Even before Diego Colón, current CEO of Astilleros de Mallorca, was born, there was a certain inevitability surrounding his path in life. Indeed, the same could be said for his father – and his father’s father. For each of these men are direct descendants of Christopher Columbus – master navigator, admiral and the ‘man who discovered America’ in 1492. Their veins were flooded with the lure of the sea, their destiny predetermined.
To prove the point, not only was Diego’s father, Cristóbal Colón, Vice Admiral of the Spanish Navy, he was also bestowed with all the titles earned by virtue of being a direct descendant of his celebrated namesake. These included the impressive-sounding Marqués de la Jamaica, Duque de Vega and Duque de Veragua. As the younger brother, Diego (a name passed down the family tree via the ‘original’ Christopher’s son) has missed out on these titles which are now held by his elder sibling – who is naturally named Cristóbal.
Diego may have sidestepped the notoriety and nobility of the Columbus genealogy, but his life has not been any less colourful or rewarding. Born in Madrid in 1950, Diego had a slightly nomadic youth setting up home wherever his father’s naval career dictated – from Mallorca to San Sebastian. He has fond memories sailing with his father as a child and, having become a member of the French École Nationale de Voile-staffed sailing school on Madrid’s lake Pantano de San Juan, started competing in regattas around the age of 16.
After graduating in Naval Architecture from university in Madrid, Diego was offered a job in the outfitting department of a commercial shipyard in Gijón on the Bay of Biscay in Asturias. Recognising his unmistakable attitude and aptitude, Diego was accelerated to manager of the 500-strong outfitting team – despite being only one year shy of his 30th birthday.
Having eked out six years in commercial shipping, a field that didn’t quite float Diego’s boat as much as he wished, a production manager position became vacant at Astilleros de Mallorca. Diego lived in Mallorca in the 1960s, between the rose-tinted innocent ages of nine and 13, and he considered the island to be paradise. He’d also spent summers in the 1950s on neighbouring island Ibiza when it was deemed to be a rather exotic destination. Ibiza had no airport back then (it reopened for international tourist flights in 1958) and there was just one ferry a week from Alicante with a capacity for a grand total of two cars – not that a car was really necessary as the island had pretty much one road from Ibiza Town to San Antonio.
“We used to stay on Ibiza’s west coast where there was no electricity and no water,” recalls Diego. “It was so far-removed from Madrid that it was a dreamy escape for the family. Mallorca was slightly better known, Australian-born Hollywood actor Errol Flynn lived there in the second half of the 1950s and did great things to publicise the biggest Balearic island. In 1981, when the opportunity arose for my Madrileña wife and our four- and two-year-old sons to move here, I told her ‘we must come to Mallorca – you will love it’ – and so we did.”
“Production manager of what was then a small shipyard was a very exciting role – I had to be involved in everything,” continues Diego. “When I arrived at Astilleros de Mallorca there were some very good projects in the pipeline. I wasn’t a huge fan of commercial ships so to be handed Jessica, a 65 metre three-masted schooner, as my first build, was just about perfect.”
The restoration of classic historic yachts is exactly the type of work Diego enjoys (he has been crewing 1969-built Calima for the last 15 years – a very successful boat – and also has his own J80) and, by happy coincidence, it’s also very important to Astilleros de Mallorca.
One of the yard’s most-loved clients was Creole, the largest wooden sailing yacht ever built at almost 66 metres. Now owned by the Gucci family, the Mallorcan shipyard was responsible for its complete refit in 1985. The restoration of King Alfonso XIII’s boat, 1909-built 15 metre class Hispania, was another milestone refit for Astilleros de Mallorca. Diego also acted as advisor on a project to build replicas of the smaller caravel-type ships used by Columbus – namely Santa María, La Niña and La Pinta – for Seville Expo ’92, marking the fifth centennial of the expedition.
In 1989, Diego took a brief break from his beloved classics when he was invited to be technical director of Spain’s America’s Cup team. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, so he left Astilleros de Mallorca and worked between Madrid, Cádiz and San Diego – spending an entire year in the Californian coastal city. Meanwhile Diego’s wife had settled into teaching English at a Spanish school, before progressing to translation specialising in 19th century literature – something she still excels in to this day.
The Louis Vuitton Cup (part of the 1992 America’s Cup selection series) came and went and Desafío España Copa America didn’t quite make the grade, so it was time for Diego to return home. Astilleros de Mallorca kindly welcomed him back with open arms and he was appointed director of the shipyard in 1992 – age just 41. Indeed, as Astilleros de Mallorca celebrates its 75th anniversary in 2017, Diego celebrates 25 years at the helm.
“When I returned in 1992, the shipyard’s financial situation was critical and we made a decision to stop new build activity – it was the biggest single change in the entire history of the yard. At the same time, we reduced the workforce by 50% and fully dedicated ourselves to refit, repair and maintenance. Starting from a weak position, we had to go out there and sell ourselves and our services. We attended the European boat shows and gradually earned the solid reputation we enjoy today. The shipyard now employs 100 staff, including 25 naval architects and marine engineers – it’s a highly technical skilled team of which I am very proud.”
In the months leading up to Diego’s silver anniversary, a new director was eased in to his shoes allowing him to take up the responsibility of CEO. Previously a project manager for prestigious Dutch shipbuilder Oceanco, Carlos Morales started as deputy general manager for Astilleros de Mallorca in April 2016, before being elevated to a director-level general manager in July 2017. The appointment has given Diego more time to focus on the bigger picture.
“Last year Carlos helped me, and now I am helping Carlos,” says Diego. “I am slowly trying not to be involved in day-to-day issues, instead I immerse myself in the world of high-level strategy, meetings with the board, shareholders, and the various organisations which I am passionate about.”
One of those organisations is ICOMIA (the International Council of Marine Industry Associations) which brings together national marine industry associations in one global organisation and represents them at an international level. Another is AEGY (the Spanish Large Yacht Association) which Diego founded in 2005 and remains president of today.
Similarly, Diego co-founded BYD (Balearic Yacht Destination) which unites 17 of the leading Balearic-based superyacht marinas, refit shipyards, management and service companies including Global Yachting Group, e3 Systems, Marina Ibiza, STP (Servicios Técnicos Portuarios), Port Adriano, Master Yachts and Astilleros de Mallorca. The organisation was formed in 2014 with the objective of leveraging its collective resources to promote the Balearics to an international audience as a leading destination for superyacht cruising, berthing and refit.
“This helps solve a problem that we have in Mallorca, that we don’t always give an image of quality when it comes to yachting,” says Diego. “There is a perception that there are many small businesses, some of them operating in a less-than professional manner and making money however they can. BYD confirms that Mallorca isn’t just good for cheap day workers focussing on small jobs, you can find high quality businesses operating to international standards. The Balearic Government and the Balearic Port Authority are fully on board with BYD – in fact it’s probably the first time in history that we’ve all worked together in a joined up public-private way – it’s fantastic promotion for the islands.”
“Mallorca is very well connected, has a wonderful climate, a fabulous capital city and plenty of yacht-related businesses generating a lot of competition and fair pricing. In other words, it has everything. Other destinations have invested heavily but there is something missing; whether it be climate or culture, Mallorca has every attribute necessary for success but the only thing we lack is capacity.”
“Astilleros is still the only major shipyard on the island and the next challenge we face is keeping apace with the growing superyacht market,” explains Diego. “Yachts have increased in length substantially over the last decade and Palma needs to be able to service them. We cannot haul out larger than 1600 tonnes or 75 metres and desperately need a syncrolift for boats up to 100 or 110 metres but we don’t have the space. We expanded into neighbouring STP shortly after it opened a decade ago, opening offices and workshops, but we now need the Port Authorities to give us another site. Astilleros de Mallorca is bounded by Real Club Náutico de Palma on one side, the fishermen’s dock on the other, and our hands are tied.”
“Every other Mediterranean yachting destination is progressing fast. Malta, Genoa, Barcelona, La Ciotat, they’re all expanding and Mallorca mustn’t fall behind. Club de Mar has the go-ahead for expansion and this needs to take place in parallel with expanded shipyard facilities – we need the authorities to act promptly.”
Sarah Forge, email@example.com