Will Christie spent his childhood on the water, with plenty of hours spent rowing and sailing at Radley and on summer holidays. He started his career in investment banking and stayed just long enough to know it wasn’t right for him. A quest to find his dream career led him back to the water, where he discovered yacht brokerage – an industry with extreme highs and lows, where brokers jostle in an open market to sell luxury yachts, or commission the construction of new bespoke yachts, to wealthy clients.
What was your experience of Radley?
I went to a pretty strict prep school from the age of seven so whilst Radley probably seemed quite regimented for some people, I suddenly felt like I had a lot of freedom. When I arrived, it felt like Christmas – so many options and things to do. I grabbed those with both hands. I had friends in lots of different Socials, and who had lots of different talents – sports, drama, music. It was a rounded education and you could thrive at anything you really wanted to do.
I spent a huge amount of time on the water: rowing which I loved, and I did a fair bit of sailing with Mr Wylie who was also my Social Tutor. He was a brilliant sailor, and pushed my sailing skills along. I spent pretty much every waking hour of my holidays on the Isle of Wight in something floating, whether it was a yacht, dinghy, canoe, fishing, waterskiing etc. And that’s kind of where my career really started from: my love of being on the water, both in and out of school.
What did you do after school?
I left Radley, and went to the University of Bristol, where I studied Politics. I had a great time there. Then I did the classic thing of not really having a clue what I wanted to do and following everyone down the same, dare I say slightly boring, route of moving to London and ending up in investment banking. I got on to a graduate training programme at Cazenove, now JP Morgan, but after about a year and a half, I knew that this wasn’t something I want to do for the rest of my life.
What was it about working in the City that didn’t appeal to you?
I looked around and I saw a lot of people who were slightly slaves to their career: they had the mortgage, the children at private school, so they were trapped in a career where they had to maintain that level of income. I knew that I would struggle to move to a different career if I left it too long and became used to the income and the security.
Law, investment banking, or accountancy can be great starting points straight out of university, but after a few years doing them you can definitely get stuck in the industry, which isn’t great if you aren’t fulfilled by your work. I just knew that I wasn’t really happy, so I decided I needed to work out what I wanted to do.
How did you discover the world of yacht broking?
I’m fortunate to have two older brothers and I said to them, who can I meet? Can you put me in touch with friends from different industries? I thought that meeting people who were five to ten years ahead in different careers would give me a feel for the opportunities out there – the pros and cons, the working conditions, the money, the good the bad and the ugly.
I must have had coffees and pints with about 20 different people over four months. I heard about plenty of jobs that didn’t interest me, but I recognised one element of my work and theirs which I liked: sales and building relationships with clients. One day, my brother rang me very excitedly and said he’d bumped into an old friend who was working at a yacht brokerage, one of the biggest in the market. I arranged to meet him, and came away knowing that it was my dream job.
I continued working in investment banking while I searched for opportunities in yacht broking. It took me a year to get a job in the industry; a year of practically bashing down doors, meeting leads and following up with handwritten notes, sending Christmas cards, dropping in when I ‘happened to be passing’. It was a real exercise in tenacity and resilience.
Eventually one of my leads gave me a chance, recognising that my persistence was exactly what I needed for a sales role in the industry. In yacht sales, the target market is tiny, so you’ve got to have 100 balls in the air to hopefully catch just one. A yacht is a luxury – no one needs yacht to live happily, although it will certainly make you happier.
What were the first few years like, selling yachts?
I was working on commission only and paying my own expenses. Clients would ask to meet me somewhere like Monaco or Nice. I’d check my account, and I was already overdrawn. I’d call the bank, convince them to give me an extension on my overdraft, and take the flight, hoping to sell a boat and make some money. There are lots of disappointments and risk along the way in this business, and it took me about a year to sell my first boat. That was plenty of time for me to think, Oh, my God, I’ve made a massive mistake. I’ve walked away from a relatively well-paid job with security to this crazy life.
The first boat I sold was a 81-foot sailing yacht, and then I sold a 300-foot yacht, which is still the second biggest boat I’ve ever sold in my career. Two years in, and I’d made enough money to travel to Russia, which was expensive in those days, to try the market there – somewhere very few brokers had visited. It worked. I used the initial meetings I had to be introduced to more potential clients. Being polite and personable got me those new leads.
NAHLIN, 91m (300ft), the second yacht Will sold, at the very beginning of his career.
What are the key skills for making it in the world of yacht brokering?
Well, you do need to have a good level of knowledge about boats and the sector, but that takes time to master. Knowing what a boat might be worth is like a sixth sense. It’s not like a house where you can calculate the price per square foot, and use a computer to crunch the data. So many different factors can change the value.
Soft skills are really important. Clients have a huge choice of brokers to use, it’s a very open market. Buying a boat should be an exciting process, a big adventure. You’ve got to be the sort of person the client is going to want to travel around with, have meals with, visit shipyards with. You need to be likable, fun, hardworking. To survive in the industry, you really need to be ambitious too, and resilient, and ready to work even harder when business is slow and your motivation dips.
I recently employed someone, and I have no idea what’s on his CV. I just met the guy and I liked his character and his attitude. That’s what you need to be a great salesperson. I don’t want to discourage anyone from working hard at school, but it’s important for young people to realise that if you don’t get straight As, you can still build a brilliant career.
When did you decide to go it alone and start your own business?
Ten years in, I’d already begun to think that it would be nice to do my own thing someday, and by my early 40s I felt ready to make that move. I thought: worst case, I can get a desk at one of the big companies if it doesn’t work out. Walking away from a big entity with a finance team, a marketing team, structures around you – it’s scary. Naturally, you doubt yourself at first. But I knew that I have the contacts, the relationships, the knowledge, and the experience. Trepidation gives you a huge amount of energy and keeps you on your toes.
What’s been the lowest point in your career, and how did you bounce back from it?
In 2022 I had a client that I’d been working on for two years. We just spent so much time creating a design for a new yacht and the project involved quite a bit of travel and time away from home. For various reasons, the client eventually decided not to go ahead. I was so certain that the sale would go through, but it just evaporated. That was a really, really good lesson: don’t be complacent, a deal isn’t done until you’ve signed. I should have known by that stage of my career. It hit me hard because I had a lot resting on that sale.
I definitely doubted myself and my company for a little while after that, but then business picked up and 2023 was the best year I’ve ever had, and ended with the sale of a €149 million yacht. It just shows the cyclical nature of our industry – growth is never linear. The important thing was to keep working hard, to pick yourself up and dust yourself off. Broking always comes with disappointment as well as huge highs; it’s just like gambling. Most brokers will only tell you about their successful sales, just like gamblers don’t tell you about all the times they lost.
What’s been the most exciting project or sale that you’ve been a part of?
One highlight was a client who I spent a long time with planning a new-build yacht. With the construction side of the business, we build fully custom yachts starting from a blank canvas. I handled the whole process, developing the design, advising the client, building a tender package, negotiating the contract etc… It was a big project: €100 million plus. About a week away from signature, the client rang me up and said, “I’ve just been travelling with a friend of mine, and I showed him the plans for the boat. He thinks it’s amazing, and he wants one too, just the same.” So, I flew up to the shipyard where the construction was due to take place and told them, “I’ve got a two-boat deal now.” I worked so hard on that project. I would have been so happy with just the one sale. To have two was incredible.
KISMET, a 95m yacht that Will sold in 2023 for €149 million.
Have you seen any changes in the way that people are accessing and using luxury goods and services over the last 10 years?
COVID was pretty good for our industry. In 2020/21 the market started going completely bananas and the press was talking about wealthy people creating ‘COVID free bubbles’ on yachts, which was nonsense. It wasn’t that at all. COVID propelled workplace flexibility. Busy young executives who wouldn’t have thought about buying a boat until their 50s or 60s suddenly realised they didn’t need to be in the office the whole time. Technology is changing things – Starlink means you can get reliable, fast internet anywhere, and you never need to unplug. I’ve even seen Bloomberg trading terminals on yachts.
Geopolitically, the situation with Russia is a challenge for the industry in regards to sanctions. The most important thing for me is to make sure that I am always working within the law, but it’s a difficult market to navigate and frustrating at times as the situation can change quickly, and guidance isn’t always clear. Luckily business has been driven mostly by the US market recently. There are lots of brokers over there, but American clients often prefer working with us. Many of the biggest shipyards are here in Europe, lots of the boats and sellers are here, and we are in a better time zone for international sales.
So, the UK is a good place to be if you are considering this industry?
Yes, London is a really important hub for super yachts, along with Monaco. The days of having to have an office in Mayfair are gone, and most people meet via online calls or at clients’ homes or at shipyards. But a lot of the peripheral services for the industry – lawyers, designers, etc – are based in London so we are perfectly positioned.
SAMURAI, a 60m yacht that Will has sold twice in his career.
If you could rewind the clock, what advice would you give to young Will, just leaving university?
I don’t think I’d change much. I think regret is a pointless emotion. I’m not saying that my life has been perfect – I’ve definitely made plenty of mistakes both professionally and personally. But I think the mistakes are sometimes the best education you get in life. Try and learn from other people’s mistakes though, as well as your own! You can only do that by speaking to people who have experience in your field or life in general – try and find mentors you trust early on. You’ll save yourself a lot time and pain if you do.
In my early 20s I wanted to know where my life was going. When you leave school or university you might have an idea of where you want to get to, but the pathway there is really blurry. I found that unsettling. Just remember that it will become clearer. For a while it will feel like your compass isn’t quite working. Just keep your eyes open for opportunities, try new things, get out there and meet people, and ask them questions about what they do. Be polite and friendly, ask for help and you’ll find that most people will be keen to help you. Unless you definitely want to be a doctor or a lawyer, try and keep your education and skillset broad, so that your options don’t narrow too early. Most of all, try and stay positive. Nobody who ever did well in life had consistent good times. As Winston Churchill wisely said, “If you’re going through Hell, keep going!” The good times always return and make the hard work or challenges pay off. It’s difficult to remember that when times are tough and you are young.
To find out more about Christie Yachts, visit the website: https://www.christieyachts.com/
Will is a member of Radley Connect, our online business networking platform, and is happy to be approached there for advice and guidance on a career in sales and the yacht brokerage industry.