Robert Braithwaite, one of the founders of Sunseeker International, a true entrepreneur and pioneer of the leisure marine industry, passed away in Dorset on the 7th March having recently fought Alzheimer’s. He was 75 years old.
Robert was born in Hinkley, Leicestershire in May 1943 to Idris and Sybil Braithwaite and the middle child of three boys. His interest in boating was sparked by the family’s early holidays to Windermere in the Lake District where they owned a dinghy fitted with a little outboard motor.
Growing up, his parents ran a successful drapery business in Otley, Yorkshire but it was Robert’s frequent ill health as a child that persuaded them to move nearer to the south coast in the late 1950’s. Robert stated in later years that it was “funny how my sickness helped to make me successful”. Without that turn of events, it’s highly likely there would have never been a Sunseeker.
Soon after moving, Robert’s father bought a 12-foot Tod dinghy from local businessman John Macklin who’d just started selling boats. The little Tod transformed Robert’s life. He’d never been on the open sea before and loved it. He just lived for boats and his health improved so clearly the sea air was doing him some good.
Robert’s father was also enjoying the sea and, eyeing a new opportunity went into business with Macklin in 1960. That was the beginning of Friar’s Cliff Marine, a small boat sales operation selling several foreign brands including Owens cruisers from the USA. Idris asked whether Robert could join and that is how the boat business became his life from the age of about 16.
Initially, Robert worked as an engineer on outboard motors but when the Owens brand ceased operations in Europe, Robert proposed that the company should not only sell other brands but start building their own boats to be in control of their destiny. With his partners support, Robert bought an Owens mould for a sporty 17 foot boat, the ‘Sovereign’, which was initially produced with the help of a small local company used to working in fibreglass called M. J. Fry; and so the boat building business began.
In 1969, when boat production in-house became too big for the Friars Cliff premises the company moved to a waterside location in Poole and was re-named Poole Powerboats. By this time John Braithwaite, Robert’s boat-mad younger brother had also joined the company and went on to become the company’s Design Director, retiring only last year.
Boat production was ramped up with 20’ and 23’ models initially launched whilst every year brought new, larger, more exciting designs suited to warmer Mediterranean boating. Innovations were legendary including race-derived hulls, the latest propulsion systems and on-board tender garages whilst cutting-edge design, incredible boat show exposure, novel marketing campaigns and a total focus on quality and customer service delivered ever-growing sales to a discerning clientele. Sales dealerships began to be appointed around Europe and in 1985, Poole Powerboats was renamed ‘Sunseeker International’ giving rise to the now iconic brand.
The Sunseeker name also attracted EON Productions, producers of the Bond movies and Sunseeker boat models have starred in several iconic films, with Robert himself taking a cameo role in 2008 as James Bond’s boat driver in Quantum of Solace.
As Managing Director, the company grew from strength to strength, driven by his daring entrepreneurial spirit, eventually being sold to Dalian Wanda Group in 2013 and allowing Robert to take a more ambassadorial role that he relished.
From humble beginnings, Sunseeker now employs c.2,600 people, building boats, yachts and superyachts from 38 to 161 feet; sold through a network of 120 sales and service locations in 74 countries. Over the decades that Sunseeker have been designing and building their distinctive craft, they have evolved from being a brand into a true icon. To own a Sunseeker has become an aspiration for many and an obsession to some; buying into a brand that makes the ultimate lifestyle statement. When only the best will do in luxury and performance, Sunseeker provides it – via a worldwide network of approved Sunseeker distributors. Today, this extensive family of retail offices spans the globe, bringing immediacy of service to a world-class brand – a brand driven by the pursuit of perfection.
Robert not only held the position of Chairman of the British Marine Federation on three occasions, he was made a ‘Freeman of the City of London’ by the The Worshipful Company of Shipwrights and was Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset. He was also awarded an MBE and later a CBE in recognition of his contribution to the marine industry, not to mention numerous Queen’s Awards for Enterprise for the wider business.
He always shared his success and was a generous philanthropist, notably donating a vital new £3.5million da Vinci robot to Poole Hospital to support advanced keyhole surgery for cancer patients; the only hospital in the country, and one of only a handful in Europe with access to such pioneering technology.
Robert’s contribution to the marine industry globally was pivotal. He was inspirational to anyone who met him, recognised as a pioneer, a maverick, a true visionary; he changed the face of boating forever.
Famously, Robert is quoted as saying “When I was young I was told it was impossible to have a career in boats. I guess I proved them wrong.”
As well as his loyal employees, Sunseeker Dealers, clients and close friends, in Robert’s words “the Sunseeker family”, Robert leaves two daughters and four grandchildren.
It is that time of the month again when we sit down with one of our captains and dive into the history of these interesting characters.
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