The weather is cool and gray on this day in Germany’s most northeastern state, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. A stiff westerly breeze is chasing deep clouds across the sky and a battery of colorful flags by the main gate on Ladebouwer Chaussee are snapping their greeting in a staccato-rhythm: Welcome to Greifswald. Welcome to Hanse Yachts.
In the picturesque Hanseatic town on the banks of the river Ryck that empties into the Bay of Greifswald and the Baltic Sea a few miles away, ships and boats have been built for centuries. Hanseyachts AG, Germany's second-largest manufacturer for sports boats, chose a place with a long tradition in the shipbuilding trade. Currently around 500 yachts built are built here each year, about 65 percent of which are sailboats of the brands Hanse, Dehler, Moody and Varianta, while the rest are powerboats that come off the assembly lines under the banners of Sealine and Fjord. The company has built a wide range of models in recent years. It has remained focused on its core business of manufacturing sailing yachts, while expanding into the powerboat market, fueling hopes for further growth. In May, 2017, the company acquired yet another brand, Privilege catamarans, along with its shipyard in Les Sables d’Olonne, France, thus moving into the market of cruising catamarans.
Walking across the premises, the variety of the products being built here is obvious: a Hanse is transferred by Travelift onto a flatbed truck, while others are ready to be picked up. Between the halls two Moody 54 DS deck saloon yachts are getting their finishing touches, while down in the harbor within sight of the traditional working boats that are docked here, the two brand new Hanse 675s are prepared for delivery. "The advantage of being near the water is that owners pick up their new boat to combine the delivery with a holiday cruise”, explains press officer Florian Nierich. In any case, the waters around Greifswald with the islands of Rügen and Usedom are a good incentive.
A stroll through the assembly halls reveals how modern production boat building works, following the principle of Lean Manufacturing. Supplies are small, trips are short and boats are worked on in different areas depending on their size and complexity. Much is automated, such as painting the wood parts for the interior, but also surprisingly much is still done by hand, such as polishing delicate paint surfaces, drilling of screw holes in the steel frames of port holes or applying the masking tape to curved and oblique edges with the help of a hot iron. Notably present all over the shop floor are labeled containers for waste separation and recycling and to collect discarded wood, which is used as heating material.
Before the acquisition of privilege, Hanseyachts employed around 1,200 people, including 750 in Greifswald, creating jobs in a region that has a challenged economy, which is why it attracts politicians such as Chancellor Merkel, who hails from this area and visited the factory before the last election. There is no need to worry about the supply of qualified labor at present, with 40 to 50 apprentices from the surrounding area in training. But the workforce is also international, as evidenced by signs that are written in both German and Polish. The border to Germany’s eastern EU neighbor is practically in Greifswald’s backyard.
The company was founded by Michael Schmidt, who as a broker, boat builder, regatta sailor and visionary still remains one of the most dazzling figures in the German boatbuilding scene. “Schmiddel”, as he is called in the industry, already built boats in Poland more than 25 years ago, because bureaucracy was minimal before the country joined the EU. In 1990, shortly after German reunification, Schmidt took over the Boots- und Reparaturwerft Greifswald, which goes back to the Buchholz shipyard which built traditional workboats.
To make that archaic operation competitive, Schmidt had to invest. It was not a painless process either, owed to his brash personality and to the fact that a lot had to change in a very short time. However, he did have the necessary experience, because in the 1980s he built offshore racing yachts for the German Admiral's Cup team. In 1985, he skippered Rubin thus sharing in Germany's third victory at this once prominent offshore racing classic. For what seems an eternity, Schmidt also has been friends with Rolf Vrolijk, the partner in the well-known Dutch firm of Judel / Vrolijk & Co., which designs Hanse sailing yachts to this day, thus being responsible for shaping the typical Hanse look: a steep stem, a broad stern, an angular superstructure and uncompromising layout for single- or shorthanded operation, with a self-tacking jib and the corresponding arrangement of deck hardware, sheets, halyards and control lines. But the beginning of the Hanse story played out differently...
Schmidt started in 1993 with the Hanse 291, which was based on the Aphrodite 291, a design by two Scandinavians, Carl Baier and Bent Elgaard. Without false modesty, Schmidt set the ship on the Hanseboot in Hamburg and hung a hammer on the rail to emphasize the hammer price of 44.444 D-Mark (around $24,000), which caused some turmoil within the industry and the public. But it wasn’t just the price that made headlines; these new boats also sailed convincingly, winning quite a few awards over the years.
The Hanse 292 won European Yacht of the Year in 1998, thus starting a successful run that continued until 2016 when the Hanse 315 won the title in the Family Cruiser class. Schmidt focused on rapid growth, but also on innovations such as light, stiff and osmosis-resistant laminates made from epoxy resin that raised the yachts’ performance potential, and an almost endless number of combinations of color choices for upholstery and the surfaces of the interior, which was given an almost loft-like appearance by designer Birgit Schnaase.
Model lineup and production continued to grow at the sites Greifswald and in Goleniów, Poland where Hanse produces the hull shells, with another milestone in 2007 when the Hanse 630e was introduced, the largest production sailing yacht at the time with 19.20 meters in overall length. Around that time, Hanse also acquired the branding rights from Moody, a well-known English builder which made a name for itself with comfortable bluewater cruisers, and the Norwegian powerboat builder, Fjord. But these were almost sideshows during a banner year when Hanse became the first German sport boat builder to raise capital on the stock exchange. The offer (initially 33 euros per share) was over-subscribed several times. But then came the crash.
In 2009, Hanse took over Dehler, a reputable but bankrupt builder, whose operations were relocated from Freienohl to Greifswald, where Karl Dehler, the son of the company founder Willi, is now responsible for production. The Dehler brand has been revered by demanding sailors, who welcomed the rescue for sentimental reasons. However, Dehler's existence could only be sustained with fresh products that resonated with the audience. And indeed, the first design that Judel / Vrolijk & Co delivered for the revamped brand was a success: The flexible concept of the Dehler 38 was convincing as a cruising yacht, a racer/cruiser and also as a pure-bred regatta boat. Because the styling met the taste of the time and the performance lived up to Dehler’s name, this model won several international awards.
With the Dehler purchase, the popular Varianta brand also came into the possession of Hanseyachts. Variantas were recast as frugal versions of the Hanse 375 (as Varianta 37) or the Hanse 430 (as Varianta 44), and sold at attractive prices, but also with much simpler equipment. The young designer Henrike Gänß was tapped for the design of the Varianta 18, an update of Dehler’s successful “Rotkäppchen” (Red Riding Hood). The new boat with the modular concept was well received by young sailors and beginners as it was sold over the Internet and so-called “Points of Sail.” But after 299 units Hanse halted production, because sales decreased and because such a small boat could not be built cost effectively at their facility. The boat is still available, however, because a former dealer from Leipzig took over the molds and produced the hull in Estonia. Simultaneously, Hanse updated the cruising line while also introducing new products like an electric drive that is integrated into the rudder blade of the Hanse 315. This solution, marketed as E-Motion, was developed in cooperation with the electric-propulsion specialists at Torqeedo.
The motorboat sector is currently served by the Sealine cruising boats, which retain their English genetics at least by name, but have been heavily modernized in their design. Sealines are offered either as a sporty coupe like the Sealine 330C, or as a flybridge yacht, such as the current flagship Sealine 530 F. By contrast much more conspicuous are the mannishly styled Fjord powerboats such as the Fjord 42 or the larger Fjord 48, which company-boss Dr. Jens Gerhardt unapologetically classifies as status symbols "comparable to a Porsche.”
As of 2017, the Hanse Group also is in a position to offer their customers cruising multihulls thanks to the acquisition of the French Privilege yard in Les Sables d’Olonne. This move, which some say has been long overdue, puts Hanse on par with their larger rivals Bavaria, who acquired Nautitech, another French multihull manufacturer, and Groupe Beneteau, who has had Lagoon catamarans in their brand portfolio for a long time.
Building sport boats in large numbers is not a romantic business, but a constant tug-of-war between pragmatics and aesthetics, between what is possible and what is sensible. It is a fine line for big production yards that have to churn out boats efficiently, while marketing them as individually as possible. If the times are good, the equation gets solved. However, if the economy coughs, boat builders catch a virus, from which they often recover slowly. Just as it was the case in the financial and banking crisis mentioned earlier, which also precipitated Schmidt’s departure from Hanseyachts in 2011. “Finally, I get to play drums” Schmidt said about his plans at the time, which soon included boats again, too. Michael Schmidt Yachtbau is the name of his new venture, which builds large and luxurious sailing yachts such as the Brenta 80 right next door to the Hanse factory.
Schmidt shares went to the investment company Aurelius, which brought a new management team to the starting line to turn the yard inside out with an eye on the future. Measures included: consolidating locations, optimizing the purchasing process, pursuing a multi-brand strategy, utilizing synergies in design and production, reorganizing sales and maintaining a continuous design language. Several years later, the results seem to justify the means. Molds and hulls for larger hulls such as the Hanse 675, Fjord 42, Sealine F530 are manufactured in Greifswald at a nearby site; the hulls of the smaller yachts are still produced in Poland near Szczecin and delivered to the main factory for finishing. Even if the economy is not yet ticking as it had been before the crash, Hansegroup’s revenues exceeded the magical mark of 100 million euros in 2014/2015 for the first time since 2007 and currently stand at just under 115 million euros.
So Hanseyachts is building more boats (especially bigger ones) and is reporting profits again, but it is still has a firm grip on costs. Visitors will in vain look for flashy facilities as offices and conference rooms are more of the austere and functional kind. "Lean does not just apply to manufacturing," PR manager Nierich told me with a smile. But even without pomp, things appear to go well. This assumption is supported by those flatbed trucks that leave the premises with shiny new yachts in tow, rolling out the gate onto Ladebouwer Chaussee and past the colorful flags that are snapping in the wind, on the way to the next delivery date.
The highlights at Hanse Yachts:
1985: Michael Schmidt wins Admirals Cup
1990: Founding of the Yachtzentrum Greifswald by Schmidt
1993: Schmidt acquires rights and molds of Aphrodite 291 designed by Carl Baier from Sweden. That boat turned into the first Hanse, the model 291 which was exhibited for 44.444 D-Mark on the Hanseboot show in Hamburg.
1994: Hanse 331
1997: Loft-like interiors designed by Birgit Schnaase
1999: Judel / Vrolijk & Co join as principal designers
2000: Beginnings of the individualization with owner choices for color, upholstery, wood, fabrics and decor. Serial production with a high degree of customization.
2003: First yachts made of epoxy resin
2004: Hanse 531, the first Hanse over 50 feet
2007: Hanse AG listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, acquisition of Moody and Fjord, launch of the Hanse 630e, the largest yacht of the shipyard to date
2009: Varianta 18, an entry-level model designed by Henrike Gänß. Hanse stops production after 299 units. Today the boat is available from a third party
2010: Varianta 44, a budget model based on Hanse 430
2011: Majority of shares (72.5%) taken over by Aurelius, Schmidt resigns as Managing Director
2012: All production consolidated in Greifswald, Dehler site in Freienohl closed, 15 models on offer
2013 Acquisition of the UK motorboat brand Sealine, introduction of the Varianta 37 (based on the Hanse 375) for 77,777 euros.
2014: 20 million euro issue floated
2015: Basic capital increased to 11 million euros, sales increased to 103 million
2016: New flagship: Hanse 675 (sail), Sealine 530 F (power); Hanse 315 E-Motion (Hanses first sailing yacht with electric drive)
2017: Acquisition of the French multihull yard Privilege
Hanseyachts CEO: “It starts at 45 feet"
Dr. Jens Gerhardt runs Hanseyachts, one of the world’s largest sports boat manufacturers. On boats.com, he reveals what is currently happening and what will be important in the future.
Dr. Jens Gerhardt is a studied physicist, but he has also been involved in economics and social sciences. Prior to his appointment as sales director and spokesman of the Hanse Group's board of directors, he also worked in the communications business and as an advisor to McKinsey. As a passionate recreational surfer and sailor, he played a key role in shaping corporate policy since 2012.
After the Varianta 18 was discontinued, the “starter drug” is the Hanse 315, a boat that’s almost 10 meters long. Isn’t that a tad large?
I think I need to set you straight here: The smallest cruising yachts of the competition are the same length or longer. And we see the 315 less as an entry-level model than a yacht that intrigues sailors who are interested in downsizing
Which size model do you consider ideal for beginning?
Today it seems to start at 45 feet of overall length, beyond 200,000 euros. But if you look at the prices for real estate with ocean view, this is comparatively affordable. And this reflects the general trend: boats are getting bigger. At the same time they are easier to sail and more luxurious. At the last Hanseboot show, for example, boats of at least 40 feet were the bestsellers. But we have been quite successful in this segment, for instance with the Hanse 575, which sold a good 200 times since inception.
Isn’t that causing issues with proper size berths?
No, quite the contrary. I look at the “marina cemeteries” that are full of older and smaller yachts, which are stored on land, “little darlings“, many of which will probably never leave port again. To the extent that the number of smaller boats goes down, docking spaces are adapted to accommodate larger boats.
That’s why you discontinued production of the little Varianta?
No. The Varianta 18 continues to exist, because it is a good product with a distinctive class culture. It is no longer built by Hanse, because a small boat "without kitchen and toilet", if you like, does not fit our production processes.
Hanse’s roots are with sailing, but the company has been carving out a spot in the powerboat market through the acquisition of two very different brands. Which buyers are you serving?
With its distinct styling, Fjord appeals to an audience, which surrounds itself with status symbols, Porsche or Porsche plus. With Sealine, the focus is more on functionality, with kitchen, bar and sea view. We see this brand above mid-market, above the other large producers.
What kind of technical innovation will be most important for Hanse in the coming years?
I think that electric drives will be stronger, therefore we took a step in that direction with the Hanse 315 E-Motion. The car market is setting the tone and currently there is a lot of pressure, which means that batteries are bound to become better and cheaper.
Is there a brand or type of boat that would be particularly interesting for Hanse?
I think, we stick to our game and look at areas we don’t serve yet. There are quite a few like fishing, for example. Or explorer-type yachts. A sporty 50-foot powerboat could be interesting as well.