Meet Oman's mysterious oil billionaire builiding the world's most luxurious yachts
From an office overlooking the Oceanco shipyard in Alblasserdam, the Netherlands, energy tycoon Mohammed Al Barwani watched workers putting the finishing touches on a yacht that's longer than a football field.
Once complete, the 92-metre vessel will feature nine bedrooms, a spa and a suite decorated with coloured upholstery and a swirling zebra-stripe motif on terra cotta and eramosa-stone walls.
"We want to build bigger boats, more complicated boats," Al-Barwani, a 62-year-old billionaire who has never appeared on an international wealth ranking, said in an interview at the company's headquarters in the Rotterdam suburb on the River Noord. "We want to be number one."
In the three years since he bought Oceanco from Greek shipping magnate Theodore Angelopoulos for an undisclosed sum, Al Barwani has helped make the company into one of the world's most reputable luxury-boat makers, according to Paul Fowkes, managing director at Corporate Jet & Yacht Solutions, a Nottingham, UK-based financing company.
The company was the first to build pools on superyachts, Fowkes said. It has since added pools with mechanical floors that can be raised or lowered to create a plunge pool, children's pool or helicopter landing pad.
The number of seaborne superyachts, which are defined as professionally manned luxury motor vessels exceeding 24 metres, increased 43 per cent in five years to 6,290 in 2012, according to the (Super)Yachting Index, an industry report published by London-based charter company Camper and Nicholsons International and SuperyachtTimes.com. The boats are marketed almost exclusively to the world's billionaires, and usually are priced starting at about $175 million.
According to Fowkes, the $10 billion industry is dominated by two other companies: Bremen-Vegesack, Germany-based Luerssen Werft and Haarlem, the Netherlands-based Feadship Royal Dutch Shipyards. Both family-owned enterprises trace their roots to the 1870s.
"In the 85- to 100-metre size range, in terms of the price quality matrix, Luerssen and Feadship are the market leaders and Oceanco is right behind them," he said. "You have the pedigree of the Dutch build, first class attention to detail. These are the qualities that a buyer looks for."
Running Oceanco is Al-Barwani's part-time job. He's the chairman and owner of Muscat, Oman-based MB Holding, a closely held energy conglomerate that is one of Oman's biggest non-state controlled companies.
The business operates in oil and gas exploration, drilling services and mining, and had sales of $1.3 billion in 2012.
The billionaire created his first company in 1982, while working as an oil engineer with Petroleum Development of Oman (PDO). He ran the 60-person construction business for three years, until he was approached by an oil drill bit vendor who was looking for a supplier in Oman.
He quit his job and transformed the money-losing construction business into MB Petroleum Services, an oil industry supplier that counted PDO as its first client.
He faced little competition while he expanded in the Middle East, and acquired companies in Asia and Australia, making the business one of the world's largest closely held oilfield contractors.
Al Barwani, who studied in the US and the UK, spends half his time travelling for business.
He was shopping for a new boat in 2009, when an investment banker suggested he consider buying Oceanco, which was founded in 1987. The billionaire travelled to Alblasserdam and discovered a bustling boat-building operation.
"I wasn't planning to buy a shipyard," he said.
"It's so far away from my business, but I thought I'd look and learn something about shipbuilding. It excited me," he added.
Oceanco has sold seven yachts between 85 and 110 metres since the beginning of 2012, and has orders that will keep its workers occupied through 2016, the billionaire said. Each vessel takes at least four years to build. There are only 15 to 20 known contracts for new superyachts longer than 100 metres, according to Merijn de Waard, managing director of SuperyachtTimes.com.
Al Barwani declined to comment on the details or value of yachts Oceanco has sold, citing owner confidentiality. He said each transaction was "significant."
He wants the company to build features that clients don't think they need until they see them. Customers upgrade their boats as often as every four years, seeking to add additional space or amenities, such as movie theatres or more fuel-efficient engines.
Superyacht prices can be as high as $600 million, depending on variables such as volume and interior design.
They are sold on fixed-price or cost-plus contracts, which ensure the builders make their target profit margin after payments to designers, engineers and other contracted workers.
"It's very much like having a villa on the sea," Al-Barwani said. "In the summer you can be south of Europe or in the Mediterranean, and in the winter you can be in the Indian Ocean."
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