As CEO of yacht brokerage and management company Fraser Yachts, Raphael Sauleau has been navigating an incredibly turbulent time. He speaks to Samantha Coles about how the pandemic is shaping Fraser’s plans for the future.
Raphael Sauleau, CEO of Fraser Yachts, cut a quietly confident figure speaking to us via Zoom from the garden of his home in the South of France — sitting in the sunshine, in his enviable alfresco private office. It was early summer, when lockdown restrictions were tentatively easing around the world, and we could see faint glimmers of light at the end of the Covid-19 tunnel.
His cool, collected demeanor has steered Fraser through these difficult times with a strong focus on protecting people — both employees and clients. His passion for technology has also intensified; it’s proving to be vital not just for business, but for his personal life, too. “Technology has let us work remotely, but I have also been doing a lot of sport — I use Strava, and it’s connected to my bike. My Technogym treadmill has been a fantastic help; I don’t think I would have coped otherwise!”
As the world began to lock down, Sauleau, who champions remote work already, initiated fully remote working for Fraser: “We already had a policy in place called ‘smart work’ where people work remotely a day or two a week. So it wasn’t a difficult process to initiate; in fact, we started remote work fully about 10 days before the country locked down because I could see it was coming our way.
Instead of stressing last minute we thought to just get it sorted. I am a believer in remote work — I think it is a good way to allow people to work without the stress of commuting or leaving children with nannies. I think a mix of remote and office work is a winning situation, and everyone has adapted to the new working method efficiently. Even though we had some challenges with canceling and rescheduling charters, we have been able to do so without going through the trauma of feeling unsafe.”
Perhaps the past few decades of Sauleau’s life, both professional and personal, have shaped this refreshing attitude to a work-life balance. His first foray into the world of yachting was at a young age when he would sail with his uncle. “I am from the western part of France, and from spring until the end of summer we would sail all the western coast in my uncle’s 50m [164ft] sailing boat. I’ve been around boats, and the sea, for some time.”
He went on to work with cruise lines and large shipping management companies before becoming CEO of a family office and then CEO of Fraser. “I was keen to see the other side of the fence. I had to adapt from sea life to shore life: work regular hours, being more sedentary, versus traveling around the world and having hours that are everything but regular. I had to adapt, moving from a big corporation to a private office and a private owner to Fraser.”
While Sauleau extols Fraser’s efforts during the pandemic, there has understandably been a dip in enquiries from the charter and sales sides, but yacht management has been busier than normal as clients seek guidance and advice. Sauleau has noticed that those who normally charter a yacht are now looking to purchase one, as a way to be fully in control of hiring the crew but also to manage safety and hygiene in their own way. On the charter front, Sauleau notes that enquiries are picking up and opportunities are on the horizon.
“We don’t have the normal level of business that we usually have at this time, but there are good opportunities coming our way. A lot of people are looking forward to being back at sea — there is never zero risk, but a yacht is such a confined environment. There are very few individuals onboard, including guests and crew, and we have procedures in place for sanitation and social distancing regulations.”
Before the lockdown, Sauleau notes there was a growing trend in chartering to remote destinations — a trend that will surely be even more popular in a post-lockdown landscape. “Away from the French, Italian Rivieras, people want to go to destinations where they can drop anchor and enjoy the scenery, and not be in the same area as everyone else. I think that the yacht will also become the destination. Of course you can still travel from place to place and go ashore, but people want to just get away with their loved ones and be in a place where they can stay safe.
“We have noticed that some aren’t traveling as far as they used to — Americans are not going to come to Europe, they are deciding to stay around the US. They might charter a yacht in the Caribbean, or even within the US itself — there are so many possibilities. The East Coast of the states is a great place for an Indian summer. In the brokerage world, the American market is by far the biggest in terms of boat ownership. Yachting, being on the water…it’s in their DNA. When the waterways were reopened in America, a lot of people were straight out on their boats. It is something that they were clearly craving. People just want to be on the water.”
There is no doubt this pandemic will have a lingering effect on the way people travel, but Sauleau reverts back to the positive aspects. He speaks about clients with jam-packed schedules who travel constantly, and have now spent the past few months with their families — he describes it as a revelation.
“One thing I always remember about working in a private office is I asked the boss, ‘why do you like yachts so much?’ He said it was the only place where he can find himself with his family, they are all together, and everybody is focused on being together. And this is something we see today — families have been separated by this pandemic. They cannot see each other, or are scared to contaminate one another. Now they see that they can travel on a yacht together. It is the best place to be with your family.”
As for the future of Fraser, a new shareholder means big plans for expansion. Sauleau reverts to his passion for technology; he believes it will be of paramount importance moving forward — for the yachting industry, and indeed the world, to adapt to a new normal.
During lockdown, Fraser conducted online viewings and continued to make sales. He is keen to take this up a notch even when restrictions are lifted, but in a subtle way. “Luxury is all about being able to serve in a very discreet manner. Some clients may disappear for a while because they are busy, and it’s important to have the right tools to keep in touch in one way or another. To still be on their radar without being intrusive…technology allows us to do that.”