Finding a niche: ICON Yachts spearhead conversions

Written by Francesca Webster

Founder and Director of SuperYacht Times, Merijn De Waard, sat down with Tony Gale, CEO, and Stephan Vitus, Head of Project Development, at ICON Yachts, to discuss the unusual niche the company has formed for itself as leading conversion specialists.Icon Yachts Founded in 2005, ICON Yachtsin Harlingen, the Netherlands, was established upon an innovative bedrock, creating custom new-build vessels, constructed from a pre-engineered superyacht platform. This allowed the shipyard to produce vessels, which could be customised to an owner’s specifications, within a shorter time frame than many of their competitors.

Ragnar yacht at icon shipyardPhoto: Guy FleuryThough already recognised as one of the more adaptive shipyards in the industry, working not only on new-builds and refits, in recent years they have pushed the boundaries of what can be done with commercial vessels. ICON Yachts have shown their flare with conversions, most notably with the launch of the 68-metre explorer superyacht Ragnar in 2020. Ragnar was converted from Dutch icebreaker support vessel Sanaborg, which was launched in 2012 and retired shortly before her conversion began in 2017. Staying true to their roots, the shipyard adapted the pre-existing platform structure of Ragnar, and the vessel has since made waves in the industry, changing perceptions of conversions and opening the door to a wider clientele.

Ragnar yacht launch at Icon YachtsPhoto: Guy Fleury When asked if Ragnar’s launch had piqued the interest of many prospective clients, Stephan Vitus commented that, “yes absolutely, to the point of clients actually sending us images of Ragnar and requesting a vessel just as impressive as she is.” Tony Gale added that on the back of Ragnar’s success, it is likely that other shipyards have likewise been experiencing an influx of enquiries and that it “must have helped the whole market.” However, rather than becoming concerned by the thought of competition, he notes that it is something ICONare eager to advocate for, because “you need competition to maintain all of the subcontractors out there,” an issue which has become particularly prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Ragnar yacht launch at Icon YachtsPhoto: Guy Fleury

With another conversion about to begin, details of which are yet to be released, and enquiries consistently coming in, what is it that makes conversions so appealing to clients? The answer to that is multifaceted, and it goes beyond the expected — that they’re simply more financially approachable. Though conversions do come in at a considerably diminished cost when compared to new build vessels, Tony and Stephan have found that another benefit is the streamlined time frame, something ICON have always prioritised within their mission statement. With an average new build taking around four years from the confirmation of designs, ICON believe conversions can move from construction to completion in a minimum of a year and a half. This, however, is naturally dependent on the quality and condition of the starter vessel, something which they have also moved to facilitate. Ragnar yacht cruisingPhoto: Blueiprod / BurgessThough a number of clients have approached Stephan with a commercial vessel already in mind, the team have found that this can be a time consuming and counterproductive route to conversion. In one such case “by the time the exterior design was completed, there was only 35% of the vessel left.” For this reason, clients are dissuaded from approaching the shipyard with a particular vessel in mind, instead preferring to recommend pre-evaluated vessels. This has become a focus for Stephan, who scouts international markets for commercial vessels, creating an inventory of possible ‘donor vessels’ that have the potential to become successful conversions.Ragnar yacht anchoredPhoto: Blueiprod / BurgessStephan added that another major impetus toward conversions is that they “are a lot of fun”. Tony agrees, commenting that “they’re all one offs. They’re not like building a Mercedes, and that's the fun and the beauty of what we do”. Conversions also provide a new type of superyacht for naval architects, stylists and designers to work with, it’s “not like starting with a whiteboard or platform that stops at the waterline”. The British design firm RWD, who created the design of Ragnar, proved how much can be done with conversions, taking even seasoned veterans like Stephan and Tony by surprise. Ragnar yacht deckPhoto: Blueiprod / BurgessAs for the future of ICON Yachts, things are looking bright. There are currently three major projects underway, one so far confidential, Project Seawolf and the conversion of the Norwegian vessel, so they have work in the line to keep them busy until the end of 2023. Tony stresses however, that the company has no intention of rapid expansion, with their focus remaining on gradual and sustainable growth. They are, after all, a relatively small yard, and Gale believes firmly that ICON “belongs to the people that work within it. It has been built up for them, the staff, their families'' he explains. Training has become an integral part of their ethos, particularly since he joined in January 2020, when it was more important than ever for their workforce and contractors to feel stability. Ragnar yacht deckPhoto: Blueiprod / BurgessIt is evident that ICON Yachts have forged an excellent position for themselves, one that they have worked hard toward, not only over the last 18 months, but since their foundation in 2005. With new builds and refits still on the table, they are showing themselves to be an adaptive shipyard, and one that is willing to continue to innovate along with its always-changing industry.

This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of The SuperYacht Times newspaper. To receive all future issues straight to your door, subscribe to the newspaper here.

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