The Times

How blue sky thinking had Oyster Yachts in the pink

Can you ever have too many pink whales? For Richard Hadida, the answer is a resounding “no”. An otherwise tasteful £2 million refit of Lush, his Oyster 885 super yacht, has preserved one of her most striking features; the incongruous colourful mammal that can be found everywhere on the vessel, from its stern to its boom, sail and even the whisky glasses on board. “Some people might think it’s a bit crass,” Mr Hadida admits, “but it helps you find her in the marina if you’ve had a few drinks. I think it’s fun.”

Mr Hadida, 54, has been having plenty of that since he acquired Oyster Yachts, Lush’s manufacturer, out of administration last year. The Southampton-based company had made bespoke yachts for the super-rich since 1973, but it hit the rocks in February 2018 after its Dutch investors withdrew backing. It had been struggling with a legal claim arising from the loss of one of its vessels, the Polina Star III, as well as narrow profit margins.

Mr Hadida, a software entrepreneur, didn’t hesitate when he heard that Oyster had failed. “Some of my best memories have been on Lush, so I was already in love with the brand. I never thought it was going to go bust. Suddenly they did and my immediate reaction was, ‘This is for me.’ ”

His £6.7 million offer was picked from 14 bids by administrators to bring Oyster back from the brink. By the end of this year, he will have invested £25 million in reviving the business and it should be close to breaking even.

For a man who made his money from building and floating Evolution Gaming, which provides software for bookmakers to produce live-action casino games, switching his attention to manufacturing has involved a steep learning curve as well as deep pockets.

He is, he says, “learning everything from the beginning. The challenge is enormous, but that makes me feel alive because I am having to throw myself totally into it. It’s all on my shoulders because I have no other investors.”

Oyster makes about 15 yachts a year, ranging in price from £1.5 million to almost £20 million. Mr Hadida hopes to increase production to 25 a year by improving processes and is aiming to make a further “multimillion-pound” investment in a new production facility that will make a lower-cost “baby Oyster” yacht, likely to cost less than £1 million.

Mr Hadida has taken inspiration from the turnaround of Sunseeker, the motor yacht manufacturer based in Poole, Dorset, that employs more than 2,000 people and is back in the black after years of losses. Its revival involved investment in new facilities and streamlined production methods.

In the case of Oyster, its owner hasn’t struggled to identify areas of improvement. “One of the beauties of Oyster is that they’ve done everything the same way for 43 years. They are traditionally made, to a high quality but without compromising that you can bring in technology and working practices to make them more efficiently.”

A new software system will automatically order components at the appropriate stage of the production process. “One of the problems we had here is that, for example, windows would appear randomly over six months. Now we have window day. Here they all are. Tomorrow we’ll do a different job. We are not ever going to be mass production, but we can be more organised and more rapid, building in stages where everyone knows exactly what is happening at each point.”

The previous company’s hull supplier has been acquired, which should reduce the risk of the kind of legal wrangles that followed the loss of the Polina Star III, which was said to have been linked to a production defect.

“[Apple’s] Steve Jobs said you want to own the product from production through to retail. So I bought that business. I can sleep at night knowing they are built to the correct standards.”

Mr Hadida says he always wanted to be an entrepreneur. “My dad was probably Britain’s biggest shower curtain maker when people still had shower curtains. He took me to a cricket match and all his friends arrived in fancy cars.

“I remember him saying, ‘Look at us, we haven’t got one A-level between us.’ I was halfway through my A-levels at the time. I quit school. My mum wasn’t very happy. I’d decided I didn’t need A-levels to work for myself.”

Hadida Jr had to overcome a painful false start before he made his mark, however. A premature paperless office venture failed, which left him bankrupt at 29.

“I had an advert showing some pink toilet paper saying, ‘The only paper your company will need.’ This was years before email and the internet. It was ahead of its time, but it was flawed.

“I lost everything. I went back to my mum’s house, camped in the spare room, borrowed a woman’s bike, I was down to zero. My grandmother made me learn [Rudyard Kipling’s] If by heart as a child and I quoted that at difficult times in my life; start again at your beginnings and never breathe a word about your loss. It’s a case of not moaning. Little by little, I started again and eventually got it right with this gaming thing.”

Evolution is listed in Stockholm and has a valuation of more than £2.5 billion. Mr Hadida, who has sold most of his shares, says that its flotation marked quite the reversal in fortune.

“We tried to trade sale it two years running for £100 million. We ended up floating and suddenly it was worth £2 billion. I thought, ‘My God.’

“I’m sure the guys that almost bought us said, ‘Oops.’ ”

Oyster employs about 290 staff and is “hiring frantically . . . This business will be around for another 45 years, I’m going to make sure of that. I didn’t buy Oyster to sell it. From day one Evolution was about an exit. Here there is no exit, it’s a legacy.”

Tributes to Trafalgar

Richard Hadida believes that he has the world’s largest private collection of Admiral Lord Nelson artefacts, including the watch he used to time the start of the Battle of Trafalgar and a piece of the Union Jack from HMS Victory (James Hurley writes). “It has musket holes in,” Mr Hadida said. “It was draped over him after his death and was supposed to be buried with him.

“But his most trusted men tore it into pieces and kept them as a memento. I’ve got the biggest surviving piece. Every little boy has a hero and he was mine, as an adventurer, as a military tactician. The Age of Sail conjures up adventure.”

Mr Hadida, who is married and has two children, said that the collection would soon be moved from his home in Berkshire to a new Oyster Yachts showroom in Mayfair so that anyone could come and see it.

He added: “I’ll put a little museum in the back of the store. I don’t want to hoard it for myself. These are British heritage items.”

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