I first had lunch with superyacht owner Linda Von Allmen several years ago at the Hotel de Paris in Monaco. It was a ladies' luncheon, for which Linda was the guest of honour and I was seated at her table. I always admired her charm and grace and, on this occasion, Linda welcomes me like a dear friend as we have lunch with her husband Doug.
The Von Allmens didn't come upon their financial success overnight. It took years of thoughtful, calculated decisions, and they made a few mistakes along the way. A successful private equity investor, Doug has acquired, streamlined and sold more than 50 businesses since the late 1970s. In the late 1980s, he purchased State Beauty Supply, based in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Over the years he acquired and merged another 22 companies with State Beauty Supply to form Beauty Alliance, which became the world's largest privately held beauty-product supply distributor. Doug sold Beauty Alliance to L'Oreal USA in 2007 for an estimated $400 million.
Doug grew up in a very poor family in Louisville, Kentucky - he was all of 16 when they purchased their first car. On financial assistance he attended the University of Kentucky and began his career as a public accountant with Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. He moved on four years later to serve as CFO for Horace Mann Educators Corporation and later became CFO for the Volkswagen Insurance Company. But he knew he wanted something different.
Doug says his upbringing kept him focused on having a livelihood and making money, but when he realised he wouldn't be happy in public accounting he focused on finding what he really wanted to do. "Success comes when you focus on what you're trying to achieve and the best way to do it," he says. "I went through about three months of continual thoughts to decide I wanted to work for myself and then decided how to best do that. I also lived below my earning level. I could afford to be without a job or income for a while because I saved. I made business my hobby. Whenever I was going into anything, I really studied how to do it. I studied how to buy a business and every aspect of it."
With the help of a friend, Doug looked for a business to buy. He continued to work full time but split his salary with the friend who looked for acquisition opportunities. They purchased their first company after a year and a half. Doug was 37.
It took him only six months to realise he knew more about buying businesses than running them. Doug and his partner went on to purchase three more companies before Doug became vice president of acquisitions for The Harbour Group, a private equity firm. A year later he bought State Beauty Supply with another partner. Then he met Linda.
Linda was born in Syracuse, New York, but grew up in Michigan where she spent most of her adolescence. She was living in St Louis, Missouri and working on fund-raising events for Easter Seals, a charitable organisation that helps special needs children and adults, when a friend introduced her to Doug. Both Linda and Doug had young children from previous relationships, but their courtship blossomed from a friendship into a blended family -one that thoroughly enjoyed being on the water. Through the years, they spent many long weekends and holidays at the Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. "A few years after we were married," recalls Linda, "we bought a condo and a boat - a 7.3-metre Bayliner. I named the boat Ours because we didn't have anything that was ours. The kids would take it out on the lake and everyone would think it was theirs."
Several larger boats followed this one, including an 11.6-metre Scarab. "We needed a bigger boat; the lake got so busy and smaller boats couldn't survive the wake," Linda says. "Faster boats also looked cool," Doug adds.
The couple began taking winter trips to Fort Lauderdale and frequented the boat show circuit, including the annual Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. Their first bluewater boat was a 16.7 metre Sunseeker. A friend named her London Express, but not before asking if she should be called Lady Linda. Linda's response was, "No, it would need to be bigger than that!" The first Lady Linda was a 23 metre Lazzara.
One day Doug called Linda from Seattle where he had flown to attend a boat show with the plan to look at something of about 30 metres; it was a 37.8 metre Delta that caught his eye. When he told Linda about the Delta, she asked, "What's the biggest boat you woul'd ever want?" He responded, "I couldn't imagine anything bigger." Two years later, however, after spending more time cruising, they moved to a 45.7 metre Trinity. The Von Allmens cruised aboard that Lady Linda (now Utopia III) around the Mediterranean and throughout the Bahamas for nearly six years.
As Doug and Linda's businesses flourished and their children grew and moved on to begin families of their own, they came up with the idea of having two yachts: one to keep in Europe and another for the Bahamas and America's East Coast. The first was the couple's largest yacht, a 60 metre custom Lürssen, which they christened Linda Lou (now Podium). The second was a 47.8 metre custom Trinity, which, unfortunately, was delayed due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and delivered about the same time as Linda Lou.
While the couple loved Linda Lou - and continue to cruise aboard her with another part-owner to this day -they wanted something that had a shallower draught, which would allow them to dock outside their Fort Lauderdale home and to cruise the Bahamas. Almost on the heels of taking delivery of the 47.8 metre, they commissioned a 57 metre Trinity in 2006.
Doug admits there were pitfalls along the way. In the world of private equity, some deals panned out and others didn't. One pitfall came late in 2009, two years after the Beauty Alliance buyout and three years into the build of their Trinity dream yacht.
The couple made headlines in November of that year for being the biggest victims of Scott Rothstein's Ponzi scheme, with investments reportedly to the tune of nearly $60 million. Of this, and the litigation that followed, Doug simply says, "The amount of money was substantial. It was an amount I wish I'd given to charity instead."
He says that in hindsight he might have held onto his company a while longer. "At the end of the day, money just represents a lifestyle. You don't need more. Striving is a lot more fun than arriving."
The couple decided to put the newly delivered Trinity (now Lady Sara) on the charter market and spend time aboard the Lürssen. "She's good for many more years; she's in fine shape," Doug says. "We like the space on it. I like going slow."
I ask if they'd build anything bigger. "Sometimes I can't find Linda on the Lürssen," Doug laughs. "And he doesn't know how to work the intercom," she says.
Just days before my visit, Grand Ambition is published, a book that once again puts Doug and Linda into the spotlight as it details the build of their Trinity. The post-release press focused on the excesses of the yachting industry and on the financial division highlighted in the book between people who build the yacht and the yacht owners.
It reminds me of something Doug once said: "A lot of people are driven to succeed when someone tells them they won't be successful. People who succeed not only help themselves, they help the whole economy, everyone. I'm proud of the thousand people we employed."
Toward the end of lunch Doug also says: "Being on the boat was nice, but I just bought another company." I'm pretty sure I see a twinkle in his eye. Striving is definitely more fun than arriving.
This article first appeared in the September 2013 issue of Boat International.
Photography by Ginny Dixon