Bob Denison – a life on the water
There is more in common with superyachts and World War Two minesweepers than you might think. One is that they were both built in Fort Lauderdale shipyards. The other is that they are present in the DNA of Bob Denison, president, Denison Yachting. Born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Denison talks to Superyacht Investor about how the industry has changed, the challenges of business and his life on the water.
with no experience in shipbuilding moved to the Sunshine State to open a shipyard. It was a daunting prospect, but one relished by Denison’s grandfather, Frank Denison, as he began operations in Broward County, Florida, building minesweepers for the Allied forces. But this was never the dream. The dream was to build luxury vessels in what is now the beating heart of the US superyacht industry.
Denison talks to us from his family home, which backs onto the New River; what he calls the “veins of yachting” in Fort Lauderdale. “I was born into the industry,” Denison tells SYI. “After building a bunch of minesweepers for the Allies, my grandparents started to build private yachts. That’s where it all started really.”
The fledgling, but flourishing, shipyard began to build yachts under the brand Broward. And they were incredibly successful. “From 1975 to 1999, Broward was responsible for building more boats over 24m than anybody in the world,” says Denison. “They were very much a US brand, although you may still have 10 or 20 of them over in Europe. So, I grew up around boats for my entire childhood.”
Denison’s father, Kit Denison and uncles, Skip and Ken, oversaw the business for much of his upbringing. After graduating from college, he arrived back in Fort Lauderdale, ready to test his mettle as a shipbuilder and find a place in the family business. “But then in the same year, my grandfather decided to sell the business, which was pretty heart-breaking for me at the time. As the third generation, I always thought I would have the opportunity to work in the family business,” he says. Frank Denison quickly pivoted the family business into a brokerage.
After spending a few years in private aviation, Denison returned to Fort Lauderdale and joined his father’s brokerage business. In 2001, he took the reins of the firm and a lot has changed in those 22 years. “The sophistication of everything on the broker’s side in terms of marketing and branding has changed completely from when I first took over,” he says.
“We have a yachting magazine collection going back to the ‘50s and I was flipping through a yachting magazine from the early 2000s a few days ago. I was looking at them and laughing. It was just hilarious to me how awful the marketing and branding were compared to now.”
Challenges in the superyacht business can come in all shapes and forms, but some are universal across all sectors. One is betrayal by a colleague. “About nine years ago, a senior member of our team embezzled money from the company. It was a very difficult time. Not only emotionally, because I thought the person was a very good friend of mine, but also operationally difficult. It was a very scary time.”
But all the people at the company, along with friends and family, helped the Floridan get through the challenging period. “We also hired Kathy Azuma, who remains a very important person in our operation. She helped us develop systems and processes to ensure that would never happen again,” he says. “And it has been really good ever since.”
Bob also recognised Ben Farnborough, chief operating officer, as an important addition to the leadership team. “Ben has really helped Denison hit a stride and is responsible for a lot of the great things that happen here.”
Pictured is Project Metaverse, a collaboration between Greg C Marshall Design and Delta Marine Shipyard. Offered by Alex Clarke at Denison Yachting for $95m.
Business has been good over the past 12 months too. At the start of last year, Denison Yachting was acquired by Atlanta-based yachting conglomerate One Water. The firm owns Roscioli Shipyard, one of the biggest shipyards in Fort Lauderdale.
“The great benefit of an acquisition like this is the ability to share ideas and get better and stronger by being around really smart people,” says Denison.
Looking at the challenges ahead, Denison says that the industry needs to improve on making clients as happy when they are off the yacht, as when they are on the yacht. There has been an upward spike in superyacht ownership and charters since the Covid pandemic and there needs to be a focus on client retention, rather than seeking more clients, he says.
In terms of what’s next, Denison also says there will be an increased interest in catamarans and smaller superyachts in the future. “The catamaran market is going to explode. I really believe that in the next 10 to 20 years, that market is going to dominate the smaller superyacht segment,” he says.
Automation on yachts will play a big feature too. “It will help the service side of things and improve client experience. Maybe even replace some crew positions too, but I’m not saying there are going to be robots wearing white shorts and tight t-shirts on board,” he laughs.
Despite being heartbroken when his grandfather sold the shipyard he dreamed of developing, Denison used his knowledge gained from a lifetime on the water and his yachting DNA to build a world-recognised yacht brokerage. “And it was probably for the best because I would have been really bad at building boats,” he says.
“I couldn’t imagine how awful I would be at that part of the industry. So, I’m glad things turned out like this.”