Anyone who thinks that a luxury entrepreneur is fundamentally a skillful enthusiast of their own image, behind which lies a cold calculator of costs and profits, capable of “chemically” mixing material and immaterial elements to create the success of their product in the laboratory, should get to know Massimo Perotti, CEO and majority shareholder of Cantieri Navali Sanlorenzo, one of the world’s leading brands in pleasure boating and in particular in the construction of superyachts, boats over 24 metres.
A meeting with Perotti – like the one he had with the students of the SDA Bocconi MBA and its director Francesco Daveri during the Leadership Series – reveals authentic dedication, contagious passion, and the ability to see “beyond”. Of course, there is no shortage of numbers, production aspects, market strategies, and opportunity evaluations that mark the life and fortunes of every company, but the main message reaches the hearts of the audience before it reaches their heads. And, this being the presentation of a “business case”, that’s by no means a given.
An energy that runs through his entire history as a manager first, and then as an entrepreneur. Born in 1961, with a degree in economics, Perotti soon began a brilliant career at Azimut, a leading company in the nautical sector: manager at 27, member of the Board of Directors at 36, he accompanied the company through an exponential growth that led it to achieve a turnover of 600 million euros.
Then he made the entrepreneurial leap: in 2005, thanks to his considerable experience in this industry, Perotti decided to buy the Sanlorenzo Shipyards from their founder, Giovanni Jannetti. They were much smaller in size, but were renowned as top-of-the-range boat manufacturers.
“It was a bit like starting over again,” remembers Perotti. “I was used to managing orders that were worth 100 million euros each, and I found myself in a company with a total turnover of about 40 million. But I neglected a fundamental issue: as a manager you are part of a team, but as an entrepreneur you are alone, and this changes the rules of the game. I understood this by working alongside Jannetti for an entire year: a condition he himself imposed before selling me the company. At first I was amazed – I had worked for more than twenty years in a much larger company and he wanted me to “learn the trade” – but in the end it turned out to be a wise decision. It was perhaps the toughest year of my life, but also the one in which I learned the most.
Learning, the key word to any successful outcome. To do this, you need a good dose of humility, a willingness to see the world you are used to from another perspective, and, last but not least, the ability to recognize people who can change your life. This was Perotti’s first lesson to the audience of young managers.
The second step in the professional life of the CEO of what is now Sanlorenzo S.p.A. was the transition from a family business to a big company. The main concept of this second phase is the competitive edge: you have to fully understand your growth potential compared to that of your competitors, and know how to exploit it. “When I arrived, Sanlorenzo was a small- to medium-sized company, with 75 employees, well established on a high-end market, but limited to the Mediterranean area,” continues Perotti. “Growing meant acting on several fronts: expanding the market, expanding supply, increasing production capacity, increasing and developing human resources. The problem is that these growth factors are interlinked and you have to implement them all together. And I assure you, it’s not just a question of economic investment: you have to work, you have to work a lot”.
Today, 13 years later and after the great economic crisis, Sanlorenzo sells worldwide through a direct distribution network, has 4 shipyards located between La Spezia and Viareggio, and a fifth under construction (“because quality control, which for us is essential, also means integration among the production stages, and having the plants near each other helps”), 8 different lines with a large number of models of yachts and superyachts.
Growing also means taking new paths and taking risks. This is where the competitive edge comes into play: Cantieri Sanlorenzo already had an edge in style, in tailor-made production, and in attention to detail, all qualities of Italian tradition appreciated throughout the world. The Perotti management preserved and strengthened this tradition and the uniqueness of its yachts – “Nothing is like your Sanlorenzo yacht. Not even another Sanlorenzo”, says a company’s slogan – while constantly introducing new elements. “The real challenge is to combine identity and innovation. We must be able to break the mold and yet be recognizable at all times. It’s not easy,” admits Perotti.
It is not easy in general, and even less so in a sector such as the luxury one, which is generally “conservative”. “But we did it”, says the CEO without hiding a certain enthusiasm when he tells of the technical solutions borrowed from automotive production to include curved glass on yachts as well. “Accustomed to flat and squared crystals, the competitors bet on the failure of the operation, knowing that if one of those glasses on a boat of several million euros broke due to the stresses of navigation, it would mean a collapse of the brand’s image. But that wasn’t the case and the choice proved to be a winner in terms of design and style.” And the challenge continues: the latest innovation is the SL102, the first asymmetrical yacht in the world, designed to achieve greater usability of interior spaces and better communication with the outside. And to try and change the perspective on the world.
But behind every success there is always a team effort. This is a point that Perotti particularly cares about: “The main growth factor of a company is represented by those who work there. In a market like ours, where quality is everything, we must have the best people, and rely on their expertise and development. We must involve them, learn to delegate and monitor results, communicate and integrate skills. In recent years, human resources has probably been our main investment. In 2005, 350 people worked for us, 90 employees and 160 sub-contractors; today we are 1,600 people strong, with 400 employees. The honor of Cavaliere del Lavoro (“Knight of Labour and Industry”) [received from President Mattarella in 2017, ed.] is also due to the fact that we have gone through the years of the crisis without sacrificing a single job and without resorting to the government’s redundancy fund. If you take care of your people, they will know how to reward you”, he concluded, trying to hide the fact that he was slightly moved.
An important message, especially if it comes from an entrepreneur who has put his company among the top 3 in its industry worldwide and is preparing to go public. A message that sums up well what it means to – as he himself points out quoting Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric – “always think ahead”.
SDA Bocconi School of Management