Image: Ruby Law
Vivian Chan looks to be in her element in what she calls the “glamorous side” of the yachting industry, looking every inch the model as she poses for a photo shoot aboard a Sessa F68 Gullwing as founder and Director of VP Yachts, which represents the Italian builder in Hong Kong.
For a couple of weekends before that, she was mingling with representatives of the likes of Ferretti Group, Sunseeker, Benetti, Monte Carlo Yachts and Camper & Nicholsons aboard a Riva 110’ Dolcevita at two events hosted by Voyager Risk Solutions this summer.
VP Yachts has already sold multiple Sessa motor yachts since the company’s appointment in November 2020, but for Vivian, the circles she now finds herself mixing in seem a world away from her ongoing role as General Manager of Sun Hing Shipyard, founded by her father Chan Ki in 1981.
“I never got to go out on these beautiful boats until recently. I typically go on a boat to see what needs to be fixed and the only times I really go out to sea was for sea trials. I’ve seen the hull bottoms more than I’ve seen the interiors,” laughs Vivian, who manages her dual roles from the shipyard’s main site, in Shum Wan on the east side of the Aberdeen Typhoon Shelter.
“After I started working for my dad, people kept wondering, ‘who’s this blonde Chinese woman standing on the pontoon’? When I saw my brother working for Simpson Marine, I saw the glamorous side. I always thought it was a world I wouldn’t reach because I was always on the other side, behind the scenes.”
A family crisis brought Vivian Chan back home
Vivian with her father and brothers William (left) and Eric (right). Image: Ruby Law
Vivian says it was her father’s hope that his children would work in yacht sales, rather than the repair and maintenance field he has specialised in since working at the Supercraft yard in Tsing Yi before founding Sun Hing Shipyard. Despite the family business, Vivian says she rarely spent any time on boats when she was young.
“We didn’t go out boating and I only visited the shipyard a few times when I was young. I didn’t know much about what he did. I knew he liked fixing boats, but he never talked about going on them. I only started going on boats when I started working for him.”
In the early 1990s, the family moved to Canada, initially to Vancouver before settling in Toronto, where Vivian and elder brothers William and Eric went to school. However, unable to find similar work in Canada, her father was back and forth between Toronto and Hong Kong, while both her brothers returned to the city in the early 2000s after graduating from universities in Ontario.
Like Eric, Vivian studied at Ryerson University and gained a BA in Architectural Science. But unlike her brothers, she stayed in Toronto, even after her mother had also moved back to Hong Kong.
It was a family crisis that drew her back to the city to start working at Sun Hing Shipyard in 2011. During a trying time for the family, her uncle decided to start his own business, so the site and staff were split into two, with the shipyards remaining side by side today.
“We literally split the shipyard in half,” says Vivian, whose first job was to put her architectural skills to use by designing the new office and floor plan. “I didn’t know much about boats, but I was just here to support my Dad along with the workers, as many have been with him for a long time.”
Image: Ruby Law
After the split, Vivian worked alongside her dad in the office as Project Coordinator, alongside a team of five service staff including Chan Bong-wah, who still works at Sun Hing and has now been working with Chan Ki for four decades.
It was a surprising new role for Vivian, not only because of her lack of experience in the industry but because her father had always advised his children to work in other fields.
“My dad felt the shipyard business doesn’t make a lot of money, so he never really encouraged my brothers or me to work here. He’d say, you’re better off going to a dealer like Simpson Marine. My dad would prefer his kids to be meeting the owners of boats rather than just fixing the boats.”
To her father’s delight, Eric had joined Simpson Marine in 2010, working as a broker for Asia’s largest yacht dealer for nine years before setting up Deepsea Marine HK.
William, after over a decade working in other fields, also joined the yacht sales industry in 2013, working for Jebsen Marine and Starship Yachts before founding his own brokerage company, Sunshine Yachting, in 2017, with an office at Sun Hing’s original shipyard.
Meanwhile, Vivian had been trying to ensure her father’s business door, as her language skills and overseas education helped her connect with many international dealers and companies.
“A lot of dealers came to us because I can speak English with them. I pretty much turned into a translator for my Dad at the beginning,” she laughs. Vivian remembers attending her first international boat show at the 2014 Hainan Rendez-Vous, having joined the delivery trip of an 80ft-plus motor yacht from Hong Kong. Over the years her experience and exposure increased, including attending the Cannes Yachting Festival in 2017 and 2018.
Furthermore, her responsibility and importance quickly grew, as she became General Manager of Sun Hing Shipyard while her father slowly started to hand over the reins.
Seeking other revenues for the company, she was involved in successful bids to lease shipyard lots in Ap Lei Chau, where Sun Hing has a second site. New services include boat collecting, assembling and commissioning for yacht dealers, all now proving important to VP Yachts.
Image: Ruby Law
Last year, in a further boost for the company, Vivian helped Sun Hing Shipyard become Dufour’s North Asia service centre, an appointment that began a sequence of events leading to her new role representing Sessa.
Kevin Corfa of Dufour Asia remotely introduced Vivian to China-based Brian Zhuang, whose company Omnia Marine represents multiple brands including Dufour and Sessa, the inland Italian yacht builder he bought in 2015. Zhuang mentioned that a new Sessa F68 Gullwing was still in Hong Kong, unable to be imported to China due to Covid restrictions, so asked Vivian for help in selling it.
Last November, she exhibited the 21m flybridge motor yacht at the third HKCYIA-organised Hong Kong Yacht Show, an invitation-only event held for a second year beside the Kai Tak Runway Park. The blue-hulled Sessa flagship proved one of the star attractions among the 17 boats at the show. While representing the boat, she received multiple visitor enquiries as to whether she was the Sessa dealer, so she called Zhuang to ask how she should respond. He quickly confirmed her status as the dealer for Hong Kong.
“I felt this was a good chance to expose the Sessa 68 and it was the show-stopper. Our boat really stole the show,” she says. “I learned so much during those three days. I had been to dealer displays in Hong Kong, so I followed what I’d seen about how to dress and present the boat, uniforms for staff and crew, invitations, catering and so on.”
More importantly, she was also making her first sale, even if she didn’t realise it at the time. Among the visitors on board the Sessa was a family friend, who mentioned he wanted the boat. “I thought he was joking,” she laughs.
However, he followed up after the show to check if the yacht was for sale. “The boat had been in Kwun Tong for nine months, so I thought he wanted to order a new unit, but he didn’t want to wait.”
Now joining her brothers in the world of yacht sales, Vivian created a new company, VP Yachts — named after the initials of her and her daughter — and had to quickly get up to speed with Sessa.
Based at an inland facility outside Bergamo, east of Milan, Sessa builds cruiser and flybridge motor yachts ranging from the new C35 to the F68 Gullwing, a stunning design distinguished by lifting doors on each side of the saloon. It also builds the Key Largo brand range of inboard and outboard cruisers ranging from the 24 to the 40 that premiered at last year’s Genoa International Boat Show.
VP Yachts’ first sale of this year was an F47, one of Sessa’s newer models, with delivery scheduled for the first quarter of 2022, while over the summer Vivian sold a C38 to a first-time boat owner.
A full suite of services from Sun Hing Shipyard and VP Yachts
Image: Ruby Law
In her brief time as a yacht dealer, Vivian has quickly realised the importance of her family’s shipyard, not only in providing service and fast repairs but as a reassurance for potential buyers.
“The buyer of the F47 was recommended to talk to me because we have a shipyard so we can always look after the boat,” she says. “I’m so glad I have a shipyard in this role. It saves a lot of time compared to claiming warranties and waiting for parts or a repair.
“A lot of the time we just fix it straight away and deal with the follow-up later. You want a happy customer, not someone annoyed and having to wait for someone to fix the boat. The longer I’m in this job, the more important I realise my shipyard is.”
Now managing both Sun Hing Shipyard and VP Yachts, Vivian has three other staff in the office and six technicians in the service department, cheekily adding: “My Dad comes in once a month to pick up his paycheque.”
Since Vivian became a dealer, Sun Hing has already been servicing other Sessa boats in Hong Kong, while VP Yachts also offers yacht management and is already providing the service for the owner of the F68 Gullwing. Looking ahead, Vivian is keen to keep growing both companies’ offerings.
“I’m really enjoying VP Yachts because it’s something I started myself. Now, I want to do everything including after-service, yacht management and much more. I think it’s important to know the whole experience of boating and I’m learning something new every day.”
For more Leaders reads, click here.