The Beneteau Dynasty

The Beneteau Dynasty

The idea that a boatbuilding empire could be family run for more than 135 years sounds implausible, but the moral and executive backbone behind Groupe Beneteau has always been the Bénéteau family.

It began with Benjamin Bénéteau, who started building sailing trawlers for fishermen in 1884. Benjamin passed the business to his son, André, who was just 21 when he inherited it. In 1928, André empowered his son André and daughter Annette Bénéteau Roux to take over.

Success was defined differently back then. In the post-World War II period, Beneteau was a small yard building wooden fishing trawlers. Annette recalls a happy, modest childhood, with family life surrounding the boatbuilding business. “Everything began for us with choosing oak trees in the forest on Sunday,” she says. “This got us outdoors, but choosing trees was an almost religious moment.”

Annette and brother André were in charge when the business transitioned away from fishing boats and into recreational sailboats. The company introduced its first sailboat series, appropriately called First, at the Paris show in 1965. “No other boat looked like ours, and, not used to the capital, we felt like we did not belong,” Annette says. “Yet only a few hours after the show’s opening, three businessmen introduced themselves, claiming that our boats were what their customers were looking for and that no other builder wanted to build them.”

Over the decades, Annette and André managed Beneteau’s growth, opening its first production facility in 1972, launching the Antares and Flyer powerboat lines, and building ever-larger and faster sailboats. In 1984, celebrating its 100th anniversary, the company went public.

In 1985, Beneteau opened its first U.S. facility, in Marion, S.C. For the first five years, Roux says, “we suffered” in Marion. “The cultural differences, language difficulties and training staff in a region surrounded by cotton fields and tobacco made it quite an adventure.”

The investment, however, not only gave Beneteau and, eventually, sister company Jeanneau a U.S. beachhead (and a dominant market share in sailboats), but also added to the bottom line for 35 years. In the past two decades, Groupe Beneteau has become the world’s largest production boatbuilder, with factories in France, Poland, Brazil and the United States. Its 2014 acquisition of the Wellcraft, Four Winns, Scarab and Glastron brands gave it instant market share in the powerboat segment, along with facilities where it can build its European powerboat brands.

Roux has given up day-to-day control of the operations to other executives but still sits on the board of directors. “All through our lives, the love of the family business was the best shield against the endless selfish fights that often set a family at loggerheads,” she says.

She is living proof of how a family business can become a dynasty.  

Michael Verdon

Soundings Trade Only