Charting a new course
New Sunseeker CEO Phil Popham explains why he left Jaguar Land Rover after 25 years to take the helm of the luxury yachtmaker.
Phil Popham has spent the bulk of his working life with one of the world’s most prestigious brands and for the past eight months he’s been facing up to a new challenge at the helm of Sunseeker, the luxury yachtmaker. That marked a shift in transport mode for him; for most of his career he was climbing through the ranks of Jaguar Land Rover, from Graduate Trainee to Group Marketing Director.
Sunseeker is considerably smaller, and some might see the move as a step sideways. Popham disagrees: ‘I’d got to the stage where I wanted to have a chance of running a company. The CEO [of Jaguar Land Rover] wasn’t looking to retire any time soon, and I was nearer to 50 than 40. Once you get past 50, you can get stuck in a rut and even start thinking about retirement. So I decided to look for a new role with a few prerequisites. It had to be: the top position in a company that would provide a challenge; an emphasis on design, engineering, manufacturing, sales and marketing disciplines; a premium or luxury brand; and it had to give me the opportunity to interface with customers. Because I wasn’t in any particular hurry to leave Jaguar Land Rover, I could be a little bit choosy.’
While Sunseeker as a brand may be less familiar than Jaguar or Land Rover, its products have rather more celebrity. Its luxury yachts can be seen in glossy magazines and action films. They have featured in four consecutive Bond films, from The World Is Not Enough to Quantum of Solace, with three different models appearing in the latter film alone. Celebrity owners have included Eddie Jordan, Michael Douglas, John Travolta, Jenson Button and Simon Cowell.
Popham already knew Sunseeker from his days as a Regional Manager for Jaguar Land Rover – one of the dealerships he oversaw was next door to the yachtmaker’s base in Poole, Dorset. ‘I always admired Sunseeker and remained interested in the brand since my first visit in 1991,’ says Popham. ‘So when Wanda [Dalian Wanda Group, the Chinese conglomerate that owns Sunseeker] made me the offer to head up the company, it really wasn’t a difficult decision.’
As well as Popham, Sunseeker has appointed a new Chief Finance Officer and Operations Director, both from large international business backgrounds, to strengthen the executive team. Popham feels that having these new senior people working alongside long-term Sunseeker staff who understand and have a passion for the company is a ‘killer combination’. From a personal perspective on making the step up to CEO, he adds: ‘Sometimes it can be a lonely role because, unlike my previous roles, I haven’t got my boss here. The chairman is in China, but I’m really enjoying the challenge.’
Although the luxury yacht market had a difficult recession, and has come out of this period rather later than other luxury industries, Sunseeker has sold all its capacity in 2015 and has an order book for 2016 up 70% year-on-year. It produces about 130 yachts a year, with half of those being built at any one time and build times stretching from three months to two years. The company employs around 2,000 people in Dorset across its Poole and Portland sites and is recruiting 38 new apprentices from September – its highest ever intake.
“There’s always a bit of trepidation when you are helming a multi-million pound yacht”
The boat market in China is still nascent, but Popham wants to be ready when it takes off. ‘The Chinese consumer hasn’t yet fallen in love with boats. We need to be in a position to meet demand when this passion does start growing,’ he says.
Popham learned about supply and demand from a very early age. His grandfather set up a company making plate hangers. His parents took over the business, but his father died when Popham was just 12, and so his grandparents stepped back in to help run the company.
Joining the family business, however, was never an option as far as Popham was concerned. He was single-minded about entering the motor industry so his mother sold the business when he left school.
Sending job applications only to motor companies, he chose an offer from Land Rover because it was a global brand that would enable him to travel and develop his career quickly. He spent three years in Johannesburg, South Africa, followed by 18 months in Annapolis, Maryland, in the US.
Sunseeker is also a global company, with offices or servicing outlets in 45 countries. About 80% of its business comes from the US, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and Popham says customers tend to be self-made and, obviously, wealthy.
More than half the buyers of new yachts come to Poole to see their boats being built. ‘It’s an emotional purchase,’ says Popham. ‘No one needs a luxury yacht – they want a luxury yacht. Some will have saved all their life for this – it’s a retirement present to themselves. At the top end of the range customers will be spending £24 million on a yacht. That’s never loose change.’
Sunseeker will launch four new models before this time next year. Popham’s personal favourite is the 116 Yacht – ‘big enough to have 10 people and the crew onboard and not be on top of each other, with the right balance of size and looks’.
To get to know the product, Popham occasionally goes out on the water to experience sea trials of new yachts that have been completed for customers. But although he has a Level 2 powerboat licence, he admits ‘there is always a bit of trepidation when you are helming a multi-million pound yacht’.
Popham has been advised on his finances by Midlands-based St. James’s Place Partner Derek Mills since 1993. ‘I was introduced to Derek by a mutual associate, and we’re the same age and share similar values,’ says Popham. ‘He has advised me on investment, company pensions and taxation. Now I’m aiming to buy a Sunseeker for when I retire.’
- Born 1965 in Redditch, Worcestershire
- Graduated from the University of Aston with a first class BSc (Hons) in management studies
- Joined Land Rover as a Graduate Trainee in 1988 and gained international experience in South Africa as Marketing Director, and as Vice President of Marketing in the US
- Spent two years as Head of Operations for Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles from 1999
- Returned to Land Rover in 2001, becoming Group Marketing Director of Jaguar Land Rover in 2013
- Married, has a son and daughter, and supports West Bromwich Albion
- Owns a 6.5m RIB (rigid inflatable boat), which he enjoys with his family