Rodney Longhurst was well prepared for the task ahead of him when he decided to buy Riviera from receivers seven years ago
At the time, the luxury boat manufacturer was on the brink as the business had faltered from the demands of private-equity ownership and a precarious global economy. It was a shadow of its former self. But for Longhurst, whose father John set on his own entrepreneurial voyages many times before by establishing Pace Mowers, Pride Boats and the Dreamworld theme park, there was a deep underlying faith in one of the Gold Coast‘s most recognised global brands.
However, the keen boatie concedes that some friends and family at the time questioned his decision to tackle this brave venture – although his father had no doubts. “My father is a tremendous believer; he knew I could do it but he warned me that it would be a lot of hard work,” says Longhurst.
Few would argue the point now. Riviera’s manufacturing facility at Coomera is now the biggest boat building operation in the southern hemisphere producing more than 100 luxury motor yachts a year. Boats range from 39 feet under a million dollars to 72 feet around five million dollars.
It was a different story in March 2012 when Longhurst took over the business at a time when its future was wracked with uncertainty. Staff numbers had dwindled from a series of redundancies through the receivership, and most troubling was the depth of skill required to build luxury boats had all but evaporated. Longhurst, filled with palpable enthusiasm, developed a plan.
From the outset, he enlisted former long-time Riviera CEO and friend Wes Moxey back to the helm to regenerate the business from the top down. His aim was to bring as much of that lost talent back on board. “We’ve seen many past Riviera stars come back to work here again,” says Longhurst.
“It’s a bit like putting a great sporting team together and for me, personally, there is a real pleasure watching our team develop, work together and achieve such results. “We knew that if we could get the right people together, and we were efficient and smart, we could compete anywhere.” Staff numbers have grown dramatically in recent years, buoyed by strong export markets in both North and South America, the Middle East, Asia and New Zealand, as well as gains in Europe.
Riviera’s workforce is currently about 600, almost triple the levels of 2012. However, apprenticeships have risen even faster. When Longhurst and Moxey took control of Riviera, there were just four apprentices on the company’s books. Now there are 74 and Riviera has their own TAFE college operating out of the Gold Coast headquarters, which was also spotlighted in the Channel Nine program, Sea Changing: 60 Years of the Gold Coast. Riviera is a labour-intensive business and the importance of training staff is not lost on Longhurst, a former carpenter and joiner.
“We’re building a very exclusive, low-volume craftsman-built product, so you can only automate so much on these boats because they are so different from one to the other,” he says. “Our staff numbers have risen because we have needed those people and we’ve needed those skills. We’ve been here five years now and building on these apprenticeship numbers is helping us gain momentum and efficiency.
“Both Wes and I are tradesmen – we both have sons and we both believe that not everyone wants to be a doctor or a financier. There are many people out there who are extremely smart and extremely skilled with their hands who love this type of work.
“It’s satisfying to see Riviera tradespeople and former apprentices who have come through the system now looking after boats across the industry in the US, Europe and Dubai, as well as Australia and New Zealand. They are well respected within the industry.”
Riviera’s growth has also been driven by a multimillion-dollar investment in technology and factory upgrades aimed at boosting production efficiencies and accommodating new models. “We’ve made significant investment in plant and equipment, from upgrading the robotic varnishing machine to new fibreglass chopper guns and new woodworking equipment,” says Longhurst.
“We’ve also made massive investment in research and development to bring many new models to the market.” Riviera exports more than half of its production, with the Americas particularly strong in recent years. “Since Riviera started in 1980s, we’ve built more than 5400 boats, and more than 2000 of these are in the Americas,” says Longhurst.
A concerted effort to partner with dealers and remain connected with yacht owners in the Americas, both directly and through boat shows, is reflected in the company’s consistent export orders from the region. “I think everyone can see Riviera is stronger than ever,” says Longhurst. “We’re listening to the market and they’re loving what we build.” Although export markets remain at the mercy of exchange rates, Longhurst maintains a sanguine view. “I can’t control the currency and that certainly can have some impact on us, but one thing that works for us is that a significant amount of our equipment and materials has to be sourced offshore, so we get a natural hedge there.”
Longhurst says one of the keys to Riviera’s future is its growing agility – its capacity to adapt to changes in the market. “We are massively more flexible than ever,” he says. “For a start, I’m not private equity and don’t have to answer to anyone if we have a tough year, but we still have to run the business commercially. “If things tighten up, then we have to tighten the belt and go through that process. We’re very mindful of keeping an eye on forward orders and buyer trends.” As for regrets, Longhurst doesn’t have any since buying Riviera despite the long hours and travel it entails. “I’ve never had one of those times (of regret), and right now we are all very excited by where we are heading.
“It’s not an easy job, but if we do it well it’s certainly a rewarding outcome for all 600 hard-working members of our team. “In my eyes, it’s a journey and we’ve got some way to travel to achieve even greater things. But we always keep our feet firmly on the ground and take it step by step.”