By: Richard Crowder
The pleasure boat industry is chock full of the most interesting of people, hard working totally dedicated individuals and families who have often put their life’s savings and full-time energies to fulfilling their dreams of creating the boats we know and love. These then are their stories. Many of them I have met and personally chatted with and to a person, they are focused and driven and totally confident in their realities and in their dreams.
Part 9- The Beneteau Family
In this Part 9 of the series, we explore the Beneteau family of France who, over four generations and over 130 years, have created the world’s largest pleasure boat building empire. Now in 2021 it comprises 27 production sites, over 8000 employees, 400 dealers, 17 separate brands of boats, and produces over 10,000 boats per year. Groupe Beneteau also builds compact modular leisure homes and offers marine related services including financing.
As a power boater, you may have heard of Beneteau in Canada only very recently, which is true, but if a sailor, you have known of the brand for decades. Beneteau currently offers seventeen models of sail boats covering five brands from fourteen to sixty-two feet. But what you may not be aware of is Groupe Beneteau’s power boats, which includes the Antares’ six models from twenty to thirty-five feet, Gran Turismo’s seven models from thirty-two to fifty feet, nine Flyer models from twenty to thirty-two feet, six Swift Trawlers from thirty-five to fifty feet, one sixty-two-foot Grand Trawler, and two Monte Carlo motor yachts in fifty-two and sixty feet.
Groupe Beneteau also includes subsidiary powerboat manufacturers who market their own boats under individual names and brands. This includes the giant Jeanneau which, in addition to being one of the world’s leading sail boat manufacturers, also offers twenty-nine powerboat models under four brand names. Two of these names you may recognize: Cap Camarat and Merry Fisher. The Polish Delphia manufacturer offers three powerboat models from thirty-five to forty-two feet in addition to sailboats.
You will of course recognize the Prestige brand, which offers fifteen models from forty to seventy-two feet. In addition to several models of sailing catamarans, Lagoon offers two power cats in seventy and eighty feet. CNB Yachts offers mainly custom or semi-custom and mostly sailing yachts but also motor yachts in aluminum or composite materials from seventy up to two hundred feet. Beneteau also has part ownership in several other boat manufacturers including one in the United Arab Emirates.
And of course, let’s not forget Groupe Beneteau’s 2014 acquisition of Rec Boats Holding’s stable of manufacturers which inludes Four Winns, Glastron, Wellcraft, and Scarab. These four manufacturers together offer an additional ninety-six models of mainstream North American powerboats to Groupe Beneteau’s offering. All of which is to say that, as a North American-based power boater, even though you may not yet have heard much about Beneteau the world certainly has, and its history is worthy of exploring.
Born in 1859 into a poor family of six, at the age of twelve Benjamin Beneteau was adopted by two rich uncles and went to sea to work on small fishing boats. At age twenty, he completed his military service by attending naval college for four years where he became adept at naval drawing before graduating as a naval architect.
In 1884, he set up the first Beneteau Shipyard at Croix-de-Vie, France, on the Atlantic ocean. His intention was to design and build fishing boats that were faster and more suited for their intended use than the existing competition. By the turn of the century, he was adapting the new technology of the internal combustion engine to fishing trawlers. HIs first motorized sardine fishing boat was launched in 1910. It was at first ridiculed by fishermen who thought the noise of the motor would scare away the fish. But Benjamin persisted, and early adopters of this technology soon proved him right by bringing back more fish faster and getting higher prices in return.
Fishing trawlers, sail, and power would be the mainstay of the Beneteau yard for its first eighty years. On Benjamin’s death in 1928 at age 68, his son Andre and wife Georgina, both 21, took over the business and continued that tradition. The war years were very tough and by 1964, as his health suffered, two of Andre’s five children, Andre-Yves and his younger sister Annette, took over management of Beneteau. In that same year, Annette had married local businessman Louis-Claude Roux. While Annette and Louis-Claude managed the business side, Andre-Yves took over design and production of what was still, at that time, a relatively small yard.
Soon thereafter, the brother-sister team of Andre-Yves and Annette would capitalize on two trends they foresaw happening in boating: the first was the growing recreational pleasure boat market throughout Europe, and the second was the use of fibreglass as a new boatbuilding technology. They embraced both concepts and for the first time in Beneteau’s history, it designed and started fabricating small recreational sailboats from fibreglass.
These new sailboats and a motorized sport fishing model debuted at the 1965 Paris Boat Show to rave reviews. The orders poured in. More models were designed as production increased, and soon the Beneteau name became known as a quality recreational pleasure boat builder. Fishing cruisers with cabins were introduced in 1969. The first twin-mast luxurious and spacious sailing cruiser, the Evasion 32, designed by Andre-Yves, appeared in 1973. The revolutionary powered planing hull Antares was introduced in 1974.
The late 1970s saw Beneteau design and build racing sailboats while expanding their model lineup into one of the world’s pre-eminent boatbuilders. 1980 saw the introduction of the comfortable and seaworthy Swift Trawler along with the versatile Flyer, while at the same time sail boat giant Jeanneau, created by Henri Jeanneau in the late 1950s, introduced its competing Cap Camarat power boat.
In 1984, the company went public with the Beneteau family retaining majority ownership. The money raised helped build a large modern factory in Croix-de-Vie. In 1986, it opened a production facility in Marion, South Carolina to service the growing North American market. 1989 also saw Jeanneau introduce the first of its Prestige line of motor yachts. The first half of the 1990s focused on the introduction of many new power and sail models, the expansion and addition of production facilities, and the acquisition of more brands.
Perhaps the most important acquisition came in 1995 with the addition of bankrupt Jeanneau, a major competitor of Beneteau, and one they did not want picked up by anyone else. The acquisition more than doubled the size of Beneteau which then became the umbrella corporation, Groupe Beneteau. In that same year, Beneteau broadened its base by introducing O’Hara’s Houses, a line of small, portable and modular vacation and leisure homes. They caught on, thanks in part to the influence of the boat builder’s experience in space utilization and maximizing luxury interior appointments.
Expansion continued well into the 2000s, including more sail and power boat brands, greater range, size, function, and marketability within these brands, more housing brands, more worldwide production facilities, and even an importer in China.
In 2005, the Beneteau Foundation was created to support projects committed to protecting the marine environment, promoting recreational boating heritage, and supporting innovation and marine energy conservation. Annette Beneteau-Roux, once the business brains behind the spectacular growth of Beneteau and granddaughter of Beneteau founder, Benjamin Beneteau, became President of the Foundation.
In 2014, Groupe Beneteau made a commitment to expand in the North American marketplace with the acquisition of Four Winns, Glastron, Wellcraft, and Scarab. Along with these additional well-known brands, Beneteau also acquired a huge production facility in Cadillac, Michigan. As a result, even some Prestige yachts are in production at the Michigan facility.
In 2016, the Groupe Beneteau Racing Division was created which developed the Figaro Beneteau 3, the first single-design offshore racing sailboat utilizing foils. It went into full production in 2019 and entered the offshore racing circuit. Anyone having watched the current America’s Cup racing in New Zealand will recognize the revolution that foils have fostered.
Annette Beneteau-Roux’s son, Louis-Claude Roux, having worked his way up through the ranks, is currently Vice-Chairman of the Board of Directors of Groupe Beneteau and Chairman of its Strategic Committee, thus becoming the fourth generation of the Beneteau family to serve in upper management. Could Benjamin Beneteau ever have conceived in his wildest dreams in 1884 how huge the Beneteau name would become to boat building throughout the world?