The world’s biggest multihull yacht broker lands on SA shores yet again to spearhead two ventures
American Phil Berman has ignited a boatbuilding Renaissance in South Africa
As an author and philosophy student, Phil Berman spent years wondering what makes the world go round. He discovered it’s more fun just to go around the world – and help others do it, too.
The New York Times bestselling author and former world champion sailor has teamed up with SA boatbuilders to construct some of the world’s best multihull catamarans – 50ft vessels able to circumnavigate the globe.
And in so doing, he has turned his personal philosophy into a commercial fairytale for the local marine economy.
Berman, who gave up writing books to become the world’s biggest multihull yacht broker, is spearheading two boatbuilding joint ventures in SA, one with Nexus Yachts in St Francis Bay, the other with Two Oceans Marine in Cape Town.
Phil Berman, pictured with Hobie Alter, won the inaugural Hobie Cat World Championships in South Africa – the start of his South African love affairBoth involve Berman’s US-based company Balance Catamarans, which is also building vessels in China. To date, Balance has built seven luxury catamarans in SA, with several more in production or on the order book. One of the models has already earned the prestigious international Cruising World ‘Boat of the Year’ award.
Berman first visited SA in 1979, when he won the World Hobie Cat World championships in St Francis Bay. He says the visit made a lasting impression and set in motion a love affair with SA that continues to this day.
“After the world champs I travelled SA, learned about apartheid, what it meant and followed Bishop [Desmond] Tutu and Nelson Mandela’s progress,” Berman told Times Select from his base in Philadelphia.
“I have seen the SA experiment in racial justice and the effort to create a rainbow nation and am committed to it. South Africans’ number one challenge is jobs … and boatbuilding is a great business for job creation.”
Like many boat industry stalwarts, Berman was drawn into the industry due to a love of travel and adventure – particularly sailing. His CV is unusual in that he turned his back on an Ivy League education to contemplate the finer points of epoxy resin decking.
The garrulous Berman has earned a reputation as a master salesman, even among those who consider his ‘American-style’ self-confidence too brash.
Before selling and building boats Berman wrote several books, including a bestseller he co-wrote in 1999 with primatologist Jane Goodall. Most of his books examined philosophical ideas around belief and ethics, which he also explored in his Harvard master’s degree on the history of religion. His CV lists several TV appearances, including on the Today Show, CNN and the Oprah Winfrey Show.
Ultimately, however, Berman preferred to mix some secular with the profound: “Many people ask: ‘Why did you stop writing books?’ The reason was that I was sitting by myself all day, lonely. I like people, and I love travel. As a writer, it is a very solitary life and sedentary … those two things are really not well-suited to my personality.
“I said to my wife, we’ve made enough money so that I could explore other things. I really want to get back to the water. I want a more adventurous life again – that is what compelled me to start another company. I wish I had started Balance Catamarans sooner.”
Berman said his literary career and academic training laid the foundation for his business career. “I learned a lot about how to write well and how to think clearly, and also a lot about marketing and promotions. I think that has helped me a great deal.”
American boat tycoon Phil Berman has put together a dream team in South Africa, building multihull yachts for the international market.
The garrulous Berman has earned a reputation as a master salesman, even among those who consider his “American-style” self-confidence too brash. His public persona contrasts starkly with some of the more reclusive SA boatbuilding and yacht designing global stars – who include several of Berman’s local partners. SA has a proud boatbuilding history and is the world’s second-largest catamaran producer, with about 3,500 people employed in the sector. Local boat yards produce famously sturdy yachts due to the demanding Southern Ocean conditions.
Local maritime industry sources said Berman’s sales acumen was a natural fit with SA’s design and boatbuilding skills. “He finds guys [in SA] who really do a good job building boats and then tries to sell them into the American market,” said one of Berman’s former clients, businessman Ivor Karan.
“He is a straight shooter – a straightforward, honest fellow. He works, is full of energy, and is an accomplished sailor.”
Vanessa Davidson, executive head of the SA Boat Builders Export Council, said: “The relationship Phil Berman has with SA boatbuilders has been cultivated over many years. He has a very good understanding of the American boat buyer, and vertically integrated partnerships such as the ones he has established with local boatbuilders are definitely beneficial to the industry.
“Phil pulls the threads together, and this creates efficiencies in getting SA-built boats on to the world stage.”
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With Special Thanks To The Sunday Times