We talk to Robert Quinn of Schionning Design about how their company is navigating Covid-19, their most popular models, and the future of catamaran design. We discuss the Arrow series, G Force, and Waterline / Wilderness designs. Robert tells us why their Arrow series is their most popular and why the Arrow 1200 is the most popular model. He talks about their most common build locations in Australia, Thailand, and South Africa, and their growth plans for the USA market. A big thank you to Robert and Schionning Design for participating in our series of interviews with catamaran designers, builders, and owners.
To find out more information or to purchase design plans or a build kit, please visit the Schionning Design website.
Tell us about yourself and how you got involved with Schionning Designs?
Schionning Designs is a family business started by Jeff Schionning, and I’m actually one of the few non-family members. I’m a mechanical engineer and designer by heart. I have an international design award to my name which is lucky enough.
I was born in South Africa but also lived in Australia, and that’s where I met Jeff and Lorriane. I’d worked with Robertson and Caine for Leopard catamarans for a couple years, and then we decided to leave for Sydney.
Then in 2012 I got to know Jeff and Lorraine. And while we didn’t kick things off as a joint venture while I was still there, when I moved back to Cape Town, South Africa, they were very keen to start that office and get things going on this side.
Both of them were born in South Africa, so they have that tie and that’s what led to opening this office.
Tell us a little bit of about your production and how many Schionnings are built each year?
So our business is quite different from I suppose the regular. We pride ourselves in allowing people to build boats themselves, so our largest portfolio was owner-builders. Professional building is becoming more and more of a thing these days, and maybe that goes in ebbs and flows.
We typically are dealing with clients who build themselves, so it’s not like we’re running a factory that consistently pushes out X amount of boats. It fluctuates. We have good years. We have bad years.
I would suppose for the last decade, we would have averaged about six a year. Not huge numbers but we are a boutique brand, and we’re ticking different boxes. In the 31 year history, we’ve probably done between 400 and 600.
It’s a difficult number to know. We did business differently a few decades ago, and we sold a lot of plans and to build ideas to people. But we have no idea or kept track of whether they’re actually executed or not.
Some clients get in touch with us afterwards and give us the launch photos or the welcome or some sort of feedback and some don’t. They prefer to stay silent.
That’s the window of of our portfolio.
How involved are you in the build process generally?
We have our professional builders, and they’re usually self-sufficient. When this is a new design, we get more involved with them, and obviously each builder usually has different strengths. So they contact us for different interpretations of the plans and the guidance. Sometimes it’s a roll-out period as well particularly if it’s a custom build because all the variables aren’t dialed out in the beginning, so we’re finessing as the client goes along making his / her choices. We’re always present. We’re always there to be contacted, but it’s not a day-to-day basis.
Then for the owner builders. Well we have had a few repeat clients but for the first timers they start with a big learning curve. They have a lot of questions, so there’s phone calls. I really enjoy that part of the business dealing with the clients and guiding them through that. We all can learn from each other, and sometimes comments are made where it gets very interesting.
I suppose in the last 10 years, I’ve got to know a lot of clients and been intimate with a lot of their builds. Once they go through the first 30 processes, they then become more self-sufficient on like a rinse and repeat kind of recipe. Then we may not hear from them again.
Is there a yard that you find your clients using more often than not and if so where’s that located?
Historically we’ve had our biggest market share in Australia where the company actually started. That was up to 80% of our business, and so Noosa Marine was a very popular build location. They’re on the eastern coast just north of Brisbane.
I suppose over the years we’ve also started working with more international yards. We have a strong yard in Thailand that is producing multiples of our boats. These are all professional builders obviously, so they’re doing the repeats. And then in South Africa as well we have a builder that’s been going for 10 or 11 years. There are other builders in Europe and in America. In South America as well one or two have been built in the past.
But the three would be our most popular (Australia, Thailand and South Africa).
So Covid has affected every business in some sort of way. Tell us about how it’s affected yours?
Logistically it’s been very difficult especially with shipping building materials. We’re a kit based company where we’re producing cutting those files up those materials for clients and then sending them to them and we were offering more and more as we go.
So waiting for raw materials to come in processing them and shipping them out and then dealing with the shipping companies has been a difficult one. Depending on whether they’re allowed to enter the country or not.
But then also when lockdown happened and kids weren’t able to go to school, it kind of halved our time if you will. Because while one parent would be watching the children, you could get some work done and then you switch. So we actually probably doubled our inquiries and business really. So very thankful for that but when you’ve halved your time and doubled your schedule. It becomes very difficult to manage
But like I said a good problem to have and the used boat market went crazy, so we were contacted a lot by used buyers interested in the used boat. But there’s also been the new boat market as well which has been good for us.
Don’t exactly know why, but I think people are seeing them as escape pods.
That has been a common theme that we’ve been hearing. Catamaran business on the rise during Covid.
What is the most popular series that you have right now? Is it the Arrow series?
That’s correct. The Arrow is our newest to the portfolio, and the Arrow 1360 is the most popular by inquiry, but the Arrow 1200 is actually what is the most common to be built.
And it’s no surprise. It’s the more affordable, smaller model in the range, but the speed at which you can build the Arrow versus the others makes it very attractive.
What’s the difference in the the speed to build from the others?
So the Arrow is a purely flat panel construction versus the G-Force and the Solitaire. Then that’s just on the sailing side. There’s power designs as well.
When you have larger cut panels that just bend into shape, it’s a lot quicker than doing several strips into a curvature shape from a construction and from a fairing point of view. So it can save you up to three months just on the construction between the different designs.
Were you involved in the Waterline 1480 design and if so what can you tell us about that design?
I wasn’t involved there. That was before my time. It was very very popular, and we did have to retire that model and some of the older ones as well.
It’s a difficult decision to make, but those were all hand-drawn designs, and we’re now into a modern era of computer-aided design and CNC cutting and all those things. At one point in time, we just had to draw the line and discontinue those sadly.
The Waterline 1480 was a wonderful design because it’s a great live aboard size. It ticked many boxes, and it was quite different to what was out there in terms of being able to build it yourself versus performance and versus features.
How long ago did you have to make that transition and retire it?
It was about four years, maybe five years ago. There are still some people building them, so we continue to help them out and guide them through it.
It just became increasingly more difficult because it’s not all documented in a digital format so with us becoming more of an international business it’s harder to support people from overseas when on that platform.
What’s your biggest challenge in getting people to buy a build plan or kit?
I suppose it’s different for every single client. Location has an influence on that, finding a builder that is close to them. Sometimes clients are very happy to build overseas; sometimes not, and that could be the difference of whether they can afford it or not.
But then there’s also I suppose cash flow issues.
There’s importing issues as well like for example Brazil is always a challenging one because they have such high duty and paperwork for bringing those materials in.
Then some people it’s space. They really want to build it themselves unlike a lot of USA clients, and I suppose location to the shore because they may have acreage on a farm which is a wonderful place to build, but then they deal with the challenge of shipping this big structure down to the ocean.
So everyone’s got their difficulties and sometimes it’s more about their preparation and their plans, so it could be 18 months turn around before a client goes ahead and in that time other variables came in. Like having to renovate the house, so the boat budget moves on. But at least they are now understanding their constraints.
For most of our clients those that have that itch to build their own boat it never really leaves, so we’ll see them down the road.
Tell us a little bit more about your clients. Is there a typical age nationality? Are they mainly couples or families from your experience? What are you seeing?
Typically those that are aged between 40 and 70. Every now and then a young gun comes along. We do get a lot of families interested, but I think that when you’ve got young kids they sort of get in the way from you actually building your project and there’s different priorities.
I suppose our most common client is that person which has owned a few boats before. It’s rare that we get a first time sailor contacting us that they want to build their boat. So those that have gone through that experience of learning what they want onboard. How they sail. Do they like speed? Do they not like speed? When they’ve got that all dialed in, they’re normally contacting us with their request to build.
The Lagoons and Leopards are very popular – nicknamed the condomarans. They’re presenting such a wonderful lifestyle upfront. Our buyers are just looking for a bit more performance, a bit more ability. People eventually work out what they need and what they don’t need and come to some more performance design with less on board.
That makes sense. First-time sailors might buy a Leopard or Lagoon, and then over time evolve to one of your designs.
What do you think is the most important design consideration when building a catamaran?
That’s an interesting question and I suppose I could sum it up by saying “peace of mind” which might be strange, but I think that your comfort, your safety, your performance, and your confidence all tie into peace of mind.
So when we’re designing a boat or it’s being built we’re producing the materials for it, we want to take all those different dynamics into consideration. But at the end of the day if the client has peace of mind and that can be in many forms, it’s going to bring confidence. You’re gonna have peace of mind because you’ve got the safety.
You may not be into performance necessarily, and you don’t need to be sailing faster than what you’re comfortable with, but if you have very little wind and you need to keep moving then you do have the performance.
Or if you need to outrun a storm, and it’s better to outrun the storm then go through the storm, then you have that performance in hand.
And for catamarans it’s a recipe of reefing really at the right time rather than having too much sail area up which can cause some problems. So yeah I’m going to sum that up as “peace of mind” is the most important for us as designers, but also for our clients who are sailing and with a lot of them going through the experience of having their boat built for them.
Be there whatever involvement they have from the whole project or just visits to the professional yard they get that intimacy with their boat. So they understand what’s gone into it. They know how it was put together.
So when you’re out there on your own something fails or is causing concern you know where to look. You know how to problem solve it, and that again is peace of mind.
Where do you see the future of Schionning Design going? Give us some insight into the next 10 years?
We’d like stronger sales in the USA and we don’t exactly know how to solve that problem as yet. There’s a bit of a fear with Americans sending money abroad and maybe that’s a cultural thing. I did spend several years studying in the states, so I do have a feel for for the culture there.
So we would like to get some manufacturer on the state side, so that building feels a bit closer to home – a little bit more organic for them. We do have a couple builds happening. And we’re doing agent negotiations in several parts, so that Americans can talk to Americans. So we’re trying to focus on that and see how that plays out.
We’re also trying to get more into supplying OEM deals and manufacturing more finished products for clients. And that’s something we’ve introduced for the last few years where instead of this daunting project of starting from absolute scratch to finish our OEM deals can help take some of the variables out of play where they can obviously price check it and choose it or or not. At least they’ve got to price the whole project and at least that can come up all up front, and they can get close to working out what this is going to cost time-wise budget-wise. If we can manufacture components for them, it just makes the whole thing easier to bite off.
Great. We wish you the best luck. We would love to see more of your boat designs in America. As we wrap up today’s discussion, how can people learn more about your designs and and purchase a build kit if they would like?
The website is an immediately easy place to go to: www.SchionningDesign.com. We’ve just redone the website and we hope it’s appealing including updated pictures and great links to certain things.
We’ve got strong content on Facebook and Pinterest, and then there’s builder blogs as well.
I think if you just type in “Schionning Designs” into Google a lot will come up.