Feadship MD on the need to connect with a new generation

Back when I joined the family business in the early 1980s, we’d have local young men coming to the yard in January and February of each year, knowing that they were finishing their schooling in the summer, looking for full-time work to move straight into. My father would say we should hire them on the spot – that they were thinking five months in advance was already testimony enough to their potential!

It was almost entirely men, there were not many young women – there are still too few women wanting to come into our industry. 

Five or six years ago we started an apprenticeship scheme at the Aalsmeer, Makkum and Kaag shipyards – all three now have a dedicated school that works in cooperation with the technical colleges in their vicinity. They provide the teachers for standard subjects and we have instigated the old masters and apprenticeship programme. It means youngsters don’t have to head off at the end of a long day to do night classes, which is never ideal. Now they can learn all about engineering, carpentry, plumbing… during the day mostly, while they’re still motivated. After three years they graduate with a diploma from the district state that is equal to what they’d have gotten at school – but better, as everyone knows they got their learning at our shipyard.

The secret is learning how to use the capacity of the 1,000 brains that work for you

Since then we’ve moved the programme further up, to offer courses not just for craftsmen – but also now for management and for higher education. Around 100 graduates are currently enrolled. But despite the fact you’re pretty much guaranteed a job at the end of it, now we really have to hunt for students, and to promote education. It’s different to when I started. Working with your hands is not something parents promote to their children these days. 

You have to find people who want to work for you – you have to make them feel wanted. There’s a lot

of ‘shine’ to our business which helps, but kids have so many options nowadays. In the marine business you find a greater migration of people. After 4-5 years, they want to do something else.

You have to make the job fun, different, and that can be difficult. Sure, we could throw a party every Friday night, but that would get boring too after a while. The key is to give employees a responsibility in their jobs, to create a drive. The secret is learning how to use the capacity of the 1,000 brains that work for you, to connect them to the core of the business. 

Sustainability

People stay in education a lot longer than they used to – at 21 they’re told, ‘why don’t you go off and study some more?’ I do it myself. My daughter is 21 and a mechanical engineer – I tell her she has her whole life to work. At the same time it’s a struggle to find engineers in our business! 

The youth of today have a more controlled outlook. They don’t assume that you can give them work, but you have to show them what you can do for them. 

This industry is not that ecologically friendly – we leave big footprints with the paints and materials we use. We have to redevelop the way we build yachts, for the environment, for sustainability. These issues are becoming more and more important to young people – they question what we are doing about it.

I’ve always thought of myself as a realistic optimist. When new people start working for us we talk to them, get to know how they feel about the company. 

Every six months, me and Henk (de Vries, Feadship CEO) and a couple of the cousins will meet the 40-60 new employees and present the company to them; tell them how we got into the business, explain the Feadship philosophy, then we’ll drink some beers together. It’s important we make ourselves known, ensure they know who they work for. 

We launched an 87m earlier this year, and had a big party with 1,200 staff and family members. The employees like to show off their work. Pride is a very big part of what we’re about. 

Tom de Vries was born in Aalsmeer, Netherlands in 1959. After high school he studied mechanical engineering in Amsterdam and worked in the USA. With his cousin Henk de Vries III, he joined Feadship in the 1980s, becoming a director/shareholder in 1996. Together they expanded the family business to its current size, with six operating companies and over 800 employees.

Tom is now managing director of the Group and Henk is CEO. 

De Vries still is a completely family-owned company and owns 50% of Feadship. The four current production lines are semi-standard 39m yachts, custom 40m-75m yachts, custom Feadship XL yachts, and refit.