Hans Georg Näder was so impressed with his 46 metre Baltic Pink Gin he bought the company. But for the German entrepreneur, super sailing yachts are only one part of his innovative empire, as David Edwards discovers...
Hans Georg Näder was cruising in Sardinia last summer on his 46 metre sloop Pink Gin, which is currently listed for sale. With him was Henry Hawkins, his long-time captain whom Näder appointed CEO of Baltic Yachts when he bought the Finnish yard in 2013. They spied a Tesla, prompting Hawkins to ask his boss whether he would ever buy one of the American electric cars. “I said, never. I’m branded, you know: Porsche, Porsche and Porsche,” recalls Näder, a proud German born 55 years ago in Duderstadt, Lower Saxony, who still lives there, as well as in Berlin and Munich, and, as CEO and president of prosthetics maker Ottobock, is one of Germany’s most successful entrepreneurs.
“Four weeks ago I ordered the Tesla SUV. We had the chance in Porto Cervo to test drive one. I’ve never experienced something like this. The head of Tesla Germany brought an SUV down and we went close to the Romazzino [hotel] and he said ‘stop’. And then full power. It was like on a Ducati. I’ve never seen something like this in a car.”
That, in a nutshell, encapsulates Näder. It would be easy for him to be stuck in his successful ways. He was 28 when he took over the family firm, founded in 1919 by his grandfather Otto Bock, who made wooden legs for WWI victims, and continued by his father Max Näder. Under Hans, turnover has risen from €100m to €1.2bn, staff numbers have increased from 1,000 to 8,000 and the company now does business in 56 countries. Ottobock was once again the official technical service at the Rio 2016 Paralympics, repairing and maintaining the prosthetics, orthotics and wheelchairs of all athletes for the 13th successive Games. The company has done extremely well. Professor Näder has done extremely well. There are Porsches, plural.
The company’s work and achievements are celebrated at the Ottobock Science Centre in Berlin, and it’s here that you begin to see how Näder likes to do things differently. Interactive displays explain how patients can now use prosthetic arms intuitively to grip and pick up things thanks to ground-breaking nerve and muscle surgery. Or how the latest prosthetic leg not only uses a microprocessor in the knee joint to better understand a patient’s gait but it is also waterproof, allowing a whole new range of activities for the amputee.
Standing confidently just off Potsdamer Platz and along from the Brandenburg Gate, the centre, built in 2009 and visited by more than one million people since, resembles the gleaming white superstructure of a modern yacht. That is no coincidence. Yachts have been in Näder’s blood from the minute, aged six, that he first set foot in an Optimist. He bought his first sailing boat at 23, an 11.3 metre called Pink Gin that was built by Sweden Yachts, and progressed steadily through four more Pink Gins towards the 54 metre Pink Gin VI that Baltic will launch for him in May next year.
But what is really in his blood is innovation. Each of his many boats has not just been bigger, they have been better. They use better materials, better technology, better design. Now he has his own yard, the scope for innovation is huge.
He arrives for our meeting, at the science centre, straight from another of his Berlin bases – the Open Innovation Space, housed in the grounds of a former brewery that Näder is converting. Under his arm is another arm, a carbon fibre model produced by 3D printer.
In his other hand is a very flesh-like silicon arm. He is clearly proud and excited by what’s going on at the Open Innovation Space. “I created a platform where young start-ups, mainly in digital transformation and production, can come,” he says. “We act like a fitness club so you sign in and you can use the machines and all you pay is the minutes or seconds you use the machines. You have to see it and then you understand.”
So we do. And it’s striking to see this casually dressed fifty-something billionaire strolling around chatting to the twenty-something tech types starting out on their innovative journey. Ottobock design engineers work here too, among other things developing an app with Adidas so that patients can follow a recuperative physiotherapy routine much more effectively. The open structure of the space encourages collaboration and Näder has a track record for bringing bright young minds into his company. The professor is in his element.
Ask him who he admires and the answers are telling. First, the patriot and businessman in him says Hasso Plattner, co-founder of software giant SAP – “the most successful start-up in Germany after WWII”. He then goes on… “I admire what the Silicon Valley guys are doing. They are changing the world in a radical and disruptive way.” This word keeps cropping up. “I like it. Not many people are able to think disruptive.” And this disruption is not just in the world of medical technology but in relation to yachts and Baltic in particular.
“Over the years at Ottobock we changed technical orthopaedics very often in an almost disruptive way, creating mechatronic upper extremity prosthetics when even the word mechatronic did not exist. I think it’s the same in shipbuilding. The heritage and character of craftsmanship and shipbuilding is a base for disruptive change. We just delivered one boat to a famous Italian sailor and we think it’s the most advanced sailing boat ever built.”
He’s referring to 39.6 metre racer-cruiser My Song, with its interchangeable mainsails and Baltic’s custom retractable propulsion system, but there’s so much more that can be done he thinks. “Yachting has a lot of potential because, if you look into boats, not all technologies are really state of the art. Some are quite old fashioned. If you look at the plumbing, this is not state of the art. Or hydraulics. Or engines. I’ve just ordered the SUV from Tesla and if this [electric engine] works in a car, why shouldn’t it work in a boat?
“It’s nice to have at Baltic a luxury brand where we can drive innovation. It’s also cool to have owners who are keen to be disruptive with big boats. So from my point of view what we do at the moment at Baltic is so much cooler than the first Wallys were.”
One such example is the Arrow460-Granturismo, a very disruptive Mercedes-Benz-styled 14 metre powerboat that Baltic is making components for and assembling at its Jakobstad yard in northern Finland as part of its collaboration with Silver Arrows Marine.
“I love the head of design of Mercedes [Gorden Wagener]. He’s giving this brand a new design language and it’s really successful. You see other automotive brands like Audi or Volkswagen, they are missing their next evolution of design, and turnover goes down.”
Näder and Hawkins have big plans for Baltic. They want to expand its refit operations, which already extend to facilities at STP in Mallorca. Among recent refits were 32 metre Wally Nariida – “when the owner came out to Finland he was so happy to get an even better than new Nariida back” – and Sunny Day, the 24.7 metre Alalunga motor yacht, launched in 1989, that was owned by Näder’s father and has just been given a complete overhaul by Baltic. “It’s amazing what kind of character we were able to keep and what kind of new DNA we injected into this boat.”
The yard known for its super sailing yachts is dipping a toe into own-brand motor yacht waters, too. It has a custom 23.8 metre, designed by Mani Frers, son of Germán, in build and the company is negotiating to buy an old Italian motor yacht marque. “If somebody shows up who brings technology and quality, and having young guys doing cool designs, I think there’s a market,” says Näder.
Large composite sailing yachts remain the bread and butter and Näder himself is awaiting possibly the best slice yet. His sixth Pink Gin will be the largest carbon-fibre sloop in the world and will feature an electrical “forced feedback” steering system, developed with the help of Swiss automotive engineer Peter Kägi – another of those state-of-the-art upgrades. “I think the new Pink Gin will be my mountain peak,” says Näder. “It’s like with a house. First you build a big house, then the children leave, then you don’t need the big house and you go to an apartment.”
Näder, whose two daughters are in their twenties and who is divorced from his second wife, is already planning his post Pink Gin “downsizing”. He is rather taken with the BlackCat 50 metre catamaran concept that Baltic is now involved with and which it presented at the Monaco Yacht Show. “We had five, six parties very interested,” says Näder. “For me, as I’m getting older, maybe _Pink Gin V_I for the next 10 years and then build such a catamaran?” It could be just what he’s looking for to bring a new, exciting audience into yachting. “The young guys from Silicon Valley, who are much more green and ecologically driven in their ideas, people like Musk, Zuckerberg and so on, these are candidates for disruptive sailing yacht concepts.”
There is always the next thing. This is what drives him. “It’s, how we say in German, neugierig. You’re curious to find out. I have this in my genome, having I think more than 1,000 patents worldwide and constantly meeting people who innovate. Innovation is not for the sole purpose of innovation. Innovation is the means to find solutions.”
Images courtesy of Getty; Alamy; Ottobock; Jeff Brown/Breed Media