Husband-and-wife team David and Ann Sutherland tell BOAT how they survived choppy business waters to develop a successful furniture and fabrics empire. Eventually, they made the jump from supplying yachts to owning one, the 39.6-metre Westport 130 All Inn....
When you speak with David and Ann Sutherland, you get the feeling they are a perfect match. They finish each other’s sentences, laugh in unison, and the story of how they built their Perennials fabrics company together to complement Sutherland Furniture – now global references in upscale homes and superyachts – show they supported each other all the way.
However, it took a while for David to convince his wife that trading a holiday home in New Mexico for a yacht would be a good idea. He told her it would take at least six months for them to find the right boat. Six months sounded like a reasonable amount of time, and things might happen in the meantime that would snuff out the idea, or so she thought. But instead, things progressed much faster than either of them had anticipated.
In spring 2019, David had lunch with a friend in Dallas, Texas, to ask for his opinion about yacht ownership – a great idea on a personal level but not so much financially was his friend’s answer. However, his friend knew a yacht broker in Fort Lauderdale, called him, and before the cheque arrived, David had already made a connection with him over the phone. David also soon lined up a potential captain, someone he and Ann knew and trusted from their experience as co-owners of a previous boat.
Before they knew it, broker Pete Woods and Captain Tony Stewart had vetted four yachts. Six weeks later the Sutherlands were the owners of a 2008 Westport 130 they called All Inn. It was the right size, the right fit for both family time and charter, plus it already had some of their company’s furniture on board. The pieces had been there since the yacht’s launch and were in great shape, which pleased them because it’s part of the company’s ethos. “The best way to battle unsustainability is to buy something that is good quality and good design and will last a lifetime,” says David.
They chose it over a new Westport 112 that Ann was “swooning over” because the larger Westport had more room for the water toys, so important for a proper charter experience. And charter was always part of their plan. Although it would require a serious refresh, they were soon “all in” as the new and sole owners of the yacht. They added the second “n” as a twist. “We wanted something fun and appropriate and different,” says Ann of the name and they playfully riffed on the theme. “Our little tender is All Out and then we have an inflatable called All About,” she says.
The yacht’s 2019 six-week refit created a fresh and hospitable floating inn – offered for charter through Fraser – where the couple’s expertise in furniture and fabric design is on display. It was important to get the work done quickly so they could get the boat on the charter market and their crew engaging with charter guests.
Originally from Oklahoma – as is Ann – and armed with a marketing degree and a minor in petroleum land management, David went to work for Shell Oil straight from college. He soon realised that working for an international conglomerate wasn’t for him. A friend introduced him to the world of furniture and he never looked back. In the late 1980s, he had an opportunity to head the international marketing efforts of Summit Furniture. “I learned about sourcing, I learned about quality, I learned about construction,” he says.
After a dip in business brought about by the savings and loans crisis, David decided to leave Summit and go it alone. “I knew that all I needed were special and individual designs in order to continue in this field,” he says. He asked his good friend, the late American designer John Hutton, if he’d create pieces for him. Hutton, who drew inspiration from museum pieces and loved classic forms, was then the lead designer for Donghia and he agreed on the condition that the New York-based company, which supplied designers throughout the US, would sign off on the idea. As it turns out they did – in a big way.
“I met the president of Donghia in New York and asked him if John could design for me. He said, ‘Yes, but I have one caveat: when you get the line ready, I want to represent it in all our showrooms.’ So, not only did I get a designer in that meeting, but I got distribution through six cities in the US at the same time,” David says. “Then we designed our outdoor furniture, which frankly was quite unique in the outdoor furniture industry; it was about living, not perching. What John brought to the table was the idea that the outdoors should be an extension of the indoors.”
Shortly after, he was reacquainted with Ann, an interior designer who had come to his showroom to pick out a few pieces. When they spoke for the first time they found out they had more in common than an interest in furniture design. They soon began dating.
Ann enjoyed travelling with David – “It was a discovery for me to go to all these shows and it was a great learning time too,” she says – but eventually she needed an outlet to express her creativity. David had an idea. His first furniture collection with Hutton consisted of 35 pieces that were designed with large cushions for comfort, but the choices for upholstery were quite limited at the time. “The problem was that the only material available to sustain the elements was geared to marinas; they only had primary colours and a hard finish,” he says.
When he talked to Ann about his idea of developing better fabrics for outdoor use, she was excited. She provided the seed money, he provided the business structure, and they became partners on a venture that would become easy-care luxury fabric division Perennials in 1996.
Ann made it look easy but says in reality it was a steep learning curve. “We needed it in the market, so I jumped in and really had no idea how hard it would be,” she says. “You make your mistakes and you learn. We started very small, and David and I were rolling the fabric out and cutting it for shipping.” Despite some early hiccups and a few sleepless nights – David reassuring Ann when she battled self-doubt, she says – the business grew exponentially, exceeding $125 million (£90m) of sales revenue 20 years after they began.
“We knew the outdoor industry could be more like the indoor industry,” says David. “The design had to be right, as well as the comfort.” Just as David did with Sutherland furniture, the couple reached out to big-name designers to add their special stamp to a line of products using their easy-care fabrics. “We have had good success with British designers like Kelly Hoppen and Tim Gosling; the UK has been very good to us. That’s kind of where we started with the boating world as well,” he says.
It was in 2008, on the heels of a disastrous September that saw the collapse of Lehman Brothers, that they discovered the pleasures of yachting for themselves. “David got very anxious and nervous about the business, and friends invited us on this boat off the New England coast. We had not been on a yacht that size together as guests before. And it was shocking really because the whole world looked like it was crashing and then here were all these people on these nice motor yachts,” Ann recalls. “We were having a wonderful time and the water was beautiful. David was kind of in shock for two days and then he realised that there still was money somewhere in the world. And so we ended up having a really wonderful experience because it was just a release from that anxiety.”
The New England trip gave David a new perspective on the economic crisis, as well as an appreciation for yachting. “I decided that money is like energy – it never goes away. It just changes form and it changes hands. And I have not forgotten that,” he says.
It was also around that time that they decided to increase their marketing efforts in the yachting sector. “We had shown our products at Maison&Objet in Paris for a number of years. And one year, it may have been 2008 or 2007, Maison decided to set up a special centre for outdoor furniture and fabrics. And as we were working that particular show, we came up with about 300 business cards, and 200 of them were yacht companies. So we said, well, what are we doing in Paris? We need to be down in Monaco,” David says. And they’ve been a regular presence at the show ever since – except, of course, for the peculiar year of 2020 when the show did not take place due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yachting seems a natural fit and being around boats has inspired new designs and products. “I do think more about yachts specifically now,” says Ann who became CEO of Perennials in 2018. “We developed pillows because the yachts like to have their own unique toss pillows,” she says. Green, she adds, is a no-no. “That’s a land colour,” she says. “It’s really fun to think about what is going to work on a boat.” And now she can try it on All Inn first.
More recently they got into rugs to cover the hardwood floors that are currently so popular on boats. Like their sofa fabric, the rugs will wipe clean easily, relieving crewmembers of the terror of spilled syrah or squid ink. The pair still work with some of the same suppliers in Mexico that they chose early on but have expanded to other countries such as India, where Perennials makes its rugs. Ann recently travelled there to inaugurate a second facility. And they are also busy working on the launch of a new 150-square-metre showroom in Mumbai with the intent to market Perennials and Sutherland there.
As well as their aesthetic appearance, carpets on floors can also have a practical purpose – as the Sutherlands have discovered first-hand. “On a long crossing from Antigua to St Barths (a notoriously gnarly trip, especially during the Christmas winds), David and I both ended up lying on the floor watching television,” she says.
The couple are constantly innovating and adding new collections. Recently, for example, they worked with Florida-based designer Allison Paladino on a collection of easy-to-clean velvet pillows and Tibetan-knot rugs with geometric patterns and “coastal elegance”. On the furniture side, there is a new collection with Monica Armani.
And All Inn has proven a good test bed for new ideas and a constant source of inspiration, enough perhaps to lead David and Ann to a new build where they’ll express their design ethos fully. The All Inn experience has planted a seed. “I’ve got the bug because now I want to do a whole new boat,” Ann says. And on this, too, they now seem to agree.
All Inn is available to charter with Fraser from $100,000 per week, fraseryachts.com