Beneteau Sailboats: From Family Shop to Global Hit

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A worker puts the finishing touches on a boat at the Beneteau factory on the French Atlantic coast. i

A worker puts the finishing touches on a boat at the Beneteau factory on the French Atlantic coast. Eleanor Beardsley for NPR hide caption

toggle caption Eleanor Beardsley for NPR
A worker puts the finishing touches on a boat at the Beneteau factory on the French Atlantic coast.

A worker puts the finishing touches on a boat at the Beneteau factory on the French Atlantic coast.

Eleanor Beardsley for NPR

Fifty years ago, Beneteau was a small, family-owned company that made fishing boats in a French village. Now it's the world's top sailboat maker, with dealers in 50 countries. Reporter Eleanor Beardsley has more on the woman who transformed the company.


And moving us now from land to water for a story about the business of sailing. The French company Beneteau is the world's top maker of sailboats. Fifty years ago, it started out as just a small family-run business making fishing boats. And here's Eleanor Beardsley with a profile of the woman who transformed Beneteau into a global success story.

(Soundbite of seagulls)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Never mind that Beneteau is the leading player in the multimillion dollar sailing industry. The company's headquarters still sit on the waterfront in the quiet Atlantic coast fishing village of Saint Gilles-Croix-de-Vie. It was here that Benjamin Beneteau began making tuna boats and trawlers in the 1880s. Almost a century later the company changed course in the hands of Beneteau's granddaughter - 21-year-old Annette Beneteau Roux. Under her stewardship, Beneteau has grown from 17 to 6,000 employees.

Ms. ANNETTE BENETEAU ROUX (Beneteau): (Through translator) You have to put yourself in the context of the 1960s and the decline of the fishing industry. Beneteau would've disappeared like many companies. My husband told me even though I was a girl of 21, I could still run the company. So we came out with the first pleasure boat. The rest is history.

BEARDSLEY: The 65-year-old grand dame of yachting officially stepped down as Beneteau's CEO three years ago, but Roux still commutes weekly from Paris to oversee operations.

Beneteau manufactures powerboats in Poland and has a sailboat factory in Marion, South Carolina. But the rest of its boatyards are scattered across the picturesque western coastal region of France known as la Vendee.

(Soundbite of saw)

At a Beneteau wood-working plant here, 350 artisans cut and shape 20,000 interior boat parts by hand and machine. The African, Mohave and French beechwood parts will be used in Beneteau's cabins.

Plant manager Florence Grube(ph) says Beneteau builds 10,000 boats a year.

Mr. FLORENCE GRUBE (Beneteau): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Beneteau's strength, compared to its competitors, is that it has been able to industrialize its operations while preserving its tradition of craftsmanship, says Grube.

At an R&D center, dozens of engineers used the same digital computer program that Boeing uses to design its airplanes. Technology like this helps Beneteau create about 19 new boat models a year.

But things haven't always been so rosy. In 1986, faulty resin from one of its suppliers ruined the hulls of about 1,000 boats. The crisis nearly sunk Beneteau. Annette Beneteau Roux pursued the supplier in court for seven years until she got a full settlement. Then she nursed the company's battered image back to life by launching a new series of sailboats showcasing the work of big name interior designers.

By 1995, Beneteau was ready to acquire its largest competitor, fellow French company Jeanneau.

Roux attributes the company's success over the long term to what she calls Beneteau's soul.

Ms. BENETEAU: (Through translator) It hasn't always been easy, but I've always had faith in the deep know-how in this company. We have values that go back to our beginning. Almost like genes.

BEARDSLEY: Today, on a 103-acre Beneteau boatyard - the largest in the world - fiberglass hulls are being reinforced with fiberglass caulk and sprayed with resin. Then the hulls make their way down a slow-moving production line where teams of workers swarm over them, installing everything from washer-dryers to electric wenches and GPS systems.

Eric Stromberg is a production manager.

Mr. ERIC STROMBERG (Beneteau): Everything that you see happening in the automobile industry in terms of the comfort you see now coming into boats. People now live in a high design world. They drive high design cars. And they expect that from their boat as well.

BEARDSLEY: From here, the 43-foot, $275,000 sailboats go out to the four corners of the globe. Annette Beneteau Roux is one of the leading contenders for this year's Ernst and Young World Entrepreneur of the Year Award, to be announced this Saturday at a ceremony in Monte Carlo.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Saint Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, France.

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