MB92’s Ben Mennem – An alternative view
After a career spanning almost half a century, MB92 La Ciotat’s founder and vice-chairman of MB92 Group Ben Mennem (pictured) has seen it all. From sleeping under the stars on a beach in the south of France to starting a refit yard that grew from three employees to more than 170, the refit specialist tells Superyacht Investor (SYI) about his journey and lessons gathered along the way.
“What has kept me going? My fear of failure. That’s always driven me,” Mennem tells SYI. “Growing a company from three people to a few hundred that has had a resounding impact on the local economy in La Ciotat wasn’t easy, but it is something I am immensely proud of.”
But Mennem’s path to building one of the most reputable shipyards in the world began at the bottom of the superyacht pyramid, working on boats along the French Riviera. After a brief stay at a London University (studying accountancy), Mennem bought a VW Camper Van, loaded his motorbike in it and drove to the south of France in search of work.
Mennem spent his first weeks sleeping on the beach and day working on boats before eventually getting a job. After several years based in the Mediterranean, he moved to Fort Lauderdale and enjoyed over half a decade of building and racing sailing yachts, captaining several Americas Cup vessels.
“I’ve raced boats in many parts of the world,” he says. “I was a skipper of a boat called KIALOA III, which was a pretty famous boat in its day.” But news of a 120ft sailboat project called him back to Europe.
The owner of the project was Italian senator and owner of Fiat, Giovanni Agnelli. “He was a huge personality, a great man in a lot of ways. I worked closely with him for about 15 years before he passed. We had an unspoken agreement that I would be with him until the end.” Mennem’s time with the industrialist whetted his appetite for building his own business.
The shipbuilder purchased a dock in La Ciotat for his new business, Compositeworks, with Dutch entrepreneur Mark Salman in 1998.
“We didn’t really make any money, but we had a bit of fun,” he laughs. “But then the euro got very strong compared with other currencies in 2004. With competition for new build contracts being incredibly high, we realised that we had to reinvent ourselves to stay alive.” He decided that the refit market would be an interesting move.
Having originally focussed on sailboats, Mennem and his team eventually graduated towards motor yacht refits as demand increased with the growing fleet. “Then the business escalated by itself. We just re-invested the money that we made, and it became self-perpetuating and were probably lucky. It was a good time.”
By 2017, Compositeworks had grown from a team of three to around 100 people and rival refit specialists MB92 Group acquired a 75% stake in the business. Compositeworks eventually changed its name to MB92 La Ciotat (pictured below) in 2018 following MB92’s acquisition of Blohm+Voss, which shared the shipyard.
With almost five decades of experience in the yachting industry and being at the forefront of the superyacht boom, Mennem tells SYI that there are lessons that we can learn from his past.
The planet was in better shape when he first started. “Clearly the biggest challenge to the industry now is how we go carbon neutral, whether it’s the yacht or the shipyard or the world,” he says.
He adds that the climate emergency is not a new phenomenon either, referring back to reports of the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s. “I have to hold my hand up and say maybe I didn’t do enough about it,” he says. “But we are all much more aware of the damage now, and not enough is being done about it. Everybody has to play their part, and the people who have more resources should be leading the way.”
Yachts were a lot smaller when he first started too. Mennem says that the surge in wealth in the late 1990s was a driving factor in the transition from sailing yachts to larger motor-powered superyachts. “What I never could have expected is the increase in the volume of yachts since then. The size of yachts has grown and grown far beyond anything I saw 25 years ago.”
For the shipbuilding veteran, he says hard work, modesty and good people are ultimately key to running a successful business. “One thing that I always believed in is humility,” he says. “You show what your quality is by what you do. The proof is in the pudding adage.
“Another thing I’ve always believed in is having a team with different nationalities. I think that creates a good atmosphere, offers different perspectives and knowledge of certain techniques, which serves the business well.”
These business practices have obviously paid off, with the refit yard reporting a large proportion of the staff having accumulated at least 15 years of experience with the firm. As Mennem steps down from his role as CEO of MB92 La Ciotat, he passes the torch to Rob Papworth, a close colleague of 20 years and the previous director of operations at the shipyard.
When Mennem began working on yachts as a fresh faced 18-year-old, he says he had no idea that he would get this far. Now at 66, he steps into his role as vice-chairman of MB92 Group with a smile on his face and happy to stay involved with the business he built from the ground up.
“I’m not going anywhere, but I know that every dog has its day,” he says. “At some point, you have to cut the umbilical cord and say, okay guys, it’s your baby. Now you run with it. I believe it is onwards and upwards from here.”