Richard Hadida, the owner of Oyster Yachts, tells David Edwards why being on board a battleship with his hero Horatio Nelson is the ultimate dream...
His serious, grown-up ambition was always to follow his father and become an entrepreneur, to work for himself and make his own millions. But what Richard Hadida really wanted to do as a child, and what he still hankers after even now, at the age of 53, sitting in his handsome home with the trappings of his life and his success all around him, is to be at sea on a 19th-century battleship, experiencing the kind of swashbuckling adventures that defined his hero, Horatio Nelson. He has succeeded spectacularly with the former, having created a £2 billion-plus tech company, and while the latter is rather harder to pull off, Hadida is keeping that dream alive by devoting his life to sailing while honouring Britain’s most revered nautical figure.
Hadida’s passions are distilled into the elegant drawing room of his home in rural Berkshire, 50 or so kilometres north-west of London. On one wall hangs an epic scene from the opening of the Battle of Trafalgar – HMS Royal Sovereign, carrying Nelson’s deputy, Vice Admiral Collingwood, has broken the enemy line and is raking the Spanish flagship Santa Ana. Hadida describes the action with awe and wonder, and a great deal of knowledgeable detail.
Richard Hadida, superyacht owner and CEO of Oyster Yachts
On another wall is a large piece of the White Ensign that flew from HMS Victory on that October day in 1805, with the holes shot through it serving as a reminder of the fate that befell Admiral Lord Nelson. “He was buried in it,” Hadida says, “but at the last minute, as his most trusted guys were lowering his coffin into the tomb in St Paul’s Cathedral, they suddenly ripped this flag to pieces and everyone took a piece. The biggest single section known in the world is this one here.” Between them is a glass cabinet, containing a model of a very modern sailing yacht. It’s the Oyster 1225, the new 37.45 metre flagship hull of the British yard that Hadida bought last year. The successful entrepreneur has been able to charter an Oyster yacht, then buy an Oyster yacht and finally, when finding that the company had gone into administration last year, to take over Oyster Yachts itself. Again, the reverence with which Hadida talks about the hull – the elegance, the lines – is clear and touching. “It’s going to be magnificent,” he says.
Now that he’s “made a few quid”, as he likes to describe his situation, Hadida can indulge his loves. First comes his hero Nelson. “My dad, God rest his soul because he died last year, had a passion for Nelson. With me it just grew and grew because he is my ultimate hero.”
What was it about the English admiral that so captured his imagination? “It’s the whole thing: his tactics; he was a bit maverick, a bit naughty; he threw away the rule book, rewrote the rules. I suppose the story is also enhanced by the fact that he did die during his greatest achievement, but only after he knew he’d won, which is pretty cool.”
He bought the flag at auction at Sotheby’s in 2018 for £297,000. Then he bought the watch Nelson had on him when he died for £322,000, and the decanters and dinner service from Victory. “I bought all these different things – and I’ve also got a lock of his hair – so I’ve got one of the best Nelson collections in the world today, which I see myself as a custodian of.
Original decanters from HMS Victory
To that end, Hadida arranged a special event just after Trafalgar Day last year when he co-hosted a dinner on the gun deck of HMS Victory, bringing together friends, Oyster owners and in particular the Nelson artefacts he had recently acquired. “After Victory came back to Britain and Nelson was taken off, these things all went their separate ways. So I reunited the flag with the watch and the decanters and everyone had a tot of rum from his decanters and had a little ‘cheers’ and it was a very special moment. There was an admiral from the Navy there who co-hosted the evening with me. And he and I shared these big rum glasses that had Nelson’s initials on them. He was visibly shaking because, of course, Nelson is history.”
Nelson is present in other ways in the Hadida family. His elder son James has Horatio as a middle name, and younger son Will has Thomas for one of his, after Thomas Hardy, Victory’s captain. And that lock of Nelson’s hair is in a glass pendant, which is never very far from Hadida’s side or neck. “I know it sounds odd but in important moments I can feel, I don’t know… maybe it brings me closer to my hero when I hold it. If something’s very important, it just comes with me. I’m not superstitious, but I draw some comfort from it.”
He might have wished he’d had that pendant when he was 17. That “important moment” came while he was at school in London doing A levels, and his father took him to a cricket match at Lord’s. “My dad was a self-made man. He left school at 14 and he became a manufacturer, making shower curtains and china and things for the bathroom. He was a member of Lord’s and he took me to this match along with his three best friends, and they’d all become millionaires in their own field. And he said, look at us, we haven’t got one O level between us and we’ve all done well.”
Yachts race during the Oyster Regatta in Palma
That heady scene had a huge effect on the young Hadida. “I was so inspired by them; they were funny and they were cool and they were successful.” So what did he do? Knuckle down to his studies – maths, physics, biology and chemistry – and set his sights on getting straight As? “I quit school the next day. I just went to the school office and said ‘I’m out.’ And I went that day. My mother went mad.”
School was out and work was in. “In my first year I did something like 18 jobs, a ridiculous amount, because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, that was for sure.”
A two-week filing stint at computer giant ICL was where the world of work began to make sense for him. He was soon building databases and learning to program – “just by taking the books home at night and reading them”. Hadida was taken on full-time to lead a small department charged with finding efficiencies in the company and the work inspired his first attempt at going it alone. This was pre-email and the idea was to create a paperless, digitised office. “I had this advert which had a pink roll of toilet paper and it said ‘The only paper your company will need.’ To cut a long story short, I was undercapitalised and I signed some directors’ guarantees here and there and so, by the tender age of 29, I was made bankrupt. It was a good idea but it was before its time. I was wrong; I put my hands up.”
Childhood visits to St Lucia ensured the Caribbean would remain one of Hadida’s enduring passions. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Undeterred, and with the internet dawning, Hadida went back to the entrepreneurial drawing board in the mid-1990s. “I tried out some different businesses with some internet ideas behind them. I had the idea of filming a roulette wheel, and people can then bet on a real roulette table rather than on a simulated, CGI-style thing. I set that up as a B2B business and we soon got William Hill to come as a customer and then one by one we sold to nearly every big customer in Europe.” The company he started, Evolution Gaming, now employs 5,000 staff and is worth more than £2 billion. “It’s a fantastic business with 45 per cent growth year on year, and we’ve managed that growth for the last 12 years pretty much.”
While his father passed on Nelson and that entrepreneurial flair, Hadida’s mother, with whom he lived along with his grandmother after his parents separated when he was two, introduced him to another life-long love: the Caribbean. “My mum took me a couple of times to Jamaica and St Lucia. I remember being absolutely amazed by it – everything was just super-relaxed and cool and laid-back.”
Childhood sailing came courtesy of family holidays spent on dinghies on the Norfolk Broads, but boats didn’t reappear in Hadida’s life until he was in his early thirties. He had the idea of chartering a boat so that he could sail to his sister’s wedding on Lesbos, Greece. A three-day course on the Solent gained him a day skipper’s licence and then there he was, taking charge of a bareboat Beneteau in Piraeus. “It was one of the most magical nights of my life,” he recalls. “Out there, ships would go by, beautiful stars, and we just sailed on, and then suddenly the dawn broke and there she was, and we just sailed straight in, fantastic. That was it. I knew that I had discovered my love.”
Hadida first chartered a boat when he sailed a Beneteau to his sister’s wedding on Lesbos, Greece
Boats were put on hold again after he married Jenny, an Englishwoman he met in the Caribbean, and the two boys came along. “My wife said, ‘We can’t go on boats until the youngest one can swim unaided.’ Ever since that day came, we’ve been going to the Caribbean.”
When that day did come there was only one yacht on his mind. Jenny’s stepfather used to visit the London Boat Show every year, primarily to enjoy a glass of champagne at the Oyster stand while being shown the latest yacht. “I asked him why he did that,” Hadida says, “and he said, well, because they’re the best yachts in the world.”
The first Oyster Hadida set foot on was the 17 metre Amanzi that he chartered for his young family, and he was bowled over. “Up to that point, I’d only been on a Beneteau. So it was like, wow! I went downstairs and the woodwork and the whole thing… it blew my mind. And that was it. From that moment onwards, I knew: I’m Oyster or nothing.”
His friendship with Eddie Jordan, which began when the pair met at the Dubois Cup, led to many holidays on board Lush, Jordan’s 27 metre Oyster 885. They shared the yacht for a while and now Hadida owns it outright. “The 885 is the best superyacht in the world,” he insists. “It is. You just have to believe me. I love her, my kids love her and we’ve got so many memories on this boat. She’s being refitted this winter and when she comes out of the yard next year, I don’t think you’ll be able to tell her against a new one. It’s another good testimony for why to buy an Oyster; it’s a boat for life if you want it to be.”
So that explains why, when in February last year he read that Oyster Yachts had gone into administration, Hadida had such a visceral reaction. “I spat my tea out, I couldn’t believe it,” he said. He was on holiday with Jordan at the time. “I said to Eddie, let’s buy it. So we got the investment memorandum, he ran the numbers and said, ‘Richard, I think we should bow out of this.’ But I suddenly thought, you know, I can do this. Building this business back to what it was and what it should be, that’s my calling. Evolution Gaming was my idea, my brainchild, my baby. This is different. I’ve bought a business that’s got 1,200 customers with 45 years of history. It’s incredibly refreshing. I mean, it’s inspirational. I do sail a lot and I do feel I know what I want, so it’s trying to get that across into the boats and into the building. It’s an enormous challenge, but I’m loving it. We sold two boats in the past week and what a great feeling that is.”