Fashion magnate Leonardo Ferragamo has cultivated Nautor’s Swan into the world’s most respected yacht brand. Toby Hodges find out how he did it...
If there is one yacht marque that every sailor knows, and can probably recognise even at a distance, it’s Nautor’s Swan. This famous Finnish yard has been owned for more that 20 years by an Italian, Leonardo Ferragamo, who has not only taken it through choppy waters, including a recession and now a global pandemic, but he has helped expand it into the most ambitious, innovative yacht brand in the world.
Swan is as popular now as it has ever been, with an order book to envy. An aggressive investment strategy over recent years has revamped the firm and led to a broad range that now includes cruising and racing yachts from 36-125ft.
But how does someone whose business is in fashion come to own a yacht building company? Ferragamo insists there are strong ties between the worlds of fashion and sailing. “It is about branding, it is about international marketing, about a product that needs to be done because of the substance, the contents, the reliability and the beauty that you can put in a product.”
When he bought the controlling interest in Nautor’s Swan in 1998, his overriding desire was to create a high-end brand. So how and why did he do it?
I connect with Ferragamo via video, as is the custom during isolation times. He sits at a varnished table in his Florentine home, with books and family photographs backlit on the bookshelf behind him. He has a healthy glow and looks younger than his 67 years.
Leonardo is one of six children born into the Salvatore Ferragamo fashion kingdom. He admits it was a privilege, yet says it never seemed that way. “At all times it felt like we were being pushed to take the hard route in life and always working for your own result,” he says.
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Leonardo’s father Salvatore established a legacy when he became known as the shoemaker of the stars – Marilyn Monroe famously wore his 4in heels in the movie Some Like It Hot. He opened his Hollywood Boot Shop in the 1920s and, after the Wall Street Crash, he founded the headquarters of Salvatore Ferragamo in Florence in 1938, where it remains today (including a museum housing Ferragamo patents). Salvatore died in his early 60s when Leonardo was just seven years old.
Leonardo is quick to credit the success of the present day Salvatore Ferragamo business to his mother: “My mother had been the driving force of the era after my father’s passing away in 1960, having been left with six kids from 18 years old to two-and-a-half, and a company that was based only on my father, my father’s personality, his creativity, his ability to do business.”
His mother, Wanda Miletti, was over 20 years younger than Salvatore and despite having no practical experience of the business she took control of it, expanding it into the global luxury goods retailer we know today.
At this point in our discussion Ferragamo leans in towards me in considered, happy reflection: “She was left with this and she took it in a wonderful way, with modesty, but with a lot of strength, and she was able to be a fantastic mother and a great driver in the company.”
Family is important to Ferragamo. His father was one of 14, he is one of six, and he has four children of his own. He paints a picture of family unity and business acumen from an early age.
“I was number five out of six, with the rest of the family entering into the business as soon as they were out of high school. So the business environment was very dominant in my growing up and I remember that I couldn’t wait until I got out of high school too and start giving a contribution to my family activity.”
Learning the trade
Ferragamo began working in the family firm in 1973, after studying business administration. [As a time reference, this was also the year that the Swan 65 Sayula II’s triumphant campaign in the first ever Whitbread Round the World Race began]. “I started as an assistant to my cousin who was technical production director – a fantastic person, he is now 90 years old and he puts the same passion in his business as he did when he was a young guy.”
Ferragamo has always been driven. He describes a period 40 years ago when he was helping to create a men’s line of shoes for the American market. “It was a fantastic time because we always felt the challenge of bringing to the world what was inside us, like the style, the sense of quality, the Italian aspect.”
In the late 1980s Ferragamo pushed for the international development of the family company. Up to 85% of turnover was through wholesale in the US. “So that’s when I came up with the proposal to my family ‘let me take care of the rest of the market’. I was basically living on a plane and travelling the world, which I did constantly for at least 15 years,” he explains.
After achieving his export goals at Salvatore Ferragamo, in 2000 Leonardo moved to the family’s other holding company, Palazzo Feroni Finanziaria, which is focussed on real estate, hospitality and a chain of boutique hotels. He remains the CEO today, while he and his siblings are still directors in the Salvatore Ferragamo group. His attention was also being drawn to Nautor’s Swan.
“And then on my personal side I got involved in the nautical sector, acquiring the company that I respected the most, by far,” he stresses. “I was in love with what they were doing and I had the ambition and took the challenge of taking it through difficult times that they were facing….”
In 1998 the challenge was to build up the Nautor’s Swan brand and, says Ferragamo, take the struggling company into the third millennium.
Ferragamo the sailor
Although his family is originally from Naples, Ferragamo was born and raised in Florence. He started sailing in his teenage years with his older brother Ferruccio on a Flying Dutchman. “I just loved the racing,” he recalls, something which has repeatedly shown itself throughout his custodianship of Nautor’s Swan.
“Thereafter started a period of cruising in a very leisurely way, until I boarded a Swan for the first time.” His first yacht was a secondhand Swan 51, and that was the beginning of his infatuation with Swan yachts. “I became more and more close to the company and the strong desire to get involved in it came up very sharply,” he explains.
Buying a shipyard because you like the product could be likened to buying a restaurant after enjoying the food. And if your experience is in fashion, why gamble with something as far removed as yacht building?
“I felt that there were so many areas of improvement and bringing this yard the branding reputation which I thought it deserved. So after a few years thinking about it, it happened.”
“Out of a yard I wanted to create a brand,” Ferragamo explains. “Becoming a brand means you want to control all the key ingredients that are around your product.” Ferragamo placed immediate emphasis on product development.
“It was about modernity, new systems, new constructions, new materials – product is always key. But at the same time it’s also about taking care of your customers… being close to all your customers is very important,” he believes.
Ferragamo was also quick to establish a bond with someone he felt critical to the continuity of the yard. German Frers had been the primary designer for Nautor’s Swan since the early 1980s (and remains so today).
“There is no [greater mark of] success for a product than to be recognised, identified when you see it at a distance, when you don’t read the brand name but know it is a Swan. To preserve that identity, that quality, it was paramount to do it with one [designer].”
Strength in the brand
Ferragamo presided over the yard with a respectful approach. Change was not abrupt. He moved Nautor’s main offices in Finland to its current facility by the water in Pietarsaari in 2002. He also looked to strengthen the Swan ‘family’, which he has achieved through events, racing and the development of the ClubSwan line.
He explains how they built on the bedrock of the existing Swan Cup, with other Swan branded events including the Swan European and American regattas.
Ferragamo still enjoys handicap racing, but during his more recent tenure there has been a steady shift towards one-design racing within Nautor’s Swan. He argues that this makes for an efficient purchase and higher resale price – and lower running costs for a high level of racing.
He also champions an owner-driver rule. “Maybe it will take him some time to perform at the best but there is so much pleasure in doing it your own way, learning from your own mistakes and challenging yourself.”
Nautor’s Swan’s robust return to the one-design world came in 2016 and for Ferragamo personally this was a second lease of racing life. He wanted to mark Nautor’s 50th anniversary in an appropriate way and rather than just look back at the past, they sought an innovative new product to take them forward. No one can deny that they developed one in the ClubSwan 50.
Together with the ClubSwan 36, which launched last year, Swan and designer Juan Kouyoumdjian have produced two of the boldest, most radical production yachts to date.
Ferragamo has been actively racing his own ClubSwan 50 Cuordileone and clearly remains besotted. When developing the project, he particularly wanted to introduce a special competition for Swan owners to enjoy. This has become the biannual Nations Trophy, around which a whole league of racing has formed. It had 41 One Design yachts from 14 countries participating in the second edition held last October in Palma.
I can’t help but to wonder how the racing side equates financially, particularly when we have seen a rapid decline in yacht racing in recent years. Ferragamo concedes that the majority of the Swan business is in cruising yachts, but feels that the racing format they have developed is “something we owe to the sailing industry.”
Nautor’s Swan today
In the past few years Ferragamo and his shareholders have invested heavily in Nautor’s Swan. They have pumped over €10m into the waterside Boatbuilding Technology Centre (BTC) in Pietarsaari, which involved relocating three manufacturing plants to create a more efficient production system.
Its range is perhaps the broadest of any manufacturer, with six new models in production and turnover has responded accordingly, rising by 55% last year thanks to a €120m order book and the delivery of 28 yachts.
It’s abundantly clear that Ferragamo’s enthusiasm for Swan remains as fervent as ever. “There are areas I feel tremendously at heart and I will always be present in those,” he says of his personal input today.
“One is product development, which is something I feel extremely strongly about. I just love to be involved and try to give a contribution in what is developed.”
Ferragamo sees the secret to his success as growing up in a challenging family: “It was very important – challenging with serious and very deep values and principles.
“And I feel my Neopolitan blood has given me the passion and determination to pursue the things I believe in. I only move when I have a strong feeling about what I am supposed to do.
“We say ‘throw your heart over the obstacle’ – so let your determination, your vision, your passion, move you forward.”
Ferragamo in brief
Alle Querce College, Florence, graduated in 1972
University of Imede, Lausanne, Switzerland, Business Administration Degree, graduated in 1980
CEO Palazzo Feroni Finanziaria
Chairman of Lungarno Alberghi
Director of Salvatore Ferragamo, Ferragamo Finanziaria and Executive Vice-President of Fondazione Ferragamo
Honorary chairman of Altagamma
Founder and chairman of Associazione Partners Palazzo Strozzi
Chairman of Nautor Holding, which owns Nautor’s Swan, Camper & Nicholsons and Marina di Scarlino
Honorary Member of Academy of Fine Arts of Florence
Commander of the Order of the Lion of Finland
Honorary Consul General of Finland for the regions of Tuscany and Umbria
Member of Fondazione CR Firenze
“I like to think that I’m a good father, which is an important thing that I will treasure.”
“Sometimes you should learn from mistakes and do it again in the proper way rather than moving to something else.”
“At the moment it is the ClubSwan 50. It has given me the same passion and adrenaline I had when I was racing the Flying Dutchman. I also have the privilege of my cruising yacht, a 115ft Swan, which I adore.”
“Olin Stephens. We met when he was in his mid 90s and he had his laptop under his arm with all the files of all the boats he had designed. And of course he was the first designer of Swans.”
“As a person? Enzo Ferrari.”
First published in the July 2020 issue of Yachting World.