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Larger than Life - Frits de Voogt

Haarlem, 30 April 2017

This article has previously been published in the 19th edition of PILOT.

One of the larger-than-life figures in the story of Feadship is the legendary Frits de Voogt. A pivotal player in Feadship’s rise to global prominence between 1960 and his retirement in 1995, Frits also found time to draw scores of amazing Feadships. After receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Showboat Design Awards, Frits reflects on the early days of Feadship and the timeless lessons he has to offer about leadership. 

For a man who played such a prominent role in the superyacht world for many decades, Frits de Voogt is one of the humblest and kindest men you could ever meet. Although he may have officially stopped work as a Feadship director, naval architect and yacht designer in the mid-1990s, his influence lives on in the ethos of Feadship and the way it partners with owners. While Frits still attends almost every Feadship launch and cuts an incredibly sprightly figure for someone born in 1927, he is more than happy to leave the current generation to continue the legacy he and the previous generation of Feadship directors established.

PRESSED INTO SERVICE

“I did not want to draw boats when my father first asked me back in the early 1950s and I’m not sure I would have been cut out for designing the mini- cruise liners that many modern superyachts have become today,” he says with a characteristically cheeky grin. In fact, during the first few years after Feadship was formed in 1949, Frits was studying shipbuilding engineering at Delft University of Technology, embarking on what he expected to be a career in designing large ships. 

“I can honestly say that I was not especially interested in the steel cruisers that my father Henri de Voogt was drawing, or in the yards where those boats were being built. I thought I was going to design much bigger vessels but then my father suffered a stroke in 1958 and needed help running the De Voogt Naval Architects office. I did manage to conclude my studies – it was important to have the right papers in those days – but I’d been drawn into the Feadship world and would never escape!” 

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

As Frits is much too modest to admit what a crucial moment this was in Feadship’s development, let’s pause a moment here to put things in their historical context. The First Export Association of Dutch Shipbuilders was established not long after the Second World War by a group of Dutch yards seeking to explore the potential of the American market for their high-quality steel yachts. There were originally six yards in the venture, although the new group relatively quickly came to revolve around the De Vries and Van Lent yards (as is still the case today). Frits’s father Henri de Voogt provided naval architecture and design expertise to the new group and served as an intermediary between the yards. This was a role that was vital to ensuring that the competitive edge of the yards did not prevent them working closely together. 

FAMILY SPIRIT

His success in this undertaking is undisputed – as one of the current Feadship directors Henk de Vries says: “Frits was the glue that managed the individuals, and the decisions he made, he made for the good of all.” But how does Frits himself emember those days? “We may have been three families but we were of one mind, and my father had already laid all the groundwork. Although I did not work at De Voogt Naval Architects until 1958, I was very much aware of the family spirit among those who did. They were progressive visionaries too – the 54.30-metre motoryacht Chahsevar which they designed in 1936 for the Shah of Persia was the biggest pleasure boat built in the Netherlands for many generations. My father also transformed the soon-to-be famous HISWA boat show into a more maritime oriented and definitive exhibition.

FLYING HIGH

In 1961 Frits flew to the United States to meet Henry Ford II in his plush Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. A deal was closed in less than a fortnight for the iconic Santa Maria. Was he a little intimidated by having to negotiate with captains of industry and other wealthy individuals looking to buy a Feadship? “No, I wasn’t. It’s probably got something to do with my upbringing. My great aunt Wilhelmina de Voogt had married into a wealthy shipping family and my father had even designed a yacht for them called Iduna, launched in 1939. It was a very small world back then and I found that I knew how to communicate with clients and owners... I guess that’s what you’d call networking now!  

YOU’RE NOT ALONE...

According to Frits, the most crucial thing about leadership is having the ability to build up a team. “You can’t do anything on your own. The success of Feadship has largely revolved around teamwork and people being prepared to follow the example of others. There will always be times when you disagree but teamwork means being prepared to forget and move on. This held especially true in the days when improvisation was still the name of the game in yachtbuilding, long before computerisation made things more controllable. Good communication was essential because, unless you are entirely brilliant on your own, you’ve got to share your experiences with others.” 

BIGGER IS BETTER

This ‘seeing is believing’ approach to learning has always been important to Frits, who cites as an example the first Feadship which he could truly call his own in terms of design and naval architecture – the 35.25-metre Camargo IV, launched in 1960. “The Feadships were getting bigger and owners were looking for greater comfort. Camargo IV was a big step forward with first-time features such as retractable stabiliser fins (reducing roll by 85%) and central air conditioning. You grow into your business in this way. We benefited from synergies with the Dutch merchant fleet and Navy which was being very innovative at that time. A key success factor was our refusal to just buy off-the-shelf... We started designing our own propellers and other noise generating and vibration sensitive equipment in order to make the yachts much quieter.

“Today Feadship has noise and vibration attenuation down to a tee – but you have to remember that many years of experimenting went into achieving this result. Other yards failed to keep up with us in this respect and we established a lead that has never been lost since. This is leadership as well – being prepared to try new things, learn from your mistakes as well as your successes. As you go along our goal was always to make the next Feadship a little better than the last and I know that this holds true to this day.”

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