Fleming Yachts - Subscribe to Tony Fleming
By Peter Kozodoy, Knots and Boats
At 4:47 PM on February 19th, I sent an email to Nicky Fleming, the Director of Marketing at Fleming Yachts, asking for an interview for an upcoming story.
At 10:32 AM on February 20th, Tony Fleming emailed me back.
This is where the Fleming brand begins and ends – with Tony Fleming. If you have ever read any of Tony’s interviews or articles (this is a great one in which he speaks at length about the reasons behind Fleming builds), you’ll recognize that doing business with Fleming Yachts means doing business with Tony Fleming. Essentially, by purchasing a Fleming, you’re subscribing to Tony’s system. You’re saying, “I agree with Tony Fleming that bluewater cruising boats should be incredibly sturdy, timelessly elegant, technologically sound, whisper-quiet, mechanically perfect, and increasingly better with every rendition.” If you agree with Tony Fleming, come aboard.
Although I was in wintery Connecticut while Tony was in his California headquarters, our conversation put me somewhere in England at a local bar. Perhaps it was his English accent, or his casual, 'go-with-the-flow' demeanor, or just his youthful friendliness. All in all, the feeling left me wanting to invite him out to next weekend's poker night, where his stories might just flow faster than the beer tap.
For those of you who don't know the story: Tony serves as the perpetual testing system of his company by motoring aboard his own Fleming 65, Venture, where he consistently observes, tweaks, and sends ideas back to the factory so that upcoming boats can benefit from better design and functionality. That opportunity, he says, "all started by accident." When the first 65 was built and Tony had an opportunity to use it on his own, he took advantage. "That was the year I also turned 70," he mused, "so it seemed like a good idea to sort of step back a bit and let younger people take over while I was still around to offer any advice that was necessary." Although Venture's various jaunts are the stuff of trade magazine legend, it was never designed as the genius marketing opportunity that it became. Tony wanted to go boating, and he wanted to try equipment that he was reluctant to try on someone else's boat. It was as simple as that.
"We never thought about brand or anything, we just wanted to build boats," he told me when I asked him about what the Fleming brand is all about. Boats, and the reputation of those boats, is first, foremost, and would stand alone save for an absurdly high commitment to customer service (just look at his owners' blog entries here for proof of that!). How important is reputation? Tony told me there are three pieces of integrity that he protects "fiercely:" the integrity of the company, the integrity of its customer service, and the integrity of the boat itself. Tony added, "we want our customers to feel genuinely like they are buying the best that's possible to get...there's no such thing as perfection, really, but it's close to perfection, yes."
Granted, I would hope every manufacturer makes a run at perfection; however, the proof is in the buying habit. Fleming has customers "who have bought basically the same boat four times because of the changes to the boat...even today we reckon there are about six to seven refinements to each boat." Obviously, customers believe in this product with an undying brand-trust factor.
And yet, there's no magic here. Tony's three points of integrity are nothing innovative. But then again, it's not really about innovation; it's about common sense, which is an element often left out of boating companies (and most companies in any industry, for that matter). For instance, take Fleming's use of a device called SeaTorque. Basically, propeller shafts traditionally deliver force to the engine, which imparts that force on the engine mounts, and then transfers that force to the hull. SeaTorque uses a shaft system that integrates directly into the hull of the boat, meaning all of the prop's power goes right into the hull. That also means the engine can be on more shock-absorbent mounts, leading to quieter operation with less vibration. This is not rocket science - it's common sense, and Fleming Yachts has it in spades all over the boats it builds. It leaves one wondering, "oh yea...why don't other boats do it that way??"
What was perhaps most shocking was Fleming's commitment to technology. In a world where flashy websites indicate a company's technological prowess, it took some fishing around (and a virtual roll call of technological points by Tony himself) to find all of the ways in which Fleming uses technology. Although Tony professed that he's "not a super digital guy," his company indicates otherwise entirely. Take, for instance, his iPad e-FIT (Fleming Information Tablet) system that contains an owner's manual, schematics, parts lists, check lists, wiring diagrams, dealer contacts, product manuals, back-up Navionics charts, and - last but not least - the latest issue of VENTURER Magazine. VENTURER, in case you were wondering, is Fleming's digital magazine dedicated entirely to travel, maintenance, news and other articles for Fleming owners. Think about this - no manuals, no heavy paper at all - just a slim iPad that houses all of your information. Did I mention that Fleming updates these iPads remotely while you're out cruising? Or how about that you can monitor your boat's systems on the iPad as well? In addition, check out this separate site completely dedicated to owners. This ain't your Granddaddy's boating company.
Technology is changing, and so is Fleming Yachts - it's a company that goes with the flow. Is there a better solution? Simply put it in the next boat. So I asked Tony about the major shifts he sees in the industry and in his customers. He had three main trends: first, "there are more people now running slower than before...they're more interested in saving fuel, which is to our benefit." Tony designed his boats to cruise at 9-12 knots, but they can do 20 knots with engine options. Did he see this trend for greater efficiency coming since the early 1980s? Maybe, or maybe it's just that common sense again. Second, "people seem to be more adventurous...they're going away from their own backyards." Again, the winner is: Fleming Yachts. "Our boat was designed right from the get-go for being capable of offshore cruising." OK, maybe he did have some foresight! Third, he said "people are more prepared to ship their boats to other areas - put them on a ship and send them across to Europe or wherever." I asked him why he thought this was the case, and we both decided that GPS had a lot to do with it. "With GPS," he said, "you certainly go into places you'd never have dared to before [where] you have to be extremely sure of your exact location." Easier communications home to loved ones is most definitely a big factor as well. All told, Fleming is incredibly poised to take advantage of the trends in today's marketplace, and has been for years.
How does Tony Fleming feel about pod drives? The same way I do! He put it bluntly: "we're not into pods at all...pods have given all kinds of trouble." He listed corrosion, incompatibility with the type of keel necessary for offshore cruising, and other manufacturing issues as reasons why Fleming is a group of "traditionalists." "I really don't see the problem," he said, "we've got bow and stern thrusters, and two whopping great propellers...so docking is simply not an issue. Even the thrusters are very nice to have, and they're very good for getting you out of trouble, but I think you should be able to dock a boat without them." Amen! A boater after my own heart; it's a boat, and part of the pride of ownership is in learning to captain her!
Although Fleming Yachts is all about boats, I wanted to get to know the Man Behind The Story. So, I asked Tony about a time before his famed success, when things weren't really going his way. Sure, we see sparkling boats, but were they always so shiny? He told me that the luxury tax in the late 80s "stopped us pretty well dead." Unfortunately, this "piece of genius legislation" that "killed the boating industry" in the US coincided with a heart attack of Tony's then business partner. Compounded to these two problems, the Taiwanese currency was strengthening daily against the US Dollar, which spelled certain doom for the manufacturing operation based in Taiwan. To top it all off, he "started a second operation down in Mexico...fell off some tooling and broke [his] leg." "That wasn't a very good time," he put simply.
So, I asked how he and his company overcame it all. I may as well have asked how he managed to get out of bed that day. The short answer was, 'we just did.' The long answer revealed a great business man with perseverance: "we had very low overhead...we just hung in there," he said. "My personal view," he continued, "is that one of the things that determines whether you succeed or not is just tenacity...if you give up when things start to go wrong then you give up...if you can hang in there then there's an opportunity that you might be able to battle your way through." Even today, he refuses to increase production in order to hedge against an economic downturn (like the one we just had - smart move) and to maintain quality standards and resale values for his customers.
His customers aren't the only ones depending on Fleming Yachts. He spoke about his employees:
"An awful lot of people depend on us...we have about one hundred fifty people in Taiwan that work on these boats, I mean they're a really good bunch...most of them have been there right from the beginning...and you know, that's probably about 600 people by the time you add wives and children. You do this thing because it's what you need to do to sort of make a living, and you turn around and you suddenly find hundreds of people depending on your success, and it's a big responsibility."
It's quite a journey for someone who just seems to go with the flow, especially considering that Tony fully admits that he "got into this whole thing by accident actually anyway." He happened to be working in Hong Kong for a British trading company, and happened to sail at the same yacht club as the owners of American Marine (later builder of Grand Banks), and they happened to need an engineer, and Tony happened to have a background in engineering. A twenty-three-year career later, Fleming Yachts was born, and those few happenstance moments amazingly grew to influence thousands of people. Looking back, Tony would call those moments 'serendipitous.'
"When I look around I find that most people are doing what they do by accident," Tony mused about his life experiences, "it's more that they fell into something by sheer chance." So what is his advice for the rest of us who think we have a 'plan?' "If an opportunity comes your way, you know, take it - don't be afraid to take the risk."
It just goes to show that going with the flow doesn't have to be passive; at every opportunity there is a choice to have integrity, tenacity, and, ultimately, success. "If it all fell apart," he reminisced, "it all fell apart...I took the risk and I would pay the price, so that's OK." Hindsight is 20/20, and from where I'm looking, it appears that the risk paid off in spades.
Particularly in the multi-layered world we live in, it speaks enormous volumes not only that a company responded to a question within 24 hours (actually within 18 hours, to be exact), but also that the owner of the company himself responded. With someone (me) who doesn't even own a Fleming. Potential Fleming owners should look at the choices that exist in the yachting market and then consider this: it’s a lot of money to hand over, and you have the power to choose carefully whom you trust to build your safe, reliable, home-on-the-water. It’s clear that Fleming Yachts provides the kind of support every business in America should provide, but doesn't. And, perhaps most importantly, Tony is simply the kind of guy that anyone should be proud to do business with. Now that you know Tony a little better, I'm willing to bet that you subscribe to his system right along with me.
As for Fleming Yachts, it's been handed over to the next generation, who is doing "a hell of a good job" by Tony's tremendous standards. As for Tony, he says about the future, " I've always liked writing [and] photography and filming and stuff so I've got a whole new career, actually...it all jives extremely well with the boat thing." Another serendipitous happenstance? Or perhaps the genius plan of a young man sailing in Hong Kong? We may never know, but I have a feeling he'll just take whatever opportunity comes his way next.
For that matter, so will I.
Knots and Boats is a blog about the fundamental building blocks of a Captain in the Making. Follow author Peter Kozodoy as he learns about the maritime world. Follow KnotsandBoats online! Twitter: @knotsandboats, Facebook: facebook.com/KnotsandBoats, Pinterest: pinterest.com/knotsandboats and at knotsandboats.com