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Forbes’ exclusive interview with Dr Barwani, Chairman of Oceanco

A life-long love of the sea led Dr Barwani to acquire Oceanco in 2010.  Forbes US senior editor Bill Springer exclusively interviews Dr Barwani in his home town in Oman.

“Of course, I knew that Oceanco has built some of the largest and most recognizable superyachts in the world. In fact, I’ve written extensively about Bravo EugeniaBlack Pearl, and KAOS among others. I also learned that Oceanco has grown—a lot—since Dr. Barwani aquired the Dutch shipyard in 2010. And with the lauch of Project Aeolus at the recent Dubai Boat Show, I also knew his company is committed to innovation and developing the next generation of superyachts that will be more sustainable than anyone ever thought possible.

But, no amount of homework could have prepared me for just how warm, smart, and forward-thinking this self-made businessman from Oman is. And as you’ll see here, Oceanco’s success is no accident. So let’s get started”.

BS: Where does your love of the sea come from?

Dr. Barwani: I spent my childhood in Zanzibar, an island off the eastern coast of Africa that, at that time, was ruled by a Sultan who was related to the Sultan of Oman. My love of the sea started at a young age. On an island, you are surrounded by the water and it plays a hugely important part of everyday life. My family did not own boats, we ran plantations and other businesses, which was the case for most Arabs living in East Africa at that time. That being said, I spent much of my youth playing on the beach, swimming and fishing in the tropical waters. There was an abundance of pleasure boats, both sailing and motor, which I greatly admired. I had toy boats and was fascinated by the maritime world, dreaming of one day owning a real boat.

Fast forward to my adulthood after graduating from school, and I was living back in Oman and working for an oil company as a petroleum engineer. Although my wife and I both had good jobs, our financial commitments – including private school fees for our five children, mortgage payments, living expenses and annual summer vacations for the family – meant that, although we lived relatively comfortably, we did not have the kind of funds to be able to own a boat at that time. It was still a dream of mine, though.

Exclusive interview with Oceanco’s chairman Dr Barwani

BS: How did you end up acquiring Oceanco?

Dr. Barwani: In 2009, during the global financial crisis, many of the yachts under construction were being abandoned. I was interested in acquiring such a yacht, so I asked a Swiss banker if he could keep a lookout for anything that might become available. A month later my two sons and I visited Oceanco hoping to find a yacht to buy. But after taking a tour of the facilities, and being impressed by Oceanco’s management, skilled workers, product quality and very well-organized operations in such a clean environment, we ended up buying the whole shipyard instead of a yacht!

When we acquired Oceanco, there were approximately 80 employees, who were finishing off a yacht that was yet to be delivered—Y708. To keep the teams busy, we also started work on two more motoryachts—Y709 and Y710. The following year, the market was very depressed; we didn’t sign any new contracts and there were few enquiries. But by 2011, the global economy had started to improve, and the sentiment of the yacht buyers was returning; we sold all the yachts that we had under construction at that time.

I had a hands-on approach to the business in the first years after acquiring it. My engineering background helped in being able to discuss product innovation opportunities with the Oceanco engineers when it came to reviewing the technical drawings and layouts, as well as the overall building process. In addition to appraising the actual construction of the yachts, we worked alongside the management team to build and position the Oceanco brand in a new way by partnering with talented designers who came up with numerous innovative designs that featured cutting-edge engineering, such as Kaos (ex-Jubilee), AQuiJoTranquility (ex-Equanimity), Black PearlBravo Eugenia and DAR, among others. I am proud to say that, today, Oceanco is recognized as one of the best yacht builders in the world.

BS: Why is sustainability such a cornerstone of Oceanco’s business philosophy?

Dr. Barwani: Sustainability is very important to me personally, and it cannot be overstressed how important Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) considerations are to the business. It is my belief that we must be responsible custodians of the Earth, to conserve it for future generations and leave an unspoiled and a healthy place in which to live.

Consideration of our impact on climate change and the environment, reducing carbon emissions and improving sustainability are the moral responsibility of us all, both as individuals and as business leaders. In my view, it should be incorporated across all business sectors, markets and target demographics. It’s not just a moral issue, it’s also an economical – and an existential – one; something that is critical to the future of life on Earth.

At Oceanco, we’ve been working to reduce our impact for many years now, since before it became a mainstream topic. Our clients and stakeholders also expect us to make efforts to reduce our impact on the planet. We continue to invest in renewables at our premises to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels; our offices and workshops are moving ever closer to net-zero, as we have installed geothermal heat pumps and solar panels to supply our buildings. And we have appointed an internal sustainability expert to assess and improve our efforts in this area, alongside our Oceanco sustainability action plan.

On the water, we design and engineer our yachts to make use of the latest advances in technology, focusing our efforts on the energy transition to explore alternative fuel sources, advanced battery systems and fuel cells. But energy efficiency is not only about reducing consumption, it is also minimizing waste. We typically incorporate heat recapture systems to redirect the heat energy given off by gensets to warm the water of the swimming pools onboard, for example. We also install peak shaving energy storage systems to optimize the utilization of gensets and reduce both energy consumption and maintenance requirements.

We seek to promote the circular economy on our new builds and refit projects, as well as encouraging the use of more conscious materials. Our most recent design, Aeolus, features fully sustainable and traceable materials, including biomaterials.

As an industry, we need to be creative and open to new ways of doing things, when it comes to any kind of meaningful innovation. We need to ‘Think different’, as Apple articulately put it. Along these lines, I would highlight our recently delivered Project H, that has been refit to face the future as a new, contemporary yacht. I hope it inspires more owners to understand that they have options for a ‘new build’. We don’t have to start from scratch each time when there is a fleet of ageing yachts that can be brought up to date with modern standards of sustainability, technology and lifestyle, while also saving time in the process.

BS: Beyond sustainability, how is Oceanco adapting to face the future?

Dr. Barwani: Yachting has to keep evolving or we will simply no longer be an appealing prospect for buyers. At the price point that yachts demand, we need to offer significant value. That requires us to understand how people live their lives today and how they will want to live their lives tomorrow. This is the philosophy behind our Oceanco NXT initiative – bringing in experts from all walks of life, in a holistic way. Our mission is to build tomorrow’s superyachts, today. It takes up to a year to design and engineer a yacht and then three to four years to build it. We have to think about how the owner will be using their yacht out in the world, five to 10 years from now.

Some of the themes currently being explored for NXT include clients wanting more adaptable, multipurpose spaces; fewer formal spaces; integrating health and wellness is a given, but not in an overbearing way. And remember that owners still want to have fun.

We must be mindful that yachts aren’t a place where owners take a break from their day-to-day lives anymore; those days are gone. Technology connects us wherever we are in the world, so we see this blurring of the lines between ‘leisure’ and ‘work’, which must be reflected in the yachts we are designing and creating for our clients.

I’m inspired by the work that has come out of NXT, including our designs for Kairos and Aeolus. Our partners share Oceanco’s vision to think outside the box and offer something fresh and exciting. We collaborate with those who seek to reduce the impact that our yachts have on the planet. From partners such as Lateral Naval Architects, ABB and MTU – who find technical solutions like our recently launched Energy Transition Platform, showcased on Aeolus – to design experts who bring in more sustainable, conscious materials to the interiors of the yachts themselves.

BS: Are the demographics of yachting changing?

Dr. Barwani: Today, wealth is increasingly made by younger people, and many of them are now yacht buyers and owners. This group’s motivations are about sharing incredible experiences and togetherness alongside an active, sporting lifestyle, and a spirit of adventure to explore exotic places first-hand. And they’re learning that there’s no more incredible way to experience this than by yacht.

I couldn’t have said it better myself!