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Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 10:00 GMT 11:00 UK
Sunseeker scoops entrepreneur award
Sunseeker 94 Yacht
Searching for the sun in a 94 Yacht

Robert Braithwaite, founder of boat-builder Sunseeker International, has been named Ernst & Young's UK Entrepreneur of the Year.
James Bond would have been pleased.

After all, why take the tube when you can churn up the Thames with your Sunseeker Hawk 34 in pursuit of an attractive female assassin?

The high-octane stunt featuring the power boat in the opening frames of The World Is Not Enough had a remarkable impact on the company's brand.

Pierce Brosnan as James Bond
Bond put Sunseeker through its paces
"After watching that film, children in China now know what a Sunseeker is," the company's founder and managing director, Robert Braithwaite, told BBC News Online.

Following an awards ceremony on Monday evening, even Chancellor Gordon Brown will recognise the sleek contours of a Sunseeker craft.

Mr Brown attended the event, which was hosted by the BBC's business editor Jeff Randall and sponsored by the accountancy firm Ernst & Young.

Mr Braithwaite beat off competition from London shoe designer LK Bennett and other finalists to win his award.

"Winning is always great, anyone who didn't say that is stupid," he says.

"It feels slightly wrong because this is also the work of my brother and the team.

"But I do feel elated."

Dream boat

Established in 1968, Sunseeker has become an international company, turning over more than 135m ($211m) a year.

One of Sunseeker's 34-foot power boats - similar to 007's choice of craft - will set you back a cool 180,000.

Robert Braithwaite, founder of Sunseeker International
Braithwaite had "enormous ambition"

For the super-wealthy, there is a 105-foot engine-based yacht retailing at just under 5m.

Customers of Sunseeker, which exports 99% of its boats from its facility in Poole, Dorset, range from self-made millionaires and world rulers to top sports personalities.

Appropriately enough, former James Bond actor Roger Moore is also a Sunseeker owner.

And yet when Mr Braithwaite built his first sports boat back in the 1960s, he had no conception of how the company would turn out.

"I was always a person with enormous ambition, but I never dreamed of this," he says.

Engines and exports

Mr Braithwaite cut his teeth working for his father's engine-servicing company, after leaving school with no particular plans.

Sunseeker, which was founded with a team of seven, now employs 1,200 people.

An early model of a Sunseeker boat
An early Sunseeker model

"I had an enormous pride in the country where I was born and I wanted to start building boats here," he says.

Very early on Mr Braithwaite decided that power boats rather than sailing boats were "commercially the right way to go".

"With sailing boats people generally don't want to spend as much money, and power boats are also more lucrative for a world market."

He also steered the company toward exports to overcome any dips in the domestic market.

"I remember the first few years as horrible," recalls Mr Braithwaite. "I used to think 'what the hell was happening?'

"We were working hard and not really getting anywhere."

'Like Hoover'

Years later, Mr Braithwaite attributes the company's success to constant innovation.

We want people to think 'boat' when they say 'Sunseeker'

Robert Braithwaite

For example, the design of the bulkheads - where a shaped piece of wood splits off different cabins - was transferred from paper to the computer.

Mr Braithwaite's brother, who is responsible for the design and technology side of the business, helped write the software to manage this process.

Mr Braithwaite also recognised the importance of building up his brand.

"It's like Hoover," says Mr Braithwaite. "When I get out my Dyson at home, I say to the wife that I am getting out the Hoover.

"It's the same with us. We want people to think 'boat' when they say 'Sunseeker'."

Choppy water

In the past few months the company has come under pressure, in the wake of 11 September and the economic slowdown.

Sunseeker Camargue 50 Hard-top option
The company has focused on new designs

End-of-year profits of 9m in July 2001 have slipped to 7m in July 2002.

Similarly, the company's growth has slowed to 8% this year from 32% two years ago.

In the US, Sunseeker has also been forced to offer better deals to hold on to its market share.

But Mr Braithwaite is not unduly concerned.

"We've been through everything from the oil crisis to war to stock market collapses.

"It doesn't matter - we just work harder each time, developing our products and spreading the market."


Flush from his success, Mr Braithwaite believes that the UK has become a better place for aspiring entrepreneurs.

A robust economy and relatively low taxes are a winning combination, he says.

"I have complained about the strong pound, but in a way it was good. It made us build a product that was better than anyone else's."

Nevertheless, he is "totally" saddened by the demise of British manufacturing and blames lack of investment and obstructive unions, as well as successive governments.

But for would-be entrepreneurs, persistence is the secret weapon.

"Keep trying and trying. Try even when it's impossible," he says.

A sentiment James Bond would no doubt endorse.

See also:

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24 Apr 02 | Education
30 Sep 01 | Education
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