From startup yacht dealership to top-end brokerage, this Mexican entrepreneur tells Cecile Gauert how he made it big south of the border...
When people with an entrepreneurial flair spot a vacuum in a market, they see an opportunity, and a new company sprouts. This was the case with Performance Boats, the company Roberto Aboumrad and his brother, Jorge, established after they could not find a boat to buy in their home country of Mexico. Four decades on, they are running the country’s largest boat dealership and have taken delivery of their biggest family yacht, the 31-metre Spritz Andreika IV, built under the brand Alpha Custom Yachts.
It arrived in the US on the tail end of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show last year and was docked in North Miami. In these days of the pandemic, when an opportunity like this arises, there is no missing it. When I was invited to take a look, I donned a mask and turned up. This is the newest model from Alpha Yachts, a recent business venture from experienced boatbuilders in partnership with Roberto and Jorge.
The new Spritz 102 is perfectly planned for outdoor living and this also means that it’s a pretty good boat to see during a pandemic – it has huge open decks with plenty of room for socially distanced family gatherings. Despite the necessity of wearing masks and leaving space between us, Roberto and Jorge extended great hospitality. Soon food was offered and what was described as a “light” buffet was set up. Six of us scattered around the very large dining table on the aft deck – it easily seats twice as many comfortably, offering protection from the sun or rain but also great ventilation.
While the crew served a series of courses – ceviche, empanadas, sandwiches and ice cream for dessert – Roberto regaled us with anecdotes from his early days in the boating business. “I love dealing with people,” he says, and that is immediately apparent. Over the years, he has developed many ideas of what can make the boating experience more pleasant. And he has had plenty of input in the design of this boat, although that side of things is credited to Italian designer Giorgio Cassetta. He’s had decades of experience as a boat dealer and yacht broker and inherited a love of cruising early on from his father. “My father, Jorge Aboumrad, loved boats; he always had one and that’s why we have always been on the water,” he says.
Roberto and Jorge also inherited an entrepreneurial streak from their father, who was a young adult during the Depression. Times were tough in 1930s New York and he earned five cents a day helping with his family’s home-based textile business. “With five cents a day, he would pay for the subway to go to the university and ate a box of crackers on the way; that was the reality of New York during the Depression,” says Roberto. Eventually, the family moved to Mexico City where the elder Aboumrad established a thriving textile business and started the Aboumrad Bank. Roberto was 15 years old when his father passed away of a heart attack (and did not live to see the government of José López Portillo take over the family bank in 1982 when all banks were nationalised). “I started working and I have been working ever since,” he says.
He got into the textile business himself, starting a new company with Jorge, which ran in addition to the family business. “We used flat looms, which was the only type of machinery the family didn’t have, so we avoided competing and creating any conflicts of interest with them,” says Roberto. “But we always said, ‘Why do we have to be in textiles?’ It is too competitive. For two pennies, you can win or lose a business.”
They always had in the back of their minds the idea they’d move into another sector when an opportunity presented itself. At that time, they owned a 14-metre Gallart, a boat built in Spain, and they were looking for a small ski boat to use with it. They liked to go to Miami to attend the boat show there and they looked around for a potential purchase. In the end, they decided it’d be easier for repairs and service if they bought something in Mexico. “I told my brother, at least we will find someone who can offer guarantees there,” he says. To their surprise, they found that no one was selling anything they’d want to buy in Mexico at the time. “There was one boat built in Mexico but it was not up to standard,” says Roberto.
Things had been complicated in terms of trade between the US and Mexico but, just around that time, the talks surrounding a potential North American free trade agreement began. The first step in that direction was the establishment of a 10-year temporary importation scheme into Mexican waters, which was the golden opportunity to open the boating market in Mexico. That gave Roberto and Jorge their “a-ha” moment. The removal of the high tariffs, they thought, made Mexico a prime market. During their trips to the boat show, they had collected dozens of brochures and they sat together to go through them.
Baja boats seemed like a good target – they built many different types of boat and weren’t part of a giant group so they might be more receptive to the owners of a start-up dealership. “We started with Baja boats because we said the big guys, like Sea Ray or Wellcraft, will never pay attention to us,” says Roberto. Soon thereafter, they were on their way to Bucyrus, Ohio – population circa 12,000 people – where the company had its plant. The Aboumrad brothers lived in Mexico City, which had around 16 million inhabitants at the time.
They made a gentleman’s agreement with the owners of Baja, bought their few boats, and returned to Mexico without much more planning. “We did not even know where to put the boats, so we rented a piece of land, stored the boats on it, and they sold. We bought some more, and they sold,” says Roberto. The margins were far more generous than in the textile business and they had zero competition.
Pretty soon, driving for more than an hour to tend to their textile business lost its charm. As Roberto spent more time with the fledgling boat business, the textile company suffered. “My father always told me, ‘when you want something done right, you do it yourself; nobody’s going to do it for you’ and he was right.” Delegating to a manager did not work out so well and just as the boat business flourished, their textile business floundered.
Their hunch had been right, though, and Mexico was ripe as a good market for prolific American and European boatbuilders. Others understood it too. In short order, they became dealers for Boston Whaler and Sea Ray, “the same guys we thought would never look at us,” Roberto says. But it wasn’t universally easy. During a Mercury dealers’ meeting in the US, Roberto was introduced to racing champion and boatbuilder Reggie Fountain, a big personality in the marine business in the US.
He had a short chat with the man dubbed the King of Offshore and remembers it well. It sounded like the champ had never set foot in Mexico and he was unaware of its potential. “Do you really think someone in Mexico can afford one of my boats?” Roberto recalls him asking.
Roberto and Jorge had a better outcome with the Italian shipyard Azimut-Benetti. They spotted an Azimut 60 at the Miami boat show and were quite taken by the style. At the time, though, it seemed unattainable. Who, they wondered, could afford such a yacht? Sometime later, Jorge went to the boat show in Genoa and approached Azimut’s management with a proposal to represent the brand in Mexico. “They were very interested,” Roberto says, but “there was a saying at that time that went, ‘show me an order and I’ll show you a dealer’.” In other words, they had to put some skin in the game.
The first boat they bought was an 11.6-metre Azimut, which the company really wanted to sell, and then they found a client for Azimut’s Starlight 96 that had been started on speculation and was still under construction. “And that’s how I started with Azimut. For some years I was the world’s largest dealer for Azimut,” Roberto says.
Performance Boats represents Azimut-Benetti, Sea Ray, Boston Whaler and Malibu. And then they created another dealership and picked up Ferretti for a time.
Occasionally, the Aboumrad brothers bought a boat for themselves. They bought an Azimut Jumbo, for instance, but it was difficult for them to keep the boats for very long. Their choosing a particular model often meant that it became interesting to a potential customer. “They assumed that I would buy the best boat for myself,” says Roberto; it turns out, buying a boat was a good sales argument. “So we always had a couple of boats in the pipeline, and they were always for sale.”
Eventually, Roberto and Jorge got involved with larger, custom builds. Roberto was involved in the design and construction of a 47-metre yacht, delivered in 2016 to one of his clients. “It was the first boat I built with my ideas,” he says. “It has sliding doors on two sides and a round door on the stern for the dining area; it was one of the first boats with these kinds of doors.”
The yacht’s designer was H2 Yacht Design, who also designed their next boat, the 32.2-metre Andreika. To build it, Jorge and Roberto created a new business venture with a couple of experienced boatbuilders. And so was born Alpha Custom Yachts. Andreika included many of the owners’ ideas for a family-friendly yacht with large open spaces. “Who needs a main deck saloon,” says Roberto. “Nobody wants to be inside.” It was known as Project Alfresco for obvious reasons.
Their next personal yacht project was what became the current Andreika IV, the first of a model they dubbed the Spritz 102. It has an interesting design, a 2.2-metre-high ceiling, huge windows, a wide beam, and an attractive tiered aft deck with a pool and hydraulic platform.
Roberto got to know designer Giorgio Cassetta well since they both worked closely with Benetti Yachts. For a time, the young designer had an exclusive relationship with Benetti but when that exclusivity ended, he was keen on expanding his portfolio. So, he took on the project and designed the new Andreika IV inside and out with extensive input from Roberto for everything from pressurised air conditioning, extensive refrigerators, elevated crew berths to make room for storage, floating floors, floating walls and even floating ceilings. Interior finishing touches are by Roberto and Jorge’s niece, Paola Aboumrad. Naval architecture is by Laurent Giles. “We built the boat around what we wanted,” says Roberto.
He had a chance to take the boat to the Exumas but the weather can be cool and windy in winter there and such was the case during their visit in December. His favourite place to take a boat is the Sea of Cortez. “It’s wonderful,” he says. The weather is stable, the landscapes and beaches stunning, and the fauna is one of the world’s richest. “Jacques Cousteau used to call it the world’s aquarium,” he reminds me.
Aside from enjoying the boat, the Aboumrad brothers have plans to invest in another shipyard so they can build more than a couple of boats a year. Two more of the Spritz 102s are currently under construction. Although he is keen on showing it off, Roberto says they intend to keep it. This Andreika IV is definitely not for sale, he says. That should make it irresistible.
Images courtesy of Roberto Aboumrad; Erkin Gurel/Poztif Studyo; Alpha Custom Yachts