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ISA Comes to America

Two old friends join to establish a beachhead on US shores for the Italian builder.

Two old friends join to establish a beachhead on US shores for the Italian builder.

Photos Paolo Zitti

Ed Sacks and Marcello Maggi

Ed Sacks and Marcello Maggi

Ed Sacks, a trim, distinguished gentleman of a certain age with a tidy white beard and a twinkle in his eyes that transcends his laugh lines, is a raconteur with a host of good stories to tell. Italian yachtbuilder Marcello Maggi, with expressive eyebrows and an untamed mane of more pepper than salt, is a lanky, debonair Italian who speaks enthusiastically and gesticulates when making a point. The pair seems like a trans-Atlantic version of the “Odd Couple.” In fact, they are longtime friends who have shared some significant personal and professional history. Their paths have converged again; Sacks is helping Maggi create a U.S. presence for International Shipyards Ancona (ISA)—a move the pair hopes will make it easier for the Italian builder to better service its existing American clients and prospect for new ones.

Sacks is the consummate American businessman and yachtsman. He is a Renaissance man who has had an active career ranging from finance and hedge funds to a multinational Fortune 500 company that produced fibers, resins and plastics. He has an equally lively home life. In his family mix he counts 13 sons and daughters and 21 grandchildren. Sacks’ first venture into yachting was when he bought Wayne Huizenga’s Sun Dream as a starter boat to cruise in the Bahamas, while simultaneously building a new 157-foot (47.8-meter) yacht at the CRN shipyard in Ancona, Italy. The yacht, Azzurra, was designed by the late Gerhard Gilgenast with a classic interior by Paola Smith. At the time of the build, Sacks sent three of his sons to Ancona to work in the shipyard for the summer, and he made numerous trips there until the yacht was launched in 1988. His boys were residing in the nearby village of Numana with his project manager, Michael Philpot, at a villa that happened to have a small basketball court.

A young Marcello Maggi, who hailed from the village and worked at CRN, would come over to shoot hoops with Sacks’ sons, and thus the family friendship began.

In the yachting world, Sacks is most celebrated for having started The Sacks Group in 1985. For historical perspective, Sacks launches into a story of an encounter he had with a friend, the late Charles Evans—a movie producer and founder of Evan-Picone—who, along with Huey Long, owned the famous maxi racing sailboat Ondine VIII. Evans was walking down the docks at the Hall of Fame Marina in Fort Lauderdale and saw Sacks’ boat parked next to his. Sacks’ yacht was clean, the crew was all wearing the same uniforms and everything was ship shape, whereas on his boat, the crew was wearing T-shirts, the lines were all helter-skelter and the yacht was in general disarray. He quipped to Sacks about the discrepancy in their yachts’ appearances.

“I told Evans, ‘I’ll send my guys over to help you get your boat in order,’” Sacks says.

Sacks claims that moment was one of the early formalizations of professional yacht management. The Sacks Group not only dealt with yacht management, but also crew and charter management.

“Almost everyone who stumbled upon SE 17th Street from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties was eventually employed at TSG,” he says. “Bob Saxon, Terry Hines, Richard and Carole Manto, John Ciullo, Jennifer Saia, David Darwent, Bertrand Petton, Jim Sacks and others.”

At its peak, TSG employed more than 20 people. Among other innovations, Sacks says, “We employed three young ladies whose sole function was to read The Wall Street Journal, Forbes and Fortune and forward information extolling the virtues of chartering to both the CEOs and COOs of the Fortune 500 companies.”

In 1991, Sacks sold Azzurra and moved on to other pursuits. He purchased Julie Andrews’ house in Malibu, California, and as commuting to Fort Lauderdale became untenable, he sold each section of TSG to the division heads for $1 each. He eventually departed California, selling his house to Mohamed al Fayed, owner of Harrods in London, and, after a stint in the Hamptons, moved back east to Jupiter, Florida.

“My yachting career took a back seat to other interests—family, charities, foundations, etc.,” Sacks says.

Maggi studied economics in college, but always had a passion for yachts. He grew up boating with his father, and jumped at the chance to moonlight at CRN cleaning boats. He has a clear memory of looking up at a hulking big hull in the yacht yard shed and marveling at it. The boat was Azzurra.

Maggi worked his way from boat cleaner to the head of the refit department at CRN. In 2001, at 35, he and his colleagues, Gianluca Fenucci, Antonio Longobardi, Daniele Sochi, along with an investor, established International Shipyards Ancona. Then in 2006, ISA became a Yachting Investors Group company, a London-based fund set up to invest in the super-yacht sector.

“We were growing pretty fast and the business needed some industrial planning. We needed some guidance on making the business operate at a higher level, while preserving the skills of the artisans we have here,” Maggi says.

Maggi reminisces about how, when he first started ISA, he had to go to lengths to convince new workers and employees to join them at their new shipyard.

“I would talk to various foremen and got them to agree, but then I had to go home with them for dinner and convince their wives,” he says.

Clearly ISA is a family affair. Maggi says what sets ISA apart is that it is one of the few shipyards where the founders are actively working at the yard on a day-to-day basis. From modest beginnings to the sophisticated powerhouse it is now, ISA and Maggi remain very humble. Maggi recalls an early meeting with one of his first clients, the sheikh of Bahrain. Maggi and Gianluca Fenucci were sitting in their office with the sheikh’s representative, an emir, and designer Terence Disdale. They politely asked if anyone would like a coffee. The emir requested not a coffee, but a cappuccino. In those days, the now ubiquitous automatic Italian espresso machine did not exist at ISA. Fenucci jumped up and said he would bring one right away. He ran down the stairs, jumped on his scooter dressed in his coat and tie, and dashed to a café to get some steamed milk. He was on his way back with his thermos in his hand when a truck nearly ran him over. He braked hard, hit a curb, fell off the scooter, tore his jacket, but did not drop the thermos. He ran back to the office, a bit disheveled, and delivered the cappuccino. Maggi laughs and says the scene could have been in a Blues Brothers film.

ISA now can serve cappuccinos, lattes, macchiatos—you name it. Also, in its relatively short 12-year history, ISA has delivered 28 yachts and currently has four under construction. Three of the four are from repeat clients. The yard builds yachts both in fiberglass and steel in the 98- to 230-foot (30- to 70-meter) range, but is developing new lines and has an eye toward expansion to have the capability to build yachts even up to 328 feet (100 meters).

“We are among the youngest shipyards,” he says, “but we are competing among the most honorable legacy builders.”

Sacks pipes in: “When I went to the yard last month, I was incredibly impressed with the technological innovations, efficiency, emphasis on safety and significant advances in the construction process. ISA has, in its brief history, become a world-class shipyard.”

Under the new arrangement, Sacks, who carries the title of President, North American Operations, will increase ISA’s visibility in the United States by working with the brokerage community and facilitating ease of communication with the ISA shipyard.

“I am not a broker,” he notes emphatically. “My objective is not to sell boats, but to assist the established brokers with their efforts in selling ISA construction.”

The new ISA Fort Lauderdale office is in Portside Center on the 17th Street Causeway, in the company of a veritable who’s-who in yachting. Perhaps someone should install a basketball court in the parking lot. You never know who is going to show up and what may come of it.

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