Bali’s Olivier Poncin: Catman
Since launching Bali Catamarans in 2014, Catana Group CEO Olivier Poncin has shaken up the world of cruising catamarans, building a brand that’s challenging the long-established leaders.
What was your background in the industry before you created Bali Catamarans?
I’ve always been passionate about sailing boats. When I was young, all my holidays were spent on the water. A few years after completing my studies, in 1983, I had the opportunity with some friends to take over the Kirie shipyard in Les Sables d’Olonne, a magnificent port in the Vendée region on France’s west coast that became famous thanks to the Vendée Globe race.
Five years later, I bought the Dufour shipyard in La Rochelle, which I redeveloped, notably by creating the Nautitech range of catamarans. The turnover of the Dufour group increased by a factor of 50 in the space of 13 years, making it a major player in the market. Poncin Yachts Group was born in 1988 and five years later we took over the Catana shipyard in Canet-en-Roussillon in the south of France.
Specialising in high-performance catamarans for blue water cruising, it was the undisputed leader in its niche, but had been in difficulty for several years. In 2013, I took the decision to create the Bali brand to have a new range built to appeal to a wider market. In 2014, we renamed Poncin Yachts Group as Catana Group.
Considering the cruising sailing catamaran market was well served by established builders like Lagoon, Fountaine Pajot, Leopard and Sunreef, why did you think there was ‘space’ in the market when you set up Bali?
Unlike the niche market in which Catana had evolved for 30 years, between its creation date in 1984 and 2014, the consumer cruising catamaran market is 10 times larger, now producing around 1,500 units per year.
With Catana being renowned all over the world, and with it being born at a similar time as Lagoon and Fountaine Pajot, I always thought we could add a second brand if we showed innovation and differentiation in relation to the existing boats on this market. My experience, after more than 7,500 leisure boats built, has certainly confirmed this conviction.
What kind of sales were you expecting and have you been surprised by Bali’s success since launching the 4.5 and 4.3 sailing cats in 2014?
We set ourselves the objective of conquering a 10 per cent market share and we achieved that in five years. Today, our ambition for the next three years is to reach the 20 per cent threshold, so selling at least 300 units per year.
Which models were most important in establishing the brand’s presence?
To build an international sales network, you need to create a range, hence the fact that today there are seven Bali sailing models and soon there will be three motor yacht models. We are fortunate that all our models have sold well, but obviously it’s the boats under 45ft that sell the most. We’ve sold 360 Bali 4.1s and 4.3s. Their successor, the Bali 4.2, which in my opinion is even more attractive, is arriving on the market this spring.
Can you tell us about Bali’s signature designs such as the tilt-and-turn ‘garage’ door?
Xavier Faÿ, Bali’s architect, and I knew we had to be different to succeed against established competitors, so from the second Bali model, the 4.3, we created the Open Space concept, which brings together the saloon and cockpit in a single volume. What a pleasure to enjoy such a large and friendly living space!
A little later, our team was joined by a second naval architect, Samer Lasta, who brought us a lot in terms of design. With these two talents and a very experienced design office, we are equipped to meet the challenges ahead.
Why did you choose to build with a solid foredeck when other catamaran builders chose not to?
Xavier convinced me of the architectural interest of the full foredeck. It’s a great idea, as it provides safer sailing and a living area that’s bigger than anything previously seen. Today, Bali models offer up to 20 per cent more living space than competitors of the same size, which is one of our great assets.
What other features do you think Bali is known for?
A series of points have helped to differentiate Balis from other catamarans. As well as the tilt-and-turn door and solid foredeck, there are quite a few others such as the aft platform and sliding windows. Strangely enough, one of the greatest qualities of Bali models is not well known. I attach a lot of importance to the fact that Balis are very seaworthy catamarans and fast, too.
It was obvious to me that their relationship with Catana required that they be more efficient under sail than their direct competitors. To achieve this, we use the same construction materials as for Catana, which makes them lighter and much stiffer.
We use fine-entry bows, ensuring a better glide through the water, with a chine above the waterline that provides the volume required inside to give the comfort expected by Bali owners. We also use sail plans generous enough to suit their displacement. My satisfaction comes from the feedback from yachtsmen who are very often surprised by the performance of our Balis. And I know that, over time, this quality will be recognised by the market.
Can you talk about why you decided to move into powercats with the 4.3 MY and now the Bali Catspace MY?
Catamarans offer yachtsmen a unique art de vivre (lifestyle). On acatamaran, you aren’t crowded together. On the contrary, their widerectangular platforms provide incredible space. This is why manyyachtsmen are giving up on sailing monohulls and traditional motor boats.
However, a good number of sailing catamaran owners use their sails infrequently. As such, many realise they’re better off with a catamaran without sails, which will go up to three times faster than a sailing catamaran and with reasonable fuel consumption because catamarans need less engine power due to their two hulls. I am convinced this sector of catamarans has a promising future.
Moreover, in the next 15 months, we will be developing a third Bali MY, fully Open Space and larger than the two existing models.
What kind of response has Bali had in Asia and what can we expect in the coming years with your growing network of dealers?
Over the last 10 years or so, the Asian yachting market has begun to catch up. Bali is contributing to this with several agents based in Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan. Our intention is to intensify our network to best meet the specific expectations of this growing market.
What led to your decision to hold a physical boat show, Les Rendez-vous Bali, in Canet-en-Roussillon last July?
The Covid-19 pandemic bruised our economies, restricted our freedom of movement and prohibited gatherings, so for more than a year now, almost every boat show has been cancelled. Typically, boatbuilders used to make a large proportion of their sales during these events.
We therefore had to find other means to meet our prospects, hence the regular organisation of these open days at our yard in Canet and through our agents around the world. We invite prospects interested in our boats and organise sea trials with them, so we have more time to understand and meet their expectations.
How much has the company’s overall business been affected by Covid?
In 2020, we closed our four production plants for 10 weeks and had to work with a reduced number of staff for several more weeks purely for health reasons. As a result, we reduced our annual production capacity by 25 per cent, representing 55 units.
How has Covid changed the company’s way of working and communicating with customers?
Like many companies around the world, we’ve had to adapt to movement restrictions and reinvent the way we communicate with teams at other production sites, our networks, agents, customers and suppliers. Videoconferencing meetings have become the norm. I think this pandemic is marking a turning point in terms of corporate communication.
So far, your biggest boat is the 5.4 that debuted in 2018. Many of your competitors are building much bigger now, so do you have plans to build larger models?
We have started to work on this subject. Our objective is to provide a very innovative response to the expectations of boaters within two years.
How do you expect 2021 to be different to 2020?
Industrialised countries have understood that the pandemic should not block their economies, which would have much more serious consequences than just the public health effects. Most governments are therefore urging companies to stay in business, subject to common-sense barrier gestures.
Catana Group hopes that in 2021 we will not be forced to close our production sites again, allowing us to produce 25 per cent more catamarans than last year, which we will have no difficulty in selling thanks to strong demand from private individuals and despite a sluggish market among professional charter companies. This situation should enable us to significantly exceed the €100 million (about US$120 million) threshold and consolidate our profitability.
One of three Bali sailing catamarans introduced in 2020, the 40ft Catspace features brand signatures like the retractable cockpit door and solid foredeck, plus a fun flybridge and up to 10 berths. By Richard Martin.