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Home > Editorials > Captains Of Industry – Rupert Savage

Captains Of Industry – Rupert Savage

If having a knack for watercolours means you’re destined to work at sea then yes, Rupert Savage had his life mapped out – other than that, his upbringing was downright ordinary. Born in Solihull, brought up in Warwickshire, schooled in Cheltenham and gaining passes in all O and A Levels, Rupert decided that art interested him the most so enrolled on a one-year Foundation Diploma in Art & Design at Oxford Polytechnic (yep, before they went all hifalutin and became Oxford Brookes University). He didn’t enjoy it so much.


It turned out that while he was good at painting, this wasn’t enough for the powers that be, so Rupert decided to major in photography as it had the least chock-a-block lecture schedule.


Faintly disillusioned, desperate for financial independence and wishing to buy a car and move out of home, Rupert fitted some part-time work at a pub in Oxford around his studies. Whilst his father was an entrepreneur running a cottage industry from home, Rupert was never handed anything on a plate and everything he wanted he had to earn (aside from a first-class education). Despite the distraction of the pub, Rupert passed his Foundation course but called time on his art, and indeed his photography, career.


Rupert picks up the story, “In the absence of any better options, my first real job was running a wine bar for my Uncle in Leamington Spa. Undeterred by my youth and inexperience, he made me manager and left me in charge of opening, locking and cashing up, as well as keeping an eye on the staff. I also did security on the door for a while, quite ridiculous given my blonde hair, blue eyes and weedy frame. I earned myself the ironic nickname ‘killer’ as I was the least scary doorman ever. In the days before trendy vegan cafes and independent boutiques, Leamington Spa could be a bit lively on a Saturday night but, because I posed no threat, I didn’t seem to attract any trouble at all.”


Rupert managed around eight months at the wine bar before hankering after a working gap year. Fortunately, he had family connections with Neil Cheston, an ex-Whitbread Round the World yachtsman who now worked in yacht brokerage in the south of France. Neil had been on board maxi Drum in the 1985 Fastnet when she famously lost her keel in gale force winds and capsized.


Rupert continues, “I packed my bags and booked a one-way ticket to Antibes, with Neil Cheston as my only contact. The aim was to get on a yacht en route to the Caribbean. While I was in his office, Neil’s Drum crewmate Phil ‘Philthy’ Barrett walked in sporting his signature handlebar moustache. He was sailing his Swan 65 Desperado from Antibes to Palma. Neil was clearly keen to get rid of this random 19-year-old stood in his office so flicked me on to Phil. He agreed to take me on the delivery but made it clear there was no further work the other end – ‘I am literally throwing his bags with the lines’ he told Neil.”


It wasn’t quite the Caribbean but, having used his artistic flair to do some signwriting on the life rings, Rupert left Desperado and joined the classic yacht, 1931 Fife-built gaff-rigged 105ft schooner Altair. She was preparing to sail to, wait for it, the south coast of England for a large refit at Fairlie Restorations.


“I’d gone to Antibes as a stepping stone to the Caribbean but ended up stuck in a container on the Hamble for seven months stripping the varnish off blocks. Officially I was the deckhand, aka ‘nipper’, but it felt more like an apprenticeship in classics. I learnt how to splice, varnish, polish – all for the princely sum of 700 pounds a month. Refit complete, we sailed to Scotland to celebrate the yacht’s 60th birthday and then returned to Palma. I soon realised that yachting was a professional career and still wanted that trip to the Caribbean, so I left Altair and joined Swan 46 Anse Chastenet for my first – the first of 13 – Atlantic crossing.”


Rupert and Anse Chastenet sailed from the Canaries to the Caribbean in 21 days where he promptly joined the second Swan 65 of his career – ex-Whitbread competitor Nittan II (ex Xargo III). Together they did a year-and-a-half of Caribbean and Mediterranean chartering before Rupert stepped off to do his RYA Yachtmaster in 1992 – now age 21.


Rupert took part in plenty of yacht racing while studying for his Yachtmaster, it helped log the miles. He competed in Royal Cork Yacht Club’s Ford Week, Antigua Sailing Week, Cowes Week – most of them on the Swan 46 Anse Chastanet. His next role was on board a 63ft Richleigh (a company started in South Africa by Richard and Leigh Ford in 1989) named Stenella. This decision proved to be life changing, as it revealed the first chapter in what would be a lifelong love story.


“We were celebrating my 22nd birthday in Pusser’s Pub Road Town, the capital of the British Virgin Islands, and Richard and Leigh had organised a blind date for me. I’d been led to expect a tall busty blonde but around 10pm a small-but-perfectly-formed South African Toni walked in. It was a classic case of not love at first sight – for both of us. Toni had no idea it was a blind date, I was totally wrecked on Pusser’s Painkiller cocktails and it was nothing short of a disaster. Fortunately, I met her properly a few months later at the BVI Spring Regatta. The second chapter was better than the first and this year we will have been married 20 years.”


Rupert joined Stenella as mate, expecting the captaincy within the year, but when that didn’t materialise he hopped off in the States and joined Oyster 53 Carelbi. It was Rupert’s first job as captain – he was 23.


“After two months in the Caribbean, we sailed back to Cornwall. It was easily the worst Atlantic crossing, come to think of it any crossing, of my life. We had no refrigeration so lived off Devilled Ham, a spicy canned meat, but that wasn’t the half of it. A major storm hit between the Azores and England and, with an arguably more vulnerable deck-stepped mast as opposed to a keel-stepped one, I feared being dismasted. For the first and last time in my yachting career, I opted to go hove to. Heaving-to is essentially a survival strategy that allows you to park your boat in open water reducing stress on both it and the crew. We went below to sit it out and were tossed around for 24 hours moving barely six miles. Terrifying.”


Rupert’s second captaincy was for a former charter guest and owner of the Swan 68 Defiance – he joined her in Palma. Toni had completed a cookery course in Somerset and also stepped on board as chef. It was the start of a hectic joint career.


Defiance was a hugely busy charter yacht and we did several seasons cruising the Med, Caribbean and east coast US. We created some great memories including buying a Harley Davidson in Annapolis for a 500 mile adventure and winning our class in the 1996 Newport Bermuda Race. Sadly, the US owners decided to sell and we got off in Miami after a jam-packed two years.”


The couple’s next role was on 28 metre Jongert Sea Shuttle – a real gentleman’s yacht built in 1983. Another busy Mediterranean-Caribbean charter yacht, Rupert was at the helm for no less than six years with Toni beside him as chef. During this period, Rupert gained his 3,000 ton Class 4 Masters ticket. In 1998 they got married and, when Toni gave birth to first son Oliver in 2002, they moved to London with their new baby.

“My last charter on Sea Shuttle was unforgettable. We were picking up special guests in Monaco and had been given a prime berth outside the Yacht Club. Suddenly, the entire Monégasque Royal Family came on board. Princess Caroline and Prince Ernst of Hanover, Prince Albert II, and the late Prince Rainier III who I helped up our rather wobbly passerelle while he was sporting an Alien t-shirt, the one where the alien is bursting out the chest, it was so surreal. There was a cocktail party on board a 60 metre motoryacht next door and you could see the guests double-take at the sight of the Royal Family squeezed around the cockpit table of our ‘little’ sailing yacht.”


Having forged a great friendship, the owners of Sea Shuttle found work for new father Rupert in London where he project-managed the refurbishment of 18 residential flats on the corner of Piccadilly Circus and Haymarket.


“Although moving ashore was tough, I was happy to see that I had accumulated a lot of transferable skills. Working with ultra-high-net-worth individuals on yachts is a unique experience, they tell you a lot and you learn a lot. Captaining a yacht is much like running a business – hiring, firing, managing people and situations. The only exception was that whenever funds ran low I simply needed to request more from the owner – I wish it was that easy now. My eight months in real estate in London made me realise that, despite having no formal business background, I was a good manager of people and I could keep calm in most situations – I was therefore focussed on finding a career ashore.”


However, Rupert subsequently turned down a quantity surveyor role and controversially skippered (and literally drove) his last yacht, a 30 metre motoryacht Moondance – ironic given his passion for sailing.


“At interview I made my position very clear. I would need a suitably-qualified fulltime crew so when guests weren’t aboard I could go home to my family. It was also agreed that the yacht would winter in Palma for the same reasons. I enjoyed four years on board Moondance working for a wonderful English couple who allowed me to transform the yacht through various winter refits. I left in 2006, coinciding with the birth of second son Charlie.”


It was Mark Conyers, co-founder of yacht coating company Rolling Stock, who finally dragged Rupert ashore for good. They were introduced by a mutual friend, but Rupert was already familiar with the business as they had painted Moondance during a refit. At the time, Rolling Stock had two shareholders – Mark and his business partner Bernie – but after a year of negotiation Rupert came in as General Manager and gradually acquired Bernie’s shares, as well as a chunk of Mark’s. Within 18 months he was Managing Director.


“I worked hard and reinvested everything I earned. A separate investment revealed itself in 2010 when the concession for the Global Building in STP shipyard came up for renewal. We modernised and refurbished it and reopened in 2011 as the RS Global Building – RS being Rolling Stock not Rupert Savage. With 24 offices and nine workshop units, including the Dock Bar, it’s great for the yard and for the city – helping to make Palma de Mallorca one of the most significant refit destinations in the world.”


What happened in 2012 has been documented widely in the global press. In short, Pinmar and Rolling Stock entered into a joint venture under the umbrella brand Global Yachting Group (GYG). GYG took a further leap forward in 2017 when it became a public company trading on AIM – a sub-market of the London Stock Exchange. Rupert became Group Managing Director of GYG plc.


On the subject of the initial joint venture, Rupert said, “While we occupied slightly different segments of the market – Pinmar the luxury brand more focussed towards the larger motoryachts and iconic new builds and Rolling Stock the more technical brand typically specialising in sailing yachts and exotic coatings – we had always remained strong competitors.”


“We were keen to start working more productively together, basing our decisions on business rather than personality. Initially, this led us to sharing Rolling Stock’s spray cabins facilities in Son Oms rather than running two facilities independently – after all, once you’re painting the piece, you’ve already won the job. Ultimately, this brought us closer together culminating in the 2012 joint venture.”


With ‘Rolling Pin’ and ‘Pin Stock’ out of the question, the workforces were merged but Pinmar and Rolling Stock paint brands kept their own identity. The supply divisions combined to form Pinmar Supply and the scaffolding and containment divisions melded to form Techno Craft – all under the GYG banner. Mark Conyers remained a director focussing on the Rolling Stock brand while Remy Millott became Chief Executive Officer for GYG plc. Remy has a very public front-of-house role also dealing with high-level investors and the City, while Rupert’s Managing Director role is more focussed towards the day-to-day operational nuts and bolts of the Group. Both Remy and Rupert are responsible for the strategic development and growth of the business, supported by an excellent team of professionals.


“The responsibility of being on the board of a plc has been an exciting new challenge although it came on top of, rather than instead of, ‘business as usual’. We now have 450 fixed staff generating a turnover of approximately 62 million euros in 2017 and the next stages in GYG plc’s life will be very exciting. GYG’s success is my priority for our stakeholders, the industry as a whole and for Mallorca where we are based.”


So what’s next for Rupert? Judging by his growing to-do list, not to mention helping to manage his teenage boys, he’s certainly got his work cut out for many years to come.


Sarah Forge, sarah@purplecakefactory.com