The last fifty meters of a marathon

Corradino Corbò interview with Franco Fusignani

With the launches of three over a hundred metre ships in little more than three months . the latest on May 28th – it looked as if this renowned Leghorn based shipyard could slow down a little to recover a deserved second wind. Well no: there are new ambitious objectives to be reached by the end of the year. The gentleman who’s been steering at the helm, with elegance, knowledge and great determination since September 2018 is about to tell us everything.

One hundred – or better still centenarium from Latin – represents a perfect symbol by which to describe the impressive result Benetti, one of the most world-famous Italian shipyards has reached after scores of years of industrial evolution. One hundred, just like the days which scan the passage of time by which this renowned yard managed to launch as many as three majestic yachts totalling 12,800 gross tonnes; one hundred like the overall length each one surpasses thus gaining the prefix ‘giga’. But frankly speaking, magic has little to do with the result obtained, or better still nothing whatsoever. This record, reconfirms Benetti’s position among the world’s leading shipyards also thanks to a top manager Franco Fusignani who’s progressed from departmental head to his current role of Managing Director.
This gentleman’s successful track record is enviable, his C.V. spells out his collaboration in Fiat for thirteen years with Sergio Marchionne. Unlike many other top managers who never seem to ask questions this one likes to be informed regularly, wants to know, wants to be reported to, listens, takes notes. And everyone from managers at Benetti’s HQ in Leghorn to the teams working shifts at the yard say he’s open minded, and cordially friendly, and that is where we met up with him.


While you were in Iveco you revealed to be really good at designing marine diesels. This time round as helmsman and coordinator you steered very well reaching record performance which in some ways seemed even more ambitious.

That’s true enough, it has been a great challenge. Getting three giga yachts off the chocks in little more than three months is an unprecedented feat. To achieve this there was a great deal of ‘back office’ work in planning strategy, organizing teams to work independently from one another, with supervision and coordination which helped considerably in keeping things on track. In practical terms it was like having three shipyards rolled into just one. Each one with its very own, personal programming and tests.

Loads of staff therefore and how did you handle suppliers’ deliveries?

In fact finding qualified technicians and getting such work- loads completed in time wasn’t easy so we had to call in teams of experienced retirees who had time enough and were willing to cooperate. We also took on several consultants for the given period of time.
Since the principal of dedicated team work carried out on each construction was the same and within the same parameters, the suppliers followed suit and did likewise with a difference: that we had to find several others. They too were under loads of pressure and went as far as transferring some of their people into the shipyard – as if they were part of our company – and worked within each team for twelve hours a day, every day. Daily to do lists were programmed for them to go by so that we could rely on having what we needed when needed thus we eliminated lost times. But there’s another issue we had to address smartly. As each area was completed, each interior space too, were checked out for quality control and once approved they were closed, forgotten even as if they no longer existed. This means we sectioned everything by deck by compartment in and out. In a nutshell compartmentalisation day in day out hour after hour.

How much of all this is owed to your preceding experience in Fiat with Marchionne?

Quite a lot I must admit, above all it has got to do with programming deliveries of materials, sequencing and timing. This means taking action every time it is needed, forecasting as to how resolve problems if they were to occur in spite of our planning, being there on the spot, talking to suppliers. When you wish to work like this you need loads of planning and you need to delegate. Stay focused. Problems you can solve are in the field in the yacht at the yard. You see our team leaders are no longer in the offices they are on board or at the foot of the yachts in construction. That is exactly where the problems are and they need to be addressed exactly over here! Consequently I am often here where the action is – in the field.

How is all of this different from Benetti’s modus operandi prior to your arrival?

The men are the same. In several areas and functions teams have been bolstered up. We’re doing more than before in house, rather than outsourcing as for example technical calculus concerning structure, engineering, feasibility and much more is done in house which confers solidity to the whole process and translates into shorter time lapses and therefore results in greater efficiency. Managers have to be a step away from the action to give immediate guidance and support where, when needed which also means envisaging a way as how to deal with a potential problem. If for example I foresee that in just a week there will be a certain difficulty in terms of material deliveries I will go to the source directly, I will speak to the supplier with my project leader and together we will try to find the best solution before the problem occurs.
In the main this is the way to work. The other is to talk never endingly with surveyors, since they have to approve what is being done and tested step after step. So the golden rule is: Speak up when there are problems, then we’ll address them together.

How can you harmonize standardized procedures with the need to personalise a one-off?

That’s no big secret: Plan, plan well in advance every activity, phase in even the unexpected. If you do that you can also glorify craftsmanship. And if you deliver precise requests to your supplier you will find you get excellent results also in terms of quality. In a nutshell you don’t need to pencil in a drawing of what you want here and have it sent on. You must get your designer to work side by side with the craftsman where is not important, here or there does not matter. Likewise put technicians and engineers to work together. This way the circle is closed immediately, there’s no ‘I accept or I don’t accept phase’ any more, or ‘let’s change this or that’ etc. why? Because since inception we have been working on it together side by side, trying it and finally building it together. For example furniture and decor – cabins, saloons, bathrooms and so on – are all built and tested in their respective places of build where there’s the staff and the where with all to make them perfect. That done, they are disassembled and loaded on board. And this way, because you’ve slotted this phase into an ‘industrialised’ procedure the ensuing craftsmanship is enhanced and more appreciated. I move the project forward, I move the degree of quality forward, I take decisions earlier all, is prepared ‘before’ consequently everything flows along more smoothly right to completion.

Well, perhaps there will still be problems but this way you can deal with them better.

Yes exactly. And in this sense it’s necessary to never tire in acquiring experience, to carry out further testing. Never do anything you have not already tested several times before, hoping in God’s will. If you do, you will inevitably meet up with Sod’s law: if there’s the remotest possibility something will go wrong rest assured, it will. Risk must be broken down, parcelled off if you prefer, therefore the whole of the supply chain must do likewise. Let me clarify with this example: let’s take plumbers’ pipes, or even pipe lines if you will. They have to be clearly visible, easily identifiable. Just supposing I need to substitute pipe numbered B 224, I’ll know immediately it is 12 metres long, with a diameter of x + y and it will need to be attached with/ to a specific joint and so on.

This approach has a positive ‘fallout’ on after sales, customer care service etc.

Absolutely yes. If on one side the high degree of quality we are known for safeguards our customers from unwanted surprises, on the other this allows us to be equally precise, accurate, efficient and reliable when we are called in to resolve whatever needs to be done after sales and delivery.

Which are the numbers of suppliers and people involved in building a giga yacht measuring more than 100 metres?

We counted 80 suppliers of which 30 ‘important’ ones which accounted for the bulk of things. I dare say quite a selection. There are teams totalling an average of 250 people per day, in crucial phases the figure can almost double anywhere from 420 to 470 even. Obviously we work sequentially in certain areas – for example when shifting/loading material on board, when there’s need for natural light so as to best carry out finishing touches, which means by daylight hours while other tasks that must not interfere with daily standard procedures such as repair work, well this must be carried out at night. I prefer shifts to work 9-10 hours four days per week, with another shift covering seven days. Obviously there are specific tasks that must be carried out from start to finish by the same pair of hands.

As for materials I imagine the quantities involved to build three of those ships contemporarily must be truly impressive.

Surely: just the wiring requires over 1,100 kilometres of cables, and nine hundred of these are needed to serve general and power plants, and 200 for domotics, gauges, audio- video and so on. Then there are 14,00 square metres of painted surfaces, 7,400 square metres to be furnished counting guest areas and separate ones for crews. The bottom line translates into about 5 million man hours.

How much time does the whole delivery phase require generally?

Imagine this sort of sequence 9-6-3 which means: 9 months prior to delivery, the captain, first mate and engine room chief climb on board, six months prior technical staff arrives and is met 3 months later by the remaining crew members. The numbers differ when it comes to 65 -70 metre superyachts they’re about half of those just mentioned. In any case if the owner is bright he will instruct the captain to go as soon as possible to give him ample time to discover important details while there’s work in progress and to act as project manager and surveyor. Many of the captains live here in Leghorn , which is tantamount to saying in the yard. And I make a point of saying it again it is really important.

Having delivered these three giga yachts what are you currently focusing on?

Well to a certain degree the challenge is continuing. Should you consider that in addition to the three, over a hundred metres here in Leghorn, we have scheduled to close the current year with 19 yachts delivered. It is like running in a marathon with another fifty metres to go. Last year we managed to deliver 17 all mega yachts and no giga ones. In Viareggio then where we work GRP we have 34 yachts being built currently and we’ve obtained great results with this material as well cutting down on production times in some cases by 35%. This means the cutting edge technology and experience acquired through Azimut Yard in Avigliana ( the other section of Gruppo Azimut Benetti, edn.) proved very useful. In this case too the winning hand was in implementing scheduling, right from inception. In other words managing to handle the set up of the hull as much as conceivably possible before assembly which translates into installing engines, power plants, AC/DC plants all the fundamental piping, windlasses, winches and so on.

But doesn’t this mean tying up more capital earlier?

Yes it does, But when you can’t negotiate contractual terms further, this system turns into a financial handicap. Therefore given that, in recent times payments were determined from the basis of the keel being completed and in place, followed by the first deck and so on. Today payments are linked to diverse construction phases: for example the installation of the propelling engines, the gen. sets etc.

It really seems your suppliers performed well and pulled their own weight appropriately.

There’s no doubt about that whatsoever. In the course of the past few years their growth and expertise has grown qualitatively in terms of efficiency in an impressive way. Just imagine the Tuscan supply chain to which I add la Spezia as well today accounts for 50% of the over 24 metre superyachts in the world. And this happens despite the considerable limits the diverse project work systems in shipyards apply. Imagine what it would be like if all these people were connected through a single network, if all spoke the same language and deployed the same processes and procedures or compatible ones, just as what has been happening for some time now in the automotive sector. But this represents an investment to be perpetrated by the State, or perhaps a region and diverse associations, who knows.

Well how did the automotive industry manage that?

Let’s back track twenty years. The Germans were the first, they acted more or less in the following way: ‘Dear supplier, if you want to work with us, our project system is xyz and our communication system if you want to speak to our purchasing department is yzx, You have 5 years to step in line. We’ll help you also financially. You’ll get contracts for three years at a time, but you have to invest in this process because at time of expiry, the light goes out, and we close any working relationship if you are not on par’. Well it was a tough imposition which was quickly adopted by everyone else and by using the same systems or at least perfectly compatible ones. In the yachting industry, this has gone amiss and is continuing to go amiss. To make matters worse we went through financial recession, people, potential buyers were dramatically affected, investments that were not made, shipyards closed down and so on.

Taking a look at the global market what’s the current situation in your opinion?

The giga market seems constant with 13-14 new builds each year, mind you it could grow by 1 or two units if it weren’t for ‘time factors’ which play against. Understandably not everyone wants to wait as long as 4-5 years for the yacht of their dreams. The 60 – 80 metre market too is essentially steady and suffering from the lack of widespread standardisation which translates into long waiting periods. The 50-55 metre range lends itself more to repeatability, understood as industrial process. And I would like to get to delivery in under 30 months, even if 26 is the number I have in mind: 24 months inside the yard and 2 in the water. I’m working on it.

What are your thoughts concerning electric and hybrid propulsion?

As for diesel-electric, we’re talking about a system which has already been optimised, it is efficient, virtually noiseless, free of vibration sporting perfect tuning of the alternatives. You see when cruising you can decide whether you want to use one engine instead of two, and two in lieu of four which translates into considerable savings in terms of fuel consumption and maintenance while prolonging the system’s life span. Furthermore there are numerous other advantages: you can insulate the walls of the engine room very well, you can install it in the most convenient area, for example away from the cabins. Finally I believe diesel- electric today is the best the market can offer just as much as classic diesel propelled engines.
Talking about hybrid , instead, perspectives are different. Considering batteries for a moment there’s a lot happening and the situation is evolving. Currently full electric deployed to propel has a time range of two hours and we’ll have to wait from 5 to 10 years to obtain a time range of 8 to 10 hours. I want to be clear on this, the technology is already available. The problem is tied to costs and sheer volume, the first are linked directly to the second and the latter are tied to application. Having said this I have nothing against the concept per se. I’m just pointing out that hybrid propulsion is evolving immensely. I feel it is a little early to plunge head down into it. In any case so as not to remain behind anyone, we’re currently developing a couple of projects based on completely different technologies. We’ll be seeing where they will take us.

So in this case as well you’re not turning away from your experimenting spirit.

Indeed: to experiment, try, try again and again are fundamental traits of my personality. Talking of which I wish to recall the intense collaboration – which later led to a rooted friendship – with Fabio Buzzi founder of FB design. Back in the eighties I was busy developing marine diesels and he was breaking records. To date he still detains the speed record on water, it was with an FTP diesel engine in other words a Fiat engine. At the time there were no ant-G seats or suspending systems and planing with him at more than 110 knots was not an easy thing to do. After just one hour of tests I’d be tired out.

Yacht shows take their toll as well but surely they’re much less demanding and most of all they’re less dangerous. But do you think they’re still so important to a shipyard such as Benetti, which can create more targeted events on its own?

The yacht shows which host very large yachts – in part the Cannes festival but more so the Monaco Yacht Show are useful because we can invite clients from that geographic region. I enjoy inviting some of our clients in a main saloon after having shown them round the yacht while inviting any form of criticism. Where have I gone wrong? What do you suggest? What can I improve? I think this is a very important moment. Of course, we can obtain the same result by organizing an ad hoc event and also in that case, we look to organize a guided visit for a potential client – who may have little or no direct experience of our yachts and – to give him plenty of time to understand the sense, the essence, the details. In a few words with a very different approach from those exhibiting much smaller yachts in a more general context where you are aiming to score a hit on virtually any visitor who happens to be there and when on board visits succeed one another at a given cadence. That type of yacht show – and I’m thinking mainly of the Genoa show – is very important also from a promotional view point vis à vis of someone who’s never put a foot on board and maybe, perhaps thanks to that impromptu visit decides to become a yachtsman.

Which kind of relationship would you say you have with the web and social networks?

It is a duty, because the younger generations are all there. The web is a worthwhile tool by which to communicate, to inform about what you’re doing, the technologies you’re developing, the events you’re seeking, or the ones you are taking part in. But it must be serious, with meaningful contents and user friendly otherwise it becomes a hellish piece of work and you must be very careful to the meaning of the message you are posting.

What about your relationship with major stakeholders?

Well here in Benetti we have an enormous advantage of other ownerships in the sense that here they actively share and take part in the yard’s complex life with proven competency. Paolo Vitelli is a great founder of enterprises, an unending source of innovative ideas, a man who never just sits around to pause for a moment or two. In all of this he has the support of his family. He possesses a clear vision on everything and when he has an intuition, he immediately shares it with me at any time of day or night. His latest was the day before yesterday at 3.56 a.m.