Sales: EUR 619.3 million ($600 million) (2002)
Stock Exchanges: Euronext Paris
Ticker Symbol: BEN
NAIC: 336611 Ship Building and Repairing
Bénéteau SA is the world’s largest manufacturer of sailing yachts and pleasure craft, under the Bénéteau and Jeanneau names. Other well-known brand names in the Bénéteau stable include Waquiez, CNB (Construction Navales de Bordeaux), and catamaran maker Lagoon. Based in Saint-Hilaire-de-Riez, in France’s Vendee region along the Atlantic coast, Bénéteau’s sales are worldwide, representing more than two-thirds of its annual revenues of EUR 619 million per year. The United States, the site of the company’s only international manufacturing facility, accounts for a significant share of Bénéteau’s shares. The company also owns a majority stake in Polish motor yacht builder Ostroda, and has entered the Duboats joint venture with the United Arab Republic’s Bin Zayed Group. In addition to its pleasure craft, Bénéteau also manufactures professional craft, including fishing boats and racing boats. A diversification drive undertaken during the lean years of the early 1990s has led Bénéteau into a number of related areas, including modular mobile homes, under the O’Hara brand, utilizing the company’s expertise at creating comfort within confined spaces; and, through subsidiary Microcar, lightweight license-free automobiles, using Bénéteau’s longstanding expertise in fiberglass manufacturing. Bénéteau, listed on the Euronext Paris Stock Exchange, remains controlled at more than 57 percent by the founding Bénéteau family. Annette Roux, granddaughter of the company’s founder and chief architect of its success, remains company chairman, seconded by CEO and probable successor Bruno Cathelinais.
From Work to Pleasure in the 1960s
Benjamin Bénéteau had put to sea at the age of 12, before receiving training as a naval architect as part of France’s navy before setting up his own small shipyard in Croix de Vie, in the Bay of Biscay, in 1884. Bénéteau established a family tradition in designing and building sail-based vessels—yet the company’s production remained limited to fishing trawlers for nearly 80 years.
At the turn of the century, Bénéteau recognized the potential for adapting internal combustion engine designs, and by 1908 had proposed adding a motor to his trawlers. Yet fishermen rejected the idea, believing the engine noise would frighten off fish. Bénéteau nevertheless found a few takers for the proposed new vessel. In 1912, the first motor-equipped trawlers left the harbor—and returned far ahead of their sail-only counterparts, capturing the largest share of the market.
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Bénéteau remained a small, if respected shipbuilder, then under the leadership of Bénéteau’s son André. With orders outpacing production levels, the company had little interest in change through the 1950s. By the early 1960s, the company had grown to just 17 employees, including André Bénéteau’s own five children, and especially son André and his younger sister Annette.
Stricken by the Spanish flu, and facing financial difficulties as a result of a crisis in the French fishing industry, André Bénéteau turned over leadership of the company to the team of André and Annette in 1964. The brother-sister team decided to launch the company into a new direction. While continuing to build its traditional wooden fishing boats, André Bénéteau set about designing a new type of boat. Using new fiberglass materials, Bénéteau designed the company’s first pleasure craft, sailboats named the Fletan and the Guppy. Annette, who in that year married local businessman Louis-Claude Roux, took over the commercial side of the family business.
Bénéteau displayed models of its new sailboats at the Paris Boat Show in 1965 and promptly received an approach from a trio of boat shop owners located on the Brittany region coast, with orders that were to keep the company in production for the next six months. The company had, in fact, launched a revolution in pleasure boating, creating an affordable sailing product at a time when the French vacationer, enjoying years of economic prosperity, offered a huge demand. Annette Roux had quickly recognized the potential as well of developing a network of concessions for sales of its boating models.
The company quickly followed up its first successful models with a steady succession of innovative craft, boasting names such as the Galion, the Piranha, the Forban, and the Baroudeur. The Bénéteau name quickly became synonymous with French pleasure sailing, and also gained a reputation for quality construction. Bénéteau also extended its range into a growing new category of boating enthusiast, that of the pleasure fishing segment.
By the beginning of the 1970s, Bénéteau had succeeded in becoming one of the leading names in the French pleasure boating market. The company also had expanded into new boating categories, debuting the line of luxury combined motor-sail yachts, featuring an interior wheelhouse, called the Evasion 32, in 1973. The company also began building racing boats—and began winning races by the mid-1970s.
André Bénéteau had guided the company’s boat designs into the mid-1970s and was to remain in charge of developing Bénéteau’s motor craft. In 1976, however, the company hired on the first of a series of outside designers to conceive new generations of sailing craft. The first of these, the André Mauric-designed First 30, won the Paris Boat Show “Boat of the Year” award in 1978. The company next turned to Cees Van der Velden, who added the successful Flyer series. Meanwhile, André Bénéteau’s Antares design became a highly popular fishing/cruising model.
Overcoming Crisis in the 1980s
Yet the First series remained the company’s largest seller for the better part of a decade, raising the company to prominence beyond France to become one of the world’s leading makers of sailing yachts. In 1981, the company extended the range with the launch of the First Evolution, which went on to win the World Half Ton Championship that year. The following year, the company received a new “Boat of the Year” award, with the launch of the Wizz model.
In 1984, the company went public, selling shares on the Paris Stock Exchange’s Unlisted Securities Market. The Bénéteau family was to remain in control of the company, however, with more than 56 percent of shares held through a family holding company, and a further 8 percent of stock held directly by the company itself. Two years later, the company inaugurated one of the world’s most modern boat-building plants at its Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie home.
Bénéteau had long recognized the potential of the U.S. market, where the company’s sail-based yachts had found a strong reception. In 1986, the company took a risk and opened its own U.S.-based shipbuilding yard, a replica of its main French facility, in the town of Marion, in South Carolina. Production there rose rapidly, and by 1990, the Marion facility had turned out its 1,000th boat.
Yet Bénéteau itself had nearly been sunk by an unexpected crisis. By 1986, the company had been forced to recall some 600 boats, including nearly all of its flagship First vessels, produced between 1983 and 1985. A supplier of a catalyst used to harden the paint on the vessels’ hulls had replaced an ingredient with another, water-soluble ingredient—resulting in the hulls developing a condition called osmosis, described by Bénéteau more or less as the “cancer of plastic.” Although Bénéteau later successfully sued the supplier, the company struggled to rebuild its reputation and its sales through the middle of the decade. By 1987, the company, which absorbed the costs of refitting its recalled vessels, was forced to report its first losses since the early 1960s.
By 1988, however, Bénéteau appeared to have overcome its crisis. In this the company was helped by the highly successful Oceanis range of yachts, designed around a concept of “the pleasure of the open sea,” launched in 1986. The following year, the company’s motor cruiser range gained in stature with the launch of a new generation of Flyer models, designed especially for the European market. That same year, the company won its latest Boat of the Year award with the launch of the First S, featuring designs from noted designer Philippe Starck. These events helped boost the company’s sales past FFr 670 million (approximately EUR 100 million) by the end of 1988.
Acquisition and Diversification in the New Century
Bénéteau ran headlong into the international economic recession at the beginning of the 1990s, and especially into the crisis that hit the world yachting market, exacerbated by the outbreak of the first Persian Gulf War. By 1991, the company’s revenues had dropped by some 30 percent, and Bénéteau was forced to lay off a number of its employees.
In order to counter the drop-off in sales in its core markets, Bénéteau decided to expand into new markets. In 1992 the company bought a shipyard in nearby Noirmoutier, where it began construction of smaller 20- to 25-meter craft. That year, also, the company acquired Construction Navale Bordeaux (CNB), a noted manufacturer of luxury yachts and service craft built from aluminum.
For more than a century now, Bénéteau has been building boats. Sailing trawlers first—as strong as the sailors who sailed them. Fishing boats that put to sea whatever the weather because they had to, because the shipping forecast did not yet exist and the fishing could not wait. Boats built to last, just like Bénéteau boats today. Bénéteau has held its course: the passion for the Sea and Sailing, which inspired its beginnings, is still the driving force behind a staff of over 1500 committed sailors. In such a company, innovation is held in high regard. It is innovation that drives the whole Bénéteau network across 28 countries and accounts for Bénéteau ‘s presence at the most prestigious races. For its part the Sea remains the same—ever-changing.
In 1995, Bénéteau took its expansion still further, launching an entirely new division: O’Hara Houses, a maker of portable and modular vacation homes (similar to mobile homes but more luxurious). Although that market seemed far removed from the company’s boat-building activities, it nonetheless made use of the company’s long-held expertise at creating comfort within confined spaces.
With the yacht market picking up again at mid-decade, Bénéteau’s next expansion move came as a defensive measure. By then, the company’s main rival—and neighbor—Jeanneau SA had been forced into bankruptcy. Fearful that Jeanneau might fall under control of French inflatable craft specialist Zodiac, Bénéteau launched its own bid to acquire the bankrupt firm. In December 1995, the company’s efforts were rewarded when it was given the go-ahead to acquire Jeanneau. That company, which began by building wooden dinghies in the 1957, had turned toward fiberglass boats at the beginning of the 1960s.
The acquisition more than doubled Bénéteau in size, making it far and away the world’s leading manufacturer of luxury sailing yachts. Rather than absorb its new subsidiary, the company decided to maintain the Jeanneau brand and boating range alongside its own. Jeanneau also brought two additional operations to Bénéteau: the Lagoon branded line of racing boats, and its subsidiary Microcar, a maker of lightweight, license-less automobiles (a peculiarity of the French roadway, the class of automobile featured two-stroke engines with upper speed limits of 30 miles per hour). Again, Bénéteau found an extension of its manufacturing expertise—in this case, in the use of fiberglass materials—in a further diversification of its operations.
Bénéteau continued to build up its own boating line in the late 1990s, particularly with the launch of a new “ready-to-sail” concept that featured upgraded amenities as part of its models’ standard equipment. The company also launched a new nine-point “Sailing Contract” among its concessions, beginning in France, before extending the customer service program throughout Europe.
The company also continued making acquisitions, taking over another French sailing yacht maker, Wauquiez, which had been established in 1965. That brand promptly joined Bénéteau’s growing stable of brands. Meanwhile, Bénéteau was preparing the launch of a number of new Bénéteau-branded models, including the large cruiser sailing yacht, the First 40.7, introduced in 1998, which was followed by the still larger First 47.7 in 1999. The company also debuted the Océanis Clipper 411, one of its most successful models, selling more than 1,000 by 2000.
Bénéteau enjoyed an upturn in the worldwide yacht market as it entered the new century, seeing its sales rise to more than EUR 570 million at the end of 2001, and again to nearly EUR 620 million for the 2002 year. The company continued to expand as well, beginning a new drive to add international operations. At the end of 2001, the company purchased a 57 percent stake in Poland’s Ostrada, a maker of motor-driven cruising boats that had already acted as a subcontractor for Bénéteau in the past. The move was expected to enable Bénéteau to step up its presence in Northern Europe.
Despite the upheaval in the Persian Gulf at the beginning of 2003, Bénéteau targeted that region for future growth as well. In March 2003, the company formed a joint venture, Duboats, with the United Arab Emirates’ Bin Zayed Group to develop sailing and motor craft for the Gulf markets. Approaching its 120th anniversary, Bénéteau had established itself as a clear leader in the international boating community.
Chantiers Jeanneau; Microcar SA; Maisons O’Hara SA.
Brunswick Corporation; Chantiers de l’Atlantique; Groupe Zodiac; Polaris Industries Inc.; IZAR Construcciones Navales S.A.; Bass Pro L.P.; Genmar Holdings Inc.; Fiskars Oy Ab; BAE Systems Marine Ltd.; Arctic Cat Inc.; Fiberdome Inc.; Sanoyas Hishino Meisho Corporation; Morita Corporation; Triton Boat Company L.P.; Johnson Outdoors Inc.
- Benjamin Bénéteau founds his own shipyard and begins building wooden sail-based fishing boats.
- Bénéteau introduces the first motor-driven fishing boats.
- André Bénéteau and sister Annette Roux take over as head of the company and enter the fiberglass-based pleasure craft market.
- Bénéteau goes public on the Paris stock exchange.
- Bénéteau opens a new modern shipbuilding facility in France and establishes its first international facility, in South Carolina in the United States.
- The company acquires Construction Navale Bordeaux, a maker of aluminum-based fishing and service craft.
- The company acquires rival Jeanneau SA, doubling in size; the O’Hara Houses subsidiary is launched.
- The company acquires Wauquiez, a sailing yacht maker in France.
- The company acquires 57 percent of Ostroda, a maker of motor-driven boats in Poland.
- The company forms the Duboats joint venture with the Bin Zayed Group of United Arab Emirates to enter the Mideast market.
Baudet, Marie-Beatrice, “Annette Roux, reine de la plaisance,” Le Monde, December 7, 2000.
“Bénéteau Hoists Sails and Charts a Global Course,” Business Day, July 16, 1999, p. 41.
“Beneteau: Les vents faiblissent, la Bourse s’inquiète,” Les Echos, February 07, 2003, p. 11.
Mallet, Victor, “Steady Hand Guides the Tiller Through Choppiest of Seas,” Financial Times, November 24, 2001, p. 18.
Schroeder, Peter, “Bénéteau to Maintain Separate Jeanneau Sail Line,” Boating Industry, February 1996, p. 13.
—M. L. Cohen