Sunseeker CEO Phil Popham: “A turnaround doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel”

Sunseeker yachts CEO Phil Popham on managing a turnaround

Luxury yachtmaker Sunseeker has featured in four Bond films but waters have been troubled recently with a £26m loss in 2013. Earlier this year Phil Popham was brought in from Jaguar Land Rover to return the brand to an even keel. He shares his thoughts on restoring a company’s fortunes…

Phil Popham doesn’t look like a man who’d give heed to horoscopes or soothsaying tea leaves, but he couldn’t ignore the omen confronting him on his Puerto Banús holiday last year. Strolling along the southern Spanish marina, Jaguar Land Rover’s [JLR] group marketing director spied one of his company’s motors and snapped a photo. Parked next door was a 28-metre Sunseeker yacht with ‘This Time Next Year’ emblazoned across its side. Little did Popham know, this tableau was predicting his career. Then, his mobile beeped…

The incoming call was from a recruitment consultant. Fast-forward events to the aforementioned ‘time next year’, and Popham was at another marina – in Poole, Dorset, as CEO of luxury yachtmaker Sunseeker. For many, the appointment (Popham climbed aboard in January) was surprising. He’d spent 26 years at JLR, joining as a graduate trainee in 1988 before contributing to one of the most commercially successful periods in the marque’s history (despite the global car sales slump, JLR has recorded billion-pound-plus profits since 2011).

Meanwhile, Sunseeker was in the red with a £26m loss [at the end of 2013], mainly due to a downturn in the European market. Still, with both past and current employers being premium British brands and under foreign ownership (JLR by Indian-owned Tata while Sunseeker was bought by China’s richest man, Wang Jianlin, in 2013), there are parallels. Just like JLR, Sunseeker’s ‘Brand Britain’ appeal has been bolstered by Bond cameos ranging from the Superhawk 34 speedboat in The World Is Not Enough’s Thames boat chase to Le Chiffre’s Predator 108 in Casino Royale. Nearing the end of his first year in charge, Popham discusses finding his sea legs, restoring staff morale and what it’s like turning around one of Britain’s luxury industry flag-bearers…

A comfortable life at a record-profit firm versus a company in the red. What prompted you to join the latter? 

Sunseeker CEO Phil PophamI’d been at JLR for a long time, was approaching 50 and thinking, ‘What next?’ Although I could have stayed at JLR until I retired, the CEO wasn’t looking at going anywhere anytime soon and I wanted a crack at running a company. Sunseeker ticked many boxes for me – brand heritage, design and craftsmanship, plus I’d worked on promotions with them before, meeting [co-founding brother] Robert Braithwaite in 1991. The fact it was a company losing money and had great potential really attracted me. [Growing up/working in the Midlands] I’d always lived as far away from the sea as you can get!

After a quarter-century in motoring, was there anything you found difficult adjusting to in the yachting world?  

Whenever you change between companies or industries, there’s a learning curve. The one thing that surprised me was [Sunseeker’s] level of data. I’m quite data-driven – if you can make decisions based on facts and data, you can scenario-plan, predict the potential future and plan accordingly. But the data wasn’t so readily available within the [yachting] world as it was in the car industry. For example, you get some boats not registered to the country where they operate [meaning] you have to make your own interpretations, so it’s not 100 per cent accurate when looking at trends.

Was it immediately apparent why Sunseeker was having a troubled time?

Certain things were obvious. From initial observations, it was clear the business wasn’t focused enough long term. I could immediately see there wasn’t anything drastically wrong with the product; we just needed to invest wisely in the long term, focus on manufacturing processes, efficiency and material cost. We’re making tremendous headway with that.

When you joined Sunseeker, it had recently announced 240 job losses after a PwC review, while reports of “low morale” surfaced in the media. What’s the key to managing that malaise?

Communication is vital… The first thing I did [in the role] was spend four weeks in the business trying to understand what I was seeing. I then went round shipyards, explaining who I was, what I was doing and what I saw as the business proactives. I think it’s important the CEO is as visible as possible… I’ve also introduced quarterly executive cascade meetings for the entire workforce, with the executive team presenting and taking questions. Understanding earnings potential is also key in maintaining morale but the non-monetary aspect is just as important – making sure that shipyards are safe and clean, and ensuring that the work environment is pleasurable.

You’ve also made some new appointments… 

I brought in some new people who’ve merged with long-standing Sunseeker professionals who know the industry inside out… The new CFO [Hugues Jacquin] started at the same time
as me, arriving from Bombardier. We’ve also appointed new operations and procurement directors, plus promoted an HR director from within the company… We’ve had 38 apprentices start in September [on a four-year apprenticeship]. Our business plan is growth; we’ll need skilled people in the future. The most cost-efficient way of doing that is getting them young and developing them.

Has it been difficult upholding Sunseeker’s British heritage despite Chinese ownership [Jianlin’s company, Dalian Wanda Group, bought the brand for £320m in 2013]? 

Both Tata [the India-based company bought JLR for £1.2bn in 2008] and Wanda have taken the long-term view, not looking for short-term turnarounds and instead wanting long-term sustainable growth… They are making sure that we have ownership stability.

Can you reveal what’s in your five-year plan? 

It’s a plan for growth that sees us investing in representations with dealer partners. We’re very strong in Europe, North America and the Caribbean, where 70 per cent of boating is done, but we need to focus on Asia to make sure we have global market share. We’ve also grown considerably in terms of the size of our boats, but need the right facilities [shipyards, factories and so on] to build those boats efficiently… We’re well on track, if not exceeding our expectation that Sunseeker will return to profit in 2016.

What’s your message to other bosses drafted in to turn around a business? 

It’s not about reinventing the wheel – it’s taking time to understand what you’ve inherited. From my point of view, it’s about relying upon experience and not being afraid to copy and paste a discipline or approach that works… Just because you move companies and industries, it doesn’t mean you’ve got to start all over again.


Phil Popham CV

Age 50

Role CEO, Sunseeker

Previous positions Graduate trainee, LR (1988); regional manager, LR (1991); fleet sales manager, LR (1993); marketing director South Africa, LR (1995); VP marketing North America, LR (1998); head of operations Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles (1998); LR UK sales director (2001); managing director JLR UK (2003); LR marketing sales and service director (2006); JLR group sales and service director (2010); JLR group marketing director (2013)

Interesting fact Eddie Jordan, Simon Cowell, Michael Douglas, and Jenson Button are all said to be owners of Sunseeker yachts

Staff Around 2,000

Turnover Circa £200m

Sunseeker yacht appears in Die Another Day

A Sunseeker yacht appears in Die Another Day

Boats for Bond

Sunseeker craft have appeared in four 007 films

The World Is Not Enough (1999)

Die Another Day (2002)

Casino Royale (2006)

Quantum of Solace (2008; includes a cameo from the co-founder of Sunseeker, Robert Braithwaite)

A Sunseeker yacht in Casino Royale

A Sunseeker yacht in Casino Royale

Watch the boat-chase sequence in The World Is Not Enough

About author

Christian Koch

Christian Koch

Alongside his work for Director, Christian has written features for the Evening Standard, The Guardian, Sunday Times Style, The Independent, Q, Cosmopolitan, Stylist, ShortList and Glamour in an eclectic career which has seen him interview everybody from Mariah Carey to Michael Douglas through to Richard Branson with newspaper assignments including reporting on the Japanese tsunami and living with an Italian cult.

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