From almost an unknown 20 years ago, Taiwan’s Horizon Yacht has steadily shaped itself as a force to be reckoned with in the international superyacht realm — today, it is a leading Asian luxury yacht brand and counted among the top 10 luxury yacht builders in the world. The Kaohsiung-based company, which has sold over 660 yachts, has also garnered a loyal customer base — nearly 40% of orders are repeat business.

One of the key personnel involved in “fulfilling dreams in the ocean” is James Fwu, general manager of Horizon Group and general manager and founder of its Premier Yacht Co. Having been exposed to the seas and vessels since young — his father was the captain of a container ship — Fwu went on to pursue naval architecture in university and helped build his first vessel, a fishing boat, at the age of 19. These days, the 46-year-old travels the world in search of new business partners and distributors and to forge deeper client relationships, as part of the “before before-sales and after after-service” portfolio.

At the recent Boat Asia 2013 held in Singapore, Fwu candidly discussed trends in the yachting industry, Horizon’s outlook and his own boating preferences.

How has the yachting industry changed over the years?
The attitude of boat owners has changed. They want to see the boat — the complete boat — before they decide if they want to buy. Before, after assessing the company, they will place the order, pay an advance and then the construction will follow. Now it’s the complete opposite.

We do observe that our clients are getting younger. In the old times, you’d always see an old couple in their retirement years… they tasted success and that’s why they can afford a yacht. There’s a new young and rich generation, and the country they come from is shifting from the West to Asia. We have a Singaporean client now, we have a Chinese client now… actually if you ask me five years ago, we would have never expected that. We also have to adjust ourselves…that means the boat, the yacht itself has to be changed a lot. We cannot just sell boats that look the same outside and fitted differently inside, I don’t think that will work in the future. Maybe we need more fun things — ‘young guy’ things. It is like cooking… you have different chefs using the same materials, you can cook different dishes, different tastes. I think everybody in the shipyard has to become a smarter cook and do things differently, because we have an all-new client.

It’s been almost 26 years since Horizon was founded. How the company has evolved and adapted to keep up with the times?
Horizon has been willing to invest on really high-end capabilities and give our human resource a lot of opportunities. Back in 2000, we had fewer than 100 employees, now we have almost 700. And it’s not just the workers or the factory that keeps growing… I think more importantly, it’s the managing team including design, business and especially IT systems. We absorb all kinds of human resources — very high-quality personnel. We developed our own IT systems… the yacht design software and a lot of technical machining equipment. I think the shareholders and company leaders especially our CEO John Lu are really wishing to turn the whole shipyard into a world-class one, not just get orders and make money. Getting orders and making money is easy, but sometimes you need to think ahead and ask how the company is going to compete with others after 10 years. So I believe that’s what has kept Horizon different from the other shipyards in Taiwan.

So where do you see Horizon in about a decade?
Oh that’s a good question, because right now the yachting business worldwide is facing a dramatic change. After 2008 I think the whole industry has come into the Ice Age… it has totally changed. So maybe in the past 10 years, Horizon has grown up like a dinosaur — we are strong. But now in an Ice Age we have to also change ourselves… we probably have to turn ourselves into a crocodile — we need to move more quickly. So I think we have to downsize a little bit first… to feel the world. And no longer can we afford to be just land-based, we have to find new targets in the river. We have to catch fish in order to survive. The next 10 years, we’re going to turn ourselves into a new species of animal, so we can be equipped for competition in the industry.

“Everybody in the shipyard has to become a smarter cook and do things differently.”

We recently stepped into the refit business. There are now so many yachts and suppliers out there… the focus is no longer construction, but what you can do is rebuild or redecorate. We are good at manufacturing, but I think we need to extend the after-service… it’s going to be about yacht management — how and where the owner is going to use the boat. We need a qualified crew to maintain a good boat. I think the shipyard can step in directly and help the clients… that’s part of service. I think in 10 years, Horizon should turn into not only just a boat builder, but more of a total solution provider… to offer a good experience about yachting.

Tell us your favourite boat — it doesn’t have to be a Horizon boat — and why you like it.
Personally, I like sailboats, but my company only builds powerboats (laughs). I think it’s back to… my very simple passion and love for the sea — the joy of floating on the ocean and being able to enjoy the peaceful atmosphere. But yachts, we have to follow the client’s wishes; some clients prefer extremely decorated interior, some like super horsepower… luxury yachts are sometimes… about what the Chinese term “face” (pride or ego). That’s business. But if you ask me, deep down, I feel the sailboat is a real boat… as with the original Dutch jaght or hunting boat, which is a sporty and fast vessel. If I have the chance to buy my own boat, I would go for the sailboat.

Where would you say is a must-visit for all yacht lovers?
Well, I only know my home, Taiwan, so I would recommend Penghu Island. If you look back at Chinese history, that is the midpoint between China and Taiwan and during the ancient times, Chinese people who wanted to travel to Taiwan had to pass through and stop at Penghu. There are 30 to 40 islands there and till today Penghu is still very natural and beautiful. It’s worth a visit.