Kommer Damen: how one persistent man transformed an industry

Written by Gemma Fottles

This is an extract of the full interview with Kommer and Rose Damen in the latest issue of the SuperYacht Times newspaper

Walking into the Damen headquarters in the tiny Dutch city of Gorinchem to meet Kommer Damen earlier this year was a little nerve-racking. Mr Damen is, after all, an important man. An important man who famously permits just two interviews with the media per year. Founder, former CEO and current Chairman of the Damen Group which, under Kommer’s leadership since 1969, boasts over 34 shipyards worldwide, 10,000 employees and an annual turnover of €2 billion in 2017. Needless to say, our early morning drive from Amsterdam largely consisted of reading and rereading our interview questions, and being acutely aware that this was, indeed, a big deal. 

Kommer and Rose DamenPhoto: Damen ShipyardsAs my time spent interviewing superyacht owners and business leaders across the world should have taught me by now, however, anxious expectations when meeting with the world’s elite are almost never met. A New York real estate mogul or a Monegasque-living superyacht designer, when the subject is boats, the ocean and the beauty of yachting, you’re almost guaranteed a surprisingly easy and wonderfully candid encounter. Kommer is a fantastic example of that: a warm, down-to-earth Dutchman, deeply passionate about the industry which he has built an incredibly successful five-decade career around. 

Welcomed to Kommer’s office and sat down alongside Kommer’s daughter and an increasingly integral part of the Damen machine, Rose, we start our interview. Earlier that week I had stumbled across a story about Kommer in a Dutch publication. My translation proved to be a little off, but from what I gathered, when Kommer was a teenager he got into a fistfight with an employee at the yard, and his father fired him... In hindsight, perhaps not the best first question to ask a man you’re a little nervous about interviewing - especially when your translation’s ‘a little off’.

Thankfully, he grins and says, “Well, it was actually my professor at school, not an employee. I was expelled not fired, so I don’t know where you got that! But yes, I gave him a small push, he fell on the floor and I was sent away from school… My father went to the Headmaster and told him, ‘This boy has ruined everything for himself. But - please let him come back next year.’ He agreed, and my father sent me to work on the shipyard floor for a year.” 

The original Damen yard in Harnixveld The original Damen yard at Harnixveld

The year at the yard that was earned from his unruly teenage-self actually transpired to be one of the most important periods of his life, learning invaluable lessons when it came to motivating the people running the day-to-day of every large operation, and understanding the importance of a team to the functionality of the business. “When you are working a blue-collar job you quickly see what motivates people and what does the opposite. Like when it was cold and windy and we were working on the slipway. The management team didn’t get there till 08:30, but we were there at 07:00. Between 7 and 8:30, nothing happened at that yard. I could also see people getting pay rises who weren’t necessarily the best at the job in the eyes of their colleagues, so that demotivated staff for months. When I started on my own, I was there early in the morning. Walking around, saying nothing, but being part of the team. I also paid everyone the same. This year in the yard was the best learning curve of my life.” 

Regardless of a valuable knowledge in the management of people from the top to the bottom, when Kommer bought the Damen shipyard in Hardinxveld from his father in 1969, it was certainly not an easy ride. In fact, it was quite the opposite… and entirely the fault of the young, strong-willed Kommer Damen. Kommer had an idea. Like a dog with a bone, he wouldn’t let it go. He firmly believed in making the boat building process more efficient. Faster, less expensive, and most importantly, with a better product at the end. The Damen family at the yard: Bear Damen, Anneliese Damen, Rose Damen, Arnout Damen and Kommer Damen The Damen family (L-R); Bear, Anneliese, Rose, Arnout and Kommer Damen 

Unwilling to shift the business in such a risky direction, the yards that his father and uncle owned together were split up, with his uncle and cousin taking two smaller yards, and Kommer and his father taking a large yard and carpentry business. “I officially joined the company in 1967,” he explains. “My father and uncle started with the idea of serial building, mostly building in modules in order to answer short delivery times. That idea, however, involved a lot of capital - which we didn't have. My father said it was too risky. After the split of the company, my father told me I could have the yard. By that he meant I could buy the yard. I had no money, so I ‘bought’ the yard and owed a lot of money to my father, who continued with the carpentry company. 

I wanted to continue with the idea of serial boat building. But thinking of our staff, my father told me, ‘You cannot have all these people victim to your plans,’. So many left to work for my cousin. Now, I was left alone with an old yard, a debt to my father, six people and a good idea. A friend of a friend introduced me to the MD of Pon, the distributor of Caterpillar, and I went on to make a deal that changed the company. As long as I agreed to exclusively use CAT engines, I wouldn't have to pay them until one year following delivery. That was a huge help, and the start of Damen. The idea is still the same today: building standardised boats in a series and selling them out of the series. You have more focus on the development of a boat, you have lower production costs, you gain on labour hours, and you get a much better boat.” 

It’s amazing, really, that even when Kommer’s father clearly did not fully believe in the serial boat building business model (added to the fact he was proving to be a little bit of a wild card) he was still set on his son taking over at least a part of the family business. Clearly Kommer’s father - as well as his uncle - fully expected their sons to go into the family business. In this case, it paid off in the end (50 years later, Kommer Damen is now the fifth wealthiest man in the Netherlands), but as many failed family business owners can attest to, it could have easily gone differently. 

Maybe with his own youthful antics in mind, Kommer lead his business in a different way when it came to family. It was certainly not a requirement to enter the Damen Group, nor was it an open option. By the time his children were born, the Damen Group was already a huge animal - and it takes a certain set of skills to become that animal’s master. All on the board since 2008, it was in 2010 that his son Arnout Damen took the role of Chief Commercial Officer after founding Dutch maritime media group, Navingo. Annelies Damen manages the corporate properties portfolio, Bear Damen recently directed the company’s corporate film, and Rose Damen is Commercial Director at Amels. Amels Limited Edition 272 Here Comes The SunPhoto: AmelsAmels Limited Editions 272, Here Comes the Sun

Did you always envision your children working in the business?

KD: No. I always hoped they could work with the company, but I always told them that I do not want you to be the CEO if you can find a better one. I was very glad, however, that all of my children are very capable of being top managers at the company. To be the owner and top manager, I think, is a very lucky combination. 

RD: There were always hopes that we would enter the business, but yes, there was never any pressure to join. You were always very open about the company, so we all felt quite involved from a young age, anyway. I grew up hearing about business over dinners and holidays and basically all the time. It’s also a bit daunting: I have a father who has done very well. So if I don't do just as well… there’s a lot of pressure in that regard.

Rose, when did you decide to enter the Damen Group?

RD: In 2008, myself, my brother Arnout and my sister Anneliese joined the board of Damen as non-executive members. I worked for 8 years in finance before I joined. I remember asking myself, ‘what if I wake up in 10 years’ time and think what if?’. I didn’t want that. I rationalised that worst case scenario, I can still move back into finance. It was day two of working in the company that I kind of knew it was going to be a lot longer than that!

What made you so sure?

RD: As soon as I joined, I realised that working in your family’s business is very rewarding. It’s a real privilege. As a family member and a shareholder, you have a unique capability to connect with employees, clients and subcontractors. That is something I've been passionate about my whole life. It was also a great opportunity because Amels is almost a mini-Damen. I can be involved in everything from engineering to marketing, all the way to after-sales. The Amels yard is about 1.5 hours from headquarters where my father spends a lot of time, so I also have some distance from my family! Of course, we speak a lot anyway, but I report to the CEO who is non-family.

Garcon anchored off MonacoPhoto: Tom van Oossanen / SuperYacht TimesThe Damen Yacht Support Vessel Garçon

KD: Even though I am semi-retired, I live very close to the yard. I cannot just sit there and wonder how it’s going. I like to be close to the business. As an active chairman, you have to orient yourself. See clients, other yachts, our products, suppliers… So I’m involved with the strategy of the company, but I try not to interfere in the day-to-day running. 

RD: You are very good at leaving a lot of freedom to the executive board and the people working on a daily basis in the business.

Officially joining the team in 2015, it’s not just the distance that separates Rose from working every day with her immediate family members, but it’s also the sector. With the Amels yard purchased in 1991, today Amels is the only luxury yachting sector of the Damen Group and comprises 15% of the Group’s business. Although the Amels yard had already successfully delivered eight substantial custom superyachts between the years of 1985 and 1991, you would probably expect that upon takeover by the most passionate man in the world about production boat building, that the business would switch to building luxury yachts on spec out of a series. 

It may then come as a surprise to learn that Amels under Damen continued with custom superyachts for several years before speculative series building was introduced. Why? “We wanted the same idea in Amels as we did at Damen. We, of course, didn’t have enough capital for that and the banks refused to finance that idea, so we continued to build custom yachts which, in my opinion, is not a good business plan,” he states. “We had limited success financially until the Tigre d’Or range.

Seahorse cruising Photo: Benoit DonneThe inaugural vessel of the Tigre d'Or range, now named Seahorse

The Tigre d’Or range was indeed a game changer for the Amels brand. Facilitated by a forward-thinking, innovator of an owner - Ian McGlinn - the 50-metre semi-custom range delivered six boats (the first of which was delivered in 1999 and now cruises under the name Seahorse), all designed by iconic designer Terence Disdale, and all built on the same platform. “The series was very successful,” he muses. “But I didn’t need proof that the model worked, I was already convinced. We needed the capital. Following this semi-custom success, we had enough capital ourselves and so we started the Limited Editions.

The Limited Editions range saw the inaugural superyacht, the Limited Editions 171 Deniki, designed by Tim Heywood and delivered in 2007. The following success has exceeded everyone’s expectations, shifting the focus of the previously custom-centred Amels, and reaffirming the advantages of Kommer’s favoured boat building business model for the second time in the company’s history. Last year, however, the Amels brand announced their first collaboration with Espen Oeino: a 78-metre fully custom superyacht set for delivery in 2021. So, now we’re back to custom yacht building at Amels, will there be more in the future?

Amels Deniki anchoredPhoto: Amels

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