history, this year we are celebrating 220 years of being established and I feel a real connection with our heritage. I am the seventh generation to run the yard, and we have three sons at home and they are already talking about the shipyard. My wife Stella and I put in the effort to make sure they make their own choices. It would be great they take over the yard but Stella and I want them to know that there are many great things you can do for a living!
I took over the company when I was 28, my father passed away when he was 57 and it was a big financial risk for me to take over the company because the yard was in bad shape at that time. The advice of people involved was "please don’t do it: use your brains and don’t step into this!’", but I had to do it, and then we got things back on track to where we are today, and we're really pleased: things are looking up. We started in Elburg and then expanded after 5-6 years, moving to our present facilities in Urk.
Above all, you are known for being a refit yard. Why have you decided to focus almost exclusively on refit and rebuild projects rather than the new build market?
Refit and rebuild are so much a part of our heritage. Even if I look back in history, the older Balk shipyard in Elburg looked after all the local fishing vessels. If someone bought a new one, they went to Urk for new builds, but we were always the local yard that was there for maintenance and repair and we are proud to continue this tradition today. New build is a completely different game: you need different organisation, different people and, above all, a different mindset.
Dancing Hare at the shipyard in Urk.
That said, you are planning to move to a new, larger facility which will also be in Urk. Could this be an opportunity for more new build projects?
Certainly. The new facility will be triple the size of this one, which is perfect because we are fighting our borders at the moment. When we were moving the 57.7-metre Amels, Dancing Hare, into the yard for her refit recently, we had to add a temporary extension to both sheds! We are arriving in the same situation as were in Elburg: the opportunity is there, so I said let’s jump. Your customers grow bigger, so you have to grow with them.
As for the new build, the new premises will offer us the space to set up a separate building for this, and it's something I want. In addition, since 2016, we have also been the proud owner of the shipyard Jachtwerf Bloemsma, which enables us to do business on new build projects. Refit is great, and you’re always the good guy: people are pleased that you make their boat nice again and even better! But I have done all my education in shipbuilding and I would feel complete if I could say, "that one and that one and that one" are boats that we have built, to show the world that we can do that as well. I will wait for my opportunity to come and be patient.
Tell me more about one of your most recent refit projects, the 37.7m Heesen Alumercia which has been recently renamed Unexpected.
We are developing the scope for Alumercia at the moment. We already had an established relationship with the owner, we did a 50-metre project with him five years ago and so he trusts us completely. With Alumercia, that trust is 100%, there are no management companies involved, even the crew is not there yet. We were also part of the sale of the boat before he brought her here. He said, “please Daan, advise me, I am keen to purchase the boat but I wish you to be my partner when we will sell it." We also have confidence in the owner that he won't let us down with unpaid bills or with unreasonable requests like "the boat needs to be ready next week" and everybody knows it’s another month. Those are the projects you look forward to as a company.
Alumerica is already 18 years old, so there is quite some work to do: a full paint job, a change to the interior, guest cabins, main cabins, main lounge, sky lounge, the engine room, new generators, all the tenders, the deck. It’s typical of what you see when someone purchases a boat and they want to make it their own. It’s like if you’re going to rent a room or a house, the kitchen, the bathroom. These are things you want to feel fresh and clean and say "this is mine."
Finally, what have you got planned in the future?
Eventually, we may go bigger than our current focus on 40-50-metre boats, if you look at what we’ve been doing for Feadship, these are all 70-80 metre boats and those boats will be in need of maintenance in the upcoming years. Soon, we will move from 50-60-metres and we should be ready to have a 60-metre plus, but I think 70-metres will be the maximum for us for some time.
At the new premises, we may also have one shed for local customers to leave their boats in for winter storage. We want to make a step forward, but, in my opinion, one step back is also necessary, as we stopped serving local clients 10 years ago, and I've never felt at ease with that. We did it very gently and nobody was disadvantaged, but it was a difficult separation and I never had a good feeling about it. It makes me feel good to open the doors for them and welcome them again.