Whether it’s on his stunning sailing superyachts or in business, Danish entrepreneur Kim Vibe-Petersen wants to create a revolution. David Edwards meets him...
Kim Vibe-Petersen likes to call his pride and joy, the 54 metre sailing yacht Parsifal III, a “game-changer”. He likes to call the TopBrewer coffee maker he designed and manufactures a game-changer as well. And when he talks about Parsifal V, his next grand project, yes, that’s going to be a GC, too. But coming from him this is no lazy cliché. The Dane, with almost perfect English, chooses his words carefully and changing the game is simply what he does. In fact it completely defines him.
For if you ask the 65-year-old CEO of coffee firm Scanomat how he would describe himself, he replies without hesitation: “I’m an inventor.” Although he quickly corrects himself: “I’m as much a businessman as I am an inventor. When you run a small business, like we did in the beginning, you have to be able to do everything.” That may be true but you don’t need to spend long in his company to see that, at heart, he’s an ideas man, a restless bundle of thoughts and ambitions, many of which he’s been able to realise.
Even a conventional education wasn’t for him – “I didn’t fit in to the school system. I got pretty bored, I couldn’t enjoy myself going that slow” – and he couldn’t wait to leave and join his parents’ vending machine business, in which he’d already been working since the age of 14.
Kim Vibe-Petersen with his family
He set about transforming this simple firm. “I started my own business within their business. We were importers of machines from abroad. I started to invent products. I invented the first fully automatic cappuccino machine in the world. It went from zero to 95 per cent of the business within two years.”
Vibe-Petersen was off and running, doing everything, as he says. But the business would have been nothing without the product, the invention. Where does that creative spark come from? He doesn’t know. Not from his father, a salesman who clearly passed on the business sense.
“I’m only interested in doing something that no one else has done,” he explains. “I’ve always wanted to do things differently. I’m interested in new things, in developing this world and hopefully doing things better and more easily than they were done before.”
That approach goes a long way to explaining Parsifal III and how that remarkable yacht came about. Kim and his wife Nina had owned and chartered out two Parsifals: the 34 metre Valdettaro now called Unplugged, which is currently listed for sale, and her sister ship now known as Ree. But the inventor in him wanted to do something new.
“Parsifal III was a game-changer in the sailing yacht industry,” says the game-changer. “We were one of the first to use (designer) Rémi Tessier and we did the complete boat with him. That made his business grow.”
Boat interiors at the time (2004) were, in Vibe-Petersen’s words, like 16th century castles or English pubs. Even though they own a 300-year-old house five minutes’ drive from Scanomat’s HQ in Kokkedal, north of Copenhagen, he and Nina didn’t want that tired, traditional style. “All the other boats had a lot of small rooms, which I couldn’t see any use for. We made Parsifal III open, so you could see 360 degrees around from the main saloon. There was no special dining room, or special pantry, or anything that disturbs your sight. I wanted it to be one big thing. That was new. Also, we wanted the outside to correspond to the inside of the boat, with a very modern look.”
The open plan interior of Parsifal III
It was a meeting of minds between owner and designer. “Me and Rémi are very close, yes. When I visited him in Lyons for the first time, his showroom was full of Danish furniture. There was Poul Kjærholm and Arne Jacobsen and all these famous Danish designers. He was in love with Danish design. But he was very talented because he understood what we wanted to do, so in combination with me and Nina, we developed the curved, round design. Minimalism was the key word and luxury was the next. We liked the luxury, with the chrome and so forth, but we liked it in a lower-key way.”
Charter customers and awards judges liked it, too. Long before the boat emerged from Perini Navi’s yard, one client booked it for 17 straight weeks. “From 2006 to 2009 we didn’t use the boat ourselves because it was totally chartered out: 25 weeks a year, which is unheard of,” says Vibe-Petersen. “We could have got five times the amount of bookings for it.” Among the five awards Parsifal III won in 2006 was Sailing Superyacht of the Year at the Boat International World Superyacht Awards.
“We inspired the whole industry,” says Vibe-Petersen proudly. That same pride is evident when he asks, as I arrive, if I’d like a cup of coffee. We are in the light and airy foyer of the Scanomat building in Kokkedal, north of Copenhagen, with several glass-topped plinths around us.
He takes a glass from one and places it below a stainless steel tap. Next to the tap is an iPad, with the TopBrewer app open on its screen. He asks what coffee I’d like; how strong and how much milk. I could have specified the tamper pressure I’d like applied to the coffee that is being ground behind the counter. He slides a few gauges and taps a button and 25 seconds later I have my espresso. And it’s really good.
“You get a lot of lousy coffee around the world,” Vibe-Petersen says. “You have to give quality coffee every time and that’s why people have to use our coffee with our machines, so we make sure they don’t put bad coffee in them.” Again, as he talks, the inventor in him is so apparent and so appealing. He is completely immersed in this product, and is responsible for every element, particularly the machine itself hidden under the counter. If, as he says, he wants to do things better and more easily than they were done before, then TopBrewer is a roaring success.
Just like with Parsifal III, customers and judges are agreeing. Apple has installed TopBrewers in its Caffé Macs employee cafeteria in Cupertino; Bloomberg has done the same, as has Level39 in London. McDonald’s is testing a bespoke TopBrewer system that will cut the time it takes to serve coffee by two-thirds. Beyoncé and Jay-Z have one, Steven Spielberg has one. “TopBrewer is getting very big. It’s very trendy to use our product,” says the proud inventor.
The TopBrewer cafe in Copenhagen
The original TopBrewer, costing from £5,000, was launched in 2012, but early
next year a new model will be able to make iced drinks thanks to a second, adjacent swan-neck tap, as well as deliver whipped cream for hot chocolate and provide all kinds of soft drinks.
But the really clever part of the product is revealed in the TopBrewer Café in Copenhagen, which I visit on my way home. There, via my phone I can order and pay for my very own customised coffee. Malou, who works there giving demonstrations to intrigued customers, says people are rapidly getting used to it. “We can change people’s coffee habit,” says Vibe-Petersen. “If you want to compete with Starbucks, which everyone wants to do, then you have to come up with a game-changer like ours, to do that kind of quality of coffee. This is about the best you can get.
“And can you imagine what kind of potential that has on a worldwide scale? You don’t have to have staff. At the airport you don’t want to wait in a queue. If you are in Hong Kong, Singapore, London or Copenhagen, you can always get the same coffee, your favourite. The one you love.”
Clearly for Vibe-Petersen, it is not just about the invention itself. Its application and the joy and benefits it brings to people complete the process. In this, making a coffee machine is the same as chartering out a boat: done well, they both bring great pleasure.
Business and life for the Vibe-Petersens is a family affair. Their sons Sebastian, 27, and Frederik, 24, work for the company: Frederik is involved in the IT department, and worked on TopBrewer’s integration with the app; Sebastian, like his father, is more technical and product-focused. Nina, 10 years Kim’s junior, is a central figure in their charter business.
“It was always the whole family who created the atmosphere of our businesses,” says Vibe-Petersen. “One thing is that the boat looks nice, the interior looks nice. But you have to have a good crew and you have to train them how to operate; how to take care of the people and make them feel good.
“All my family are very service-minded, they all have that service gene. This is so important in the charter business. You have to understand what you like yourself and whether other people will like the same thing. If they don’t, you have to find out quickly what they do like.”
Vibe-Petersen’s formula for what charter customers like – and his record indicates that it’s a winning one – is to gently encourage them to try new activities. “Make them active, make them do things they didn’t know they would like to do. Get them out on a Hobie, a top jet ski, a Laser, get them out on a paddleboard, on a kayak. Try to convince them to try other things that they wouldn’t normally do. Then they are so happy for themselves if they take a step into a new world they maybe were afraid of. There’s a lot of teaching that the crew can do: talk to people, swim with them...
“People like to be pushed a little bit. But don’t push them too much! When it works you get a big reward for it. These people are so happy and they want to come back; [the company] gave me a good holiday. That’s basically what we’re selling. On top of that, you always have to have the best chef. You can repair
a lot with good food!”
Sailing yacht Parsifal III
Vibe-Petersen confesses to having too many ideas and the hard part, he says, is to concentrate on the right ones at the right time. Right now, the family’s focus is shifting back from coffee to boats and in particular what they are calling Parsifal V. Even as he’s making another coffee via his new Apple Watch – which he loves – he turns the conversation around to this new Parsifal, which he’s confident will be the world’s first fully electric boat.
The Vibe-Petersen family are definite electric-car converts – they have four Tesla Model Ss between them – and indeed the Tesla owner Elon Musk could soon be collaborating with them.
“We want to use part of Tesla’s technology,” he explains, “so that when you sail, you charge the batteries. The goal is to be able to sail for three or four days. Right now, we are not there but the battery technology is coming up, so that will happen pretty soon. We’re working with Tesla on this and we want to work closer with them. We would like to have Musk involved and he has shown interest in that.
“We want to build a yacht that has windmills, solar cells and a reverse propeller. Like [in a] Tesla, when you brake, you just take your foot off the pedal, then it charges the batteries (as the car slows down, throwing off energy). That’s what we want to do when we’re sailing.”
The concept is ready and construction could start as early as next summer. “This will be a revolution within the boating industry,” Vibe-Petersen says. Another one.
Vibe-Petersen’s 65 years have taught him many things but there are two principles that he believes are central to who he is and what he has done – and may still do.
“You have to be prepared to make mistakes. If you do not make mistakes you do not invent. And it’s important that you get bored. When you are bored your brain works behind the scenes. When you are busy and stressed and on your phone too much and on the internet too much you do not develop many things. I love it when I’m bored and can just walk around, that’s when I create ideas.”
At his age many people’s thoughts turn towards home and the garden but Vibe-Petersen says he could never retire. “I work 24/7. I do not have weekends like others. I relax, I have fun and we go to parties and this and that, but in my mind I always work. And that’s not a problem for me.” That’s how you change the game.