Lunch with superyacht owner John Staluppi
by Mark Chisnell
Just like the cars he adores and the boats he builds, John Staluppi is a walking, talking embodiment of the American dream. Starting out as a petrol station mechanic in Brooklyn, Staluppi built a billion dollar business of car dealerships, before turning his hand to creating some of the most iconic superyachts ever built.
We meet at Staluppi's offices in North Palm Beach, Florida, but - apropos the man - this is no ordinary office building. The shopping mall on US Highway 1 looks innocuous from the outside, but once you're buzzed in through the front door you enter a dreamscape. The building is home to Staluppi's classic car collection and museum Cars of Dreams. The cars were arranged in a Brooklyn, circa-1960s, scene, complete with drive-in and merry-go-round. Yes, that's a merry-go-round. A big one. It's quiet: the museum is only open three or four times a year for charity events; Shop with a Cop, Hospice Foundation of America and American Heart Association are those that benefit.
Staluppi arrives, dressed casually in a blue open-necked shirt and jeans; burger, fries and shakes are delivered to eat in the museum's diner scene and we settle down to talk. Staluppi's life story moves quickly from petrol station mechanic to station owner, after a loan from his father, an electrician with the foresight to see his son's entrepreneurial talent. He took out a $5,000 loan on the family home and John was soon running a successful Sunoco concern.
The transformative step came not long after, when Staluppi convinced a then largely unknown Japanese firm called Honda that he was the right person to sell its motorcycles. Honda made the smart decision and soon handed him a car franchise as well and a decade later, Staluppi had close to 20 automobile dealerships.
He is now president of the Atlantic Auto Group, still with Honda, and at different times the biggest Hyundai and Oldsmobile dealer in the world, selling nine marques of cars from locations throughout Long Island, New York, and generating $2 billion in annual revenue. So much for the business, but where did the passion for boats come from?
Staluppi had an interest in the water right from the beginning. He was a lifeguard at a hotel pool when he was 17, but the event that got him interested in boats occurred equally early in his career, when he worked at a Chevrolet dealership. The owner, Dave Gerbitz, had an 8.5 metre mahogany Shepherd motorboat and Gerbitz got his young mechanic to replace the engines with those from a Corvette.
While he was doing the work, Staluppi was taken with boats and the parallels with his first love, cars. "Boats and cars, the difference is one has propellers and the other one has wheels," he asserts.
Building the business came first, however, and even his beloved 1962 Corvette was sold to that end. "But I got it back," he says, describing how he found and repurchased the car, now in the museum.
Taste for speed
When he finally took the step, Staluppi's first boat was a 13 metre Ocean sport fishing boat, even though he didn't much like fishing.
"I liked the speed of it," he explains. "This fishing boat was the only thing at that time that did 30 knots."
Staluppi raced dragsters in his teens, winning a Grand National in Tennessee, and there's a strong connection with speed right through his career - including an epic rivalry with John Rossatti, his business partner in the mall that houses Cars of Dreams. They've raced almost anything that goes fast: Porches, Corvettes, motorcycles, snowmobiles, cigarette boats .
The powerboat racing came to a fairly swift end after a couple of high-speed crashes. The first was a flip in California and the aftermath more unnerving still.
"We were floating around out there in the middle of the ocean for about 20 minutes, and all I could think about was the shark coming to bite my leg," he recalls. "The couple of guys that were with me, one was bleeding and the other hurt his back."
Staluppi's lifeguard training came in very useful until the coastguard appeared. He built a new race boat and this one caught fire on Lake Pontchartrain, near New Orleans. Staluppi found himself back in the water thinking, "You know what? Two times is a warning, three times you're out". There wasn't going to be a third time.
He had an 18 metre Viking by this stage, but after doing 80 knots in a racing powerboat, it felt a little tame, and he'd always wanted something better.
"When you're out there and riding around and see all these big boats go by, you always think, 'Someday I want to have a big yacht.'" And so the 36 metre, Denison-built, For Your Eyes Only (now Wanderlust) was born. "I really wanted to have something different. I wanted to build the first boat over 100 feet (30.5 metres) that would go over 30 knots. The Bond movie-inspired name came because the concept seemed to match the crazy gadgets, planes, boats and high-speed cars, of the films."
Many will testify to Staluppi's hands-on style when he builds a boat, and his attention to the detail of the engineering was evident right from the beginning. He realised that putting Detroit engines in For Your Eyes Only was a mistake.
Everyone was talking about water-jets and how much more efficient they would be when partnered up with MTUs. Staluppi did the research. "We pulled the engines out before the boat was finished and went to MTUs and water-jets. And I was the first one to bring MTUs and water-jets into the US in a motor yacht configuration."
For Staluppi, 30 knots was never going to be enough. With the King of Spain and the Aga Khan looking to go faster, Staluppi wanted to do 50 knots in a much bigger boat - originally planned at 39 metres. He had already bought a power plant of three MTUs at 3,500hp each, before he even had a shipyard, but it wasn't easy to find an engineer or a yard that thought it was enough power.
Fastest boat in the world
Staluppi outlines the deal he cut with Heesen: "The boat has to do over 50 knots. If it does under 50 knots I don't have to take the boat. If the boat does 51 knots or more, for every knot over 51 knots we would pay a $200,000 bonus."
Heesen took on the challenge, building Octopussy in the Netherlands for a 1988 launch. Everyone worked hard at hitting the speed; Jeanette Staluppi's first question when researching possible soft goods was, "How much does it weigh?"
When Octopussy was launched for sea trials, the coastguard cleared a runway. "I bought a radar gun, and we were on the boat for the first sea trial," says Staluppi. "Everybody was nervous because Frans Heesen could see his whole shipyard go out of business. He would own this boat if it didn't do the speed. The boat does 50.5 knots, it was the first run. He was so happy."
Staluppi still wasn't done. "I said to Heesen, 'Listen you could make this bonus. I would like you to cut the back corners, the chines off.' I felt the boat was running bow-down, so when the bow [went] down, there would be more drag.
"Frans Heesen says, 'No, no, no, I'm not going to do that.' I said, 'Frans, you could make $200,000.' So he made me agree that if the boat went slower, I owned the boat. I said, 'OK' and he cut the back of the boat off and we made 53 knots.
"He was so happy because he got a $400,000 bonus. I was happy because now I owned the fastest yacht in the world."
And that was something he liked a lot.
"There's only one fastest yacht in the world. When we pulled in there (to ports) everybody said, 'That's Octopussy'."
The Staluppi's cruised the Atlantic in her for a year and a half before selling - the competition was heating up again. We got wind HH the Aga Khan was building a boat that was supposed to do 65 knots, and naturally I wanted to go faster. "We built Moonraker. They [HH the Aga Khan and his boat] did 57-point-something knots and we built Moonraker and with that boat did 61 knots."
Moonraker was launched in 1992, and the record was his again. But the Mulder-designed, Norship-built 36 metre Moonraker was a different boat for another reason. After Octopussy, Staluppi transitioned from building boats for a hobby into a more commercial outlook.
"I decided to get into the boat building business, because we were familiar with it on the high-speed end, and I was selling the boats and making good money."
It was 1998 when he formally started Millennium Super Yachts, and by 2012 John Staluppi had lifted his total to 18 boats. Nevertheless, he has a clear favourite, the aptly named The World Is Not Enough.
"I wanted to build one more yacht which would set the standard, and make the (speed record) bar very high, very hard to achieve for someone."
The World Is Not Enough was another collaboration with Frank Mulder, again built in the Netherlands, this time in a shipyard Staluppi had bought into - it has the Millennium Super Yachts label.
"That boat was set to do 70 knots, but we could never get it to steer over 66 knots - as soon as it got to 65, 66 knots, it would either spin out to the right or the left. It was a massive spin-out, like being in a WaveRunner. We never ran that boat over 90 per cent power."
Imagine what it's like to wipe out in a 42 metre superyacht at just short of 70 knots. Staluppi admits it was very scary. But even short of maximum power, The World Is Not Enough is a very impressive motor yacht.
"Sport-fishing boats had started doing 42 knots, 44 knots, and some of the smaller boats did 50 miles an hour . We would go by those boats, I would have a cocktail in my hand, a nice martini and give the people a how you doing? Nobody could believe it."
Staluppi believes that, pound for pound, it's still the fastest boat out there.
It was Staluppi's last really quick boat; since then, Millennium Super Yachts has changed direction.
"We decided to build yachts for luxury, and the new boats we're building for charter more than for resale. I see a nice business in the charter market."
Since The World Is Not Enough there has been Casino Royale, a 49 metre Christensen, and Quantum of Solace (now Elysium), a 52 metre Benetti. The newest boat is another Benetti, the widely profiled 61 metre Diamonds Are Forever.
"We're intending to charter that boat three to four months a year. My ultimate goal, depending on the way the economy goes, is to have two or three of these boats for charter."
The new business occupies a lot of Staluppi's attention: You have to be hands-on to make it work properly.
He has two partners to help him run Atlantic Auto Group, which occupies about 50 per cent of his time, with the boats taking up the rest of a 14-hour day, six day a week routine. He also believes the marine industry has plenty it could learn from the car retail trade.
"The boating business needs to learn how to handle customers like we do in the car business - more customer-friendly building of yachts would make a big change, and I see some of the brokers starting to use car dealer techniques."
It's not just the sales and customer relations that make a Staluppi boat special, though: the engineering that supported his early career is still very much his thing.
"What we bring to a shipyard, no other owner can bring," he asserts.
In Staluppi's boats the plumbing will work, the air-conditioning will vent and drain properly, and you won't have to rip half the boat apart to get at a pipe. But even if everyone starts thinking about it that way, there's no doubt John Staluppi will still find the method to build remarkable, noteworthy boats.
UPDATE: Since this interview was first published Staluppi's car collection was sold off, the vehicles going to different homes.