The journey from desk to helm
Harkamal Singh Sandhu of Gurmat Yachts writes
about his experience as the Head of Assets for a
Having always enjoyed figures and statistics and with an eye for numbers, my life was set as a chartered accountant. I completed my chartered accountancy qualification at PwC and enjoyed the work thereafter. And yet I wanted to do something different. My parents are successful business people and it is in my blood to do something entrepreneurial. Fate played a hand when I was interviewed for the role as Financial Controller for one of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs. After our interview, he asked “I think you’re more than a numbers man, would you like to manage a couple of my businesses instead? I have two superyachts and they are the headache of my life”. I felt like a contestant on the Apprentice TV programme and I’d just won. Naturally I jumped at the opportunity. Now, almost a decade later, I head up the private assets of a double-digit billionaire, which includes a 100m superyacht, and feel I have become an expert in the field.
The first challenges
I’m in my mid-twenties, in an industry I know nothing about, and I’m responsible for two Lürssen superyachts, both over 60m. I always knew industry knowledge would be paramount, but knowledge is something you can learn, right? Managing more than
45 crew members who lived and worked on a yacht was indeed a challenge which I pursued with energy, empathy and just a little bit of trepidation.
With the unfortunate trend of high crew turnover in our industry, I have been lucky enough to meet a wide spectrum of personalities. I’ve always seen myself as a people’s person so getting on with the crew wasn’t a problem. However, there are always
exceptions and, whether you’re the captain or the deckhand, our objectives at work must be aligned. I’ve spent many days living on-board yachts and have greatly enjoyed having a chat with my colleagues in the crew mess. Finally, my crew structure and balance is perfect; I have an eclectic mix of personalities and nationalities. Together—as one team—we deliver exceptional service. However, it hasn’t always been plain sailing. Whilst
I always promote transparent dialogue between my teams, ultimately it is the captain of the yacht who reports to me. We have set clear grievance procedures for anyone wishing to raise a complaint or if they are unhappy with a colleague’s behaviour or attitude. This is a corporate approach which I learnt as an accountant—it has proven to be fruitful and has put us in our current position where we work as a single, unified team. Empathy is critical in the yachting industry. I really believe that unless you’ve done it yourself, it’s very difficult to imagine. There can be enough politics in a regular workspace, without having to live with one another! All of this requires good management which starts from the captain and me.
“Treat the owner’s money as if it were your own” – that simple! This is what I feel most passionately about. I find it inexcusable for anyone to make comments such as “he’s a billionaire, does it matter?”. Well of course it matters! And if we allow small expenses to slip or take a “I can’t be bothered” approach when negotiating charters then it makes
a fundamental difference to the bottom line. For example, within my first year in the industry, I was able to convert my two Lürssen yachts from a significant loss-making position to circa €7m profit.
To me, the owner is no different from anyone else. Yes, they might have more money, but ultimately they’re just people. In my case, both principles are self-made billionaires, so I enjoy their sharpness as I love being challenged. With my current principle we’ve had years of successful relationship building where there is a lot of trust placed on me and the work that I do.
Help or Hindrance?
Whilst my official title is “Head of Private Assets”, I have been called “the right-hand man”, “yacht manager”, “owner’s representative”, “COO” and so on. These titles are of little relevance because both my crew and I know clearly what my objective is and
that is to maintain the yacht in a pristine condition, never compromising on quality nor service and yet work the budgets effectively with a successful and engaged team. Ultimately, I treat the yacht like a business and it is my every intention to help my captain and crew enjoy what they do. The fact that we have a relatively low turnover of crew is the strongest evidence that my role is to help. It’s a known fact in the industry that approximately 60% of workers would like work praised more frequently and 70% of workers would like to spend more time with their managers. I do therefore encourage other yacht managers to openly appreciate crew and reward them when they go the extra mile. Relationships are crucial in yachting and my captain has all the time he needs from me. In a similar fashion, I expect him to give the heads of departments his time and for them to give their teams their time.
Why not use ‘the experts’?
To ensure full independence and control, I have found that an in-house team can bring more success, where the team can give 100% to a single boss. There are certain functions which are better to contract out rather than trying to learn yourself, but where the skill set is available, or can become available in-house, I’d implore you to do it for the sake of efficiency and the effective management of asset and staff. The choice to use an ex-captain or someone like me can be more difficult. However, the owner should always ask whether the captain can run a business. My learning curve within my first year was exponential and I was able to use my corporate and commercial skills to really drive the business to success.
The success of my yacht is very important to me, more so than my own personal success. The condition is pristine, the service is impeccable and the crew are happy. Within my first year of yachting I turned what is typically a loss-making asset into a profit generating one. This was the vision of my principle: to charter hard. This is something we delivered by negotiating fiercely with the charter guests. Keeping a close eye on costs has been a
common theme from year one and this efficiency can have a major impact on the bottom line. As well as the yacht’s success, I measure my own success against my objective as stated above. I have worked with my current principle for several years now and we have built a healthy relationship of trust. Without trust, nothing can be possible, and it takes years to build. I have established myself as an entrusted righthand man and with this comes great responsibility. The authority given to me by my principle is vast and has come with a lot of hard work, honesty and integrity. To me, this is my success.
Not a single day is the same and that variety in my work keeps me stimulated. I am an advocate of change and welcome with open arms any new ideas which promise greater efficiency. If ever this stimulation stops, then I know it will be time to move on. I always say to the people that work for me “if you are not feeling challenged, come and speak to me” as I believe it’s important to encourage self-development. I practice what I preach, and so if a time comes where I don’t feel sufficiently challenged, I must seek new and exciting opportunities for personal and professional development. I hope I have demonstrated how much I love working in this industry and for that reason, I imagine retiring in a family office.
Harkamal Singh Sandhu is the Head of Private Assets for a double-digit billionaire principal. The assets include a circa 100m superyacht, two private jets and eight high value residences.