The “German Bill Gates” sits down with Stewart Campbell to discuss his business ups and downs, maintaining a relentless pace and why his next superyacht will be built by Nobiskrug
Around 2013, society was briefly swamped with the excruciating acronym YOLO, or You Only Live Once. Despite the term being used, unironically, by morons, it does however apply perfectly to the life of Lars Windhorst. In the very same year the phrase started trending, he was buying the 74 metre superyacht Global – as a 36-year-old. This followed a near-fatal plane crash, multiple business booms and busts and the celebrity that comes with being hailed as the “German Bill Gates”. At 45, he’s packed a lot in.
He lays out the whole story from his impressive offices on London’s Savile Row. This is the HQ of his company Tennor Group, which has outposts in Amsterdam, Berlin and Zurich and investments in businesses as varied as lingerie brand La Perla, Hertha Berlin football club and superyacht builder Nobiskrug.
He’s candid in a way I wasn’t expecting, dwelling as much on his business failures as his successes. For someone whose life has been dragged through the business pages since he was a teenager, it’s disarming – you’d expect the shutters to be up and the answers to be clipped, but instead he’s warm, open and earnest, even when describing “getting punched in the face by the press daily” when his first businesses hit the rocks. He makes a fascinating Google.
“It would be much easier for my business if I were below the radar, but if I didn’t have this profile, I would never have had a chance to build a network of global relationships,” he says. “I probably wouldn’t be sitting here with you today, the owner of a superyacht shipyard because I would probably still be in my home town running a computer or electronics business.”
That’s exactly the business he left school at 16 to start in his home town of Rahden in western Germany, working initially from his parents’ garage. It expanded quickly as the first tech bubble inflated. More technology businesses followed and he was soon being fêted by political leaders as a representative of the “new economy” and travelled the world with German chancellor Helmut Kohl, meeting heads of state. But this early flourish ended with the dot-com crash.
“It was a painful experience, because it came very sudden and strong,” he says. “By the age of 18 or 19, I was flying so high. I had so many relationships, support and PR so fast and so quick, and then being invited by our head of state to join him on a state visit to China. In a way it blew my mind and I thought I could do everything and anything, and that’s why I spread myself too thin. And because I was very high profile at that time in Germany, when I had the failure the newspapers were writing about me every single day for weeks and months in a very negative way. It was embarrassing to go out.”
A year after his company collapsed in 2003, he was back with a new enterprise, Sapinda, which later became Tennor Group, but the early success of the company was about to be rocked by the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression. Windhorst, however, had other things on his mind after narrowly avoiding death in Kazakhstan one snowy Christmas when his private jet crashed, tragically killing one of the pilots.
“I was on my way home to Hong Kong after visiting my parents. The jet needed to do a fuel stop on the way, which was in Almaty. It was winter, it was extremely cold and apparently the wings of the airplane were not de-iced properly. I remember it very well – after the plane took off, it started to shake and the plane turned almost 90 degrees to the right and crashed down and exploded. I don’t know how or why I survived or how I got out of the plane, but I woke up in the snow next to it.”
Windhorst had burns to his body and face and an ear was missing (later found and reattached). He says he recovered quickly – but stepped straight into an economic firestorm when he left hospital in 2008. “I didn’t even have time to reflect. I was straight into the middle of fire-fighting, trying to survive with my business.” Fifteen years later he looks back sanguinely: “It’s a very intense life, and not to everyone’s taste. But for me, the pleasure and fulfilment and fascinating experience you get through this outweighs the negative part of it.” He is, however, committed to “less volatility” in the future.Read More/Tatoosh: The secrets of Nobiskrug's 92m superyacht
You might question, then, why he bought not one, but two shipyards. In 2020, he rescued Flensburger Schiffbau-Gesellschaft (FSG), German builder of naval and commercial ships, followed a year later by the purchase out of insolvency of Nobiskrug, builder of superyachting greats like Tatoosh, Artefact and Sailing Yacht A.
“The first shipyard, FSG, was really to help a very important friend, and make sure the shipyard survived. We wanted to find a way for it to work and we figured out there are two or three areas where you can, on a sustainable basis, make money. One is naval vessels, one is highly complex and specialised vessels for research and the third one is superyachts, but very high-quality and high-end ones, which is what Germany is known for. So the acquisition of Nobiskrug was a very natural next step.”
He picked the yard up at a low ebb, but Nobiskrug has since secured a number of impressive orders, including most recently an 80 metre due for delivery in 2025. Windhorst is convinced the market for large, high-quality superyachts will remain strong, despite the economic alarm bells. “I spend almost a third of my time in the US close to the tech community and an incredible amount of wealth has been created over there in the last few years. There are a lot of entrepreneurs who’ve made a lot of money and who are really keen to benefit from a superyacht and the opportunities a superyacht gives you, which are still quite unique. I remain optimistic for the industry.”
He operates at a relentless pace – in the time we’re together his phone does not stop vibrating, and he answers my follow-up WhatsApps within minutes; he’s very much of the “live to work” school. It perhaps explains why he doesn’t have kids – “Not yet, who knows?” he says – and only found time for marriage a few years ago. He doesn’t even spend much time on his superyacht, except for a few days over Christmas, and only then because no one answers their phones.
The one thing he always finds time for, however, is exercise, which he credits with keeping him level. He runs twice a day – once in the morning after he wakes up at 5.30am, and once before bed around 1am, when he finally wraps up his working day. He gets around four hours of sleep a night, but allows himself a lie-in once a week – either Saturday or Sunday, depending on his schedule. If he gets less than four hours he’ll try and cram a few micro-sleeps into his day.
This work ethic is why he’s able to take knocks that would have KO’d most other people. “It’s gotten even worse over the last few years. I’m 45 now, aiming towards 50, and I want to position my business on a different level. I want to build Tennor into something much bigger for the benefit of not only myself but for all our stakeholders, which is not only investors but also thousands of employees across the world. If I’m very honest and reflective, I would say I work much harder now than I did five or 10 years ago. I never do holidays during the year.”Read More/Artefact: On board Nobiskrug's striking 80m hybrid superyacht
He’s clearly got something to prove. He can’t avoid the spotlight, but he hopes to change the narrative. “The only way to deal with it is to be open, but also to continue to work hard and to be successful, and at one point be so massively successful that all the question marks are gone forever. That’s one thing that drives me – to prove the critics wrong and to continue to build my business and perform.”
Nobiskrug is certainly one part of his portfolio that is performing. There’s a new impetus behind the storied brand, and enquiries and orders are increasing. “We want to grow. We want to win good customers. We want the message to get out that we are absolutely serious about building and growing Nobiskrug and we will invest in the shipyard. And we will provide financial support to make sure they can do everything they need to do.”
He’ll eventually build a new boat for himself at the shipyard. You can probably guess its prerequisites: big gym, large office – and a special tasting area for one of his few indulgences, wine. But most important will be the badge: Nobiskrug. This dream boat will have to wait, however. Customers are filling slots at the yard and Windhorst is too much of a businessman to block one for his own project. Not that he’s in any hurry – he’s got an empire to build. YOLO, after all.
First published in the October 2022 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now