“I got kicked out of school at the age of 15 for being a naughty boy,” says Charlie Birkett when I ask him about how his career in yachting started, “and I never really got back into the academic scene again.” He is a busy man. Having founded the Yacht Company, or Y.CO as they are known, at the age of 28 in 2004 with an old-time friend and colleague Gary Wright, you better believe it. In little over a decade, the familiar yellow brand had gone from management specialist to all-around service provider and is considered one of the heavyweights operating in the business today.
But I didn’t travel from Amsterdam to Monaco to get a few precious moments with Birkett and talk about Y.CO’s past achievements. With a client base that includes some of silicon valley’s most prominent figures, Y.CO today has fully embraced the digital world and have incorporated this ‘always-online’ nature into everything the company does. I am here to find out about what the tech world has to teach the superyacht business and what being tech-savvy can add to the repertoire of a yacht management and brokerage firm.
“And so I just went sailing and worked on boats until the age of 28 and then founded Y.CO with Gary. I just love being on the water and that is also a quality we look for when recruiting here. We want passionate people; we want people who get it. It should be fun, not a chore!” The phrase ‘it should be fun, not a chore’ was repeated another three times throughout my interview with Birkett. It’s very clear by his spirited nature and hands-on approach that this is a job he enjoys doing and his attitude has clearly rubbed off on the people that work here too. The creative space they call the office is more Google headquarters than gloomy call centre, and after an intense briefing in the immersive conference-call space, employees are encouraged to hit the gym, play around on the foosball table or meet up at Charlie’s bar in the canteen (if it’s Friday afternoon, that is). “It’s all about finding that balance,” says Birkett.
But has this always been the Y.CO way of doing business, I wonder?
Have things changed much since the beginning?
Yes, it has changed a lot. The idea of forming Y.CO started during the America’s Cup campaign where Gary was the CEO of OneWorld Challenge. During that time, we spoke a lot about creating a better standard of yacht management service. It was 2001/2002 at the time and in those days, management was a bit of an afterthought service offered by brokerage companies just to keep clients happy and engaged in their company. It was our opinion that a lot of the services offered to yachts didn’t really support their operation and was more of a hindrance. We chatted a lot about how we would approach this and decided on starting off as a management company. We were three people in the office and we started off looking after three yachts.
How did the fleet grow from three yachts to the 100+ operations Y.CO are dealing with today?
A lot of that has come via word of mouth. We deal with a lot of captains and crew and as these people step up to other yachts in management positions, if they have had a positive experience with us they would recommend us and our services. And same goes for owners. If their friends or family buy boats, they would refer to us as a company to work with.
11:11 currently for charter with Y.CO, photo by Jeff Brown / Breed Media
Do you find that the management side of the business is more competitive these days? As most brokerage firms offer this service?
It has become a lot more competitive. I am 100% sure, however, that no other company is doing it the way we are. Management is the mainstay of our operation so we invest heavily in the systems, the people and the training that make up the entire operation.
Many of your clients are very tech-savvy individuals. Does dealing with these clients inspire Y.CO to be more innovative in its approach to the superyacht business?
Yes, we work with many of the west coast entrepreneurs. I get very inspired by working with them. Not because of their respective systems or inventions, but by the way they operate their yachts. It is very different to what you would get in Europe, for example. They are not interested in crew varnishing capping rails or polishing stainless while they are on board. They are looking for a highly skilled crew that, when the owner steps on board, it’s just fun, fun, fun. And that’s what inspires me.
How have you incorporated that same digital language that many of your clients communicate in, into Y.CO’s day-to-day operations?
We have embraced every opportunity, and at a huge cost, the digital world. We were one of the first companies to put a management system online. We have invested over €1.5 million in our management systems and it provides the management platform that looks after over 100 yachting operations. And the way we have chosen to do it over the years and will continue to do it, is via digital platforms. At the moment we are a yacht management company using digital systems, but I think that it is only a matter of time before we are a digital company offering yacht management services.
What role do you think the digital world will play in the future when chartering a yacht?
I think on the smaller end of things; we will see the digital world play a much bigger role. I think people will naturally look for a platform, much like Uber, where you are able to agree on a yacht, the price, the location and payment. When you are chartering a much larger yacht, however, and spending $500,000 or $1,000,000 a week, personally I would want to talk to someone and be able to gauge whether that person which you are trusting to deliver a once-in-a-lifetime experience, is capable of doing just that. So I don’t think we will see the end of brokers, but it might affect the bottom end of the market.
How is Y.CO geared towards delivering a modern charter experience to clients today?
None of our clients are conventional, I’d like to think. They don’t do things normally and they are also not after a normal yacht experience. To give them that Y.CO experience we use a variety of tools on our digital platforms to communicate with them in a really cool and experiential way. Charter clients today will have access to our link software, for example. We don’t send PDF’s or brochures, instead, we allow them access inside our little world where they can explore available yachts, different itineraries and even special preferences.
A charter experience onboard 11:11 available for charter with Y.CO
How is Y.CO set up and run as a company right now?
Gary and I have total control over the company. We have appointed Holly Bottau as Managing Director and she now runs the company together with her senior leadership team. The brokers are all partners and directors of a subsidiary company. They are remunerated in different ways, be it salaries or commission and they all form part of a very strict internal code of conduct, called Y.CO3. They all sit on the board of that structure which we take very seriously.
Has your background working onboard yachts with Gary proved useful in structuring the crew side of the business?
Definitely. I don’t think you can really set up shop in this business without some onboard experience and knowing what life on board is like. As a result of that experience, we know that we cannot control what goes on on the boat which is why have developed a crew and culture department that help each of the yachts that we manage to identify what their core values as a brand are and enable them to successfully communicate that to their team. Then we can say have done everything we can in our power to make things run as smoothly as possible. Ultimately, though, once the client gets on board it is all up to the captain and crew.
Holly Bottau, Gary Wright and Charlie Birkett
Do you think yacht brokerage and management is an exciting career for the younger generation to get involved in?
Totally. I certainly don’t think that anyone at the age of 22 can be a broker; I don’t know any of our clients that would engage with a 22-year-old no matter how charming or sweet he/she is. However, I strongly feel that there are a lot of opportunities in the industry. We are always looking for really, really good people. Both Gary and I have made a concerted effort to communicate with schools and universities as these are the new people we are looking for. They are tech-savvy, they are sharp and used to using modern day tools. I cannot imagine why anyone wouldn’t enjoy working in this business.
This article was featured in the Innovation Issue of the SuperYacht Times newspaper. Subscribe now to receive your copy straight to your door and never miss another issue.