In his conceptual drawings clients would easily recognise his vision, his knowledge and expertise and, above all, his passion.

While this highly specialised industry has changed over Warren’s forty-year involvement, his commitment to excellence remains as untarnished as his first day as an enthusiastic sixteen-year-old apprentice.

Curve editor, Belinda Stening, spoke with Dave Warren about his passion for boats of all kinds, starting a business and breaking new ground.

According to Warren it all started from his childhood in England where he spent a lot of time in boats going duck shooting and spear fishing.

“The site where I started my apprenticeship in England is now the Sunseeker (boat building) site,” he recalls.

“I left school when I was fifteen to build boats in England and I came to Australia in the mid 60s. I finished my apprenticeship here in Sydney Harbour in an old boat shed up in North Harbour.”

During that period, Warren mainly built sailing yachts before he got involved in Olympic class vessels like 18 foot skiffs, Flying Dutchmans, and a number of boats for Ben Lexcen.

“I built these up until the early eighties and then I moved into building larger and larger ocean racing yachts; the last one I built in 1986 was Alan Bond’s Apollo 6.”

Soon after Warren was approached to build what was then the world’s largest sailing catamaran.

“We built two of them and got into powerboats in 1986 and I’ve been building them since then.”

Starting up a business of his own was an automatic transition for Warren who had worked for himself since the late 70s and then established Warren Yachts in its current form in 1990.

“During this time we were based at Kincumber on the Central Coast of New South Wales. We built over twenty-five significant motor yachts from this site. They were built for some very well known people including Greg Norman, Lindsay Fox, Rene Rivkin, the Loewys and the Packers.”

In October 2004, Warren Yachts was bought out by the Shipworks Group in Brisbane. According to Warren there were a number of constraints in continuing the growing business at Kincumber.

“The biggest restraint for us at Kincumber was the Kincumber Creek, which was an ongoing battle with state governments and councils. It was our lifeline, the boats were getting larger and larger and we were turning down millions and millions of export dollars because we couldn’t get the boats in or out of the creek.

“We were losing our lifeline – if we couldn’t get the boats in and out we weren’t going to have a business.

“So we are now in the Brisbane River with deepwater frontage, near the ocean with a massive travel lift. Launching boats here is all over while you are having morning tea!”

Warren has not only survived significant changes within the industry and among his clientele but also managed to thrive. Much of his success is due to his hands-on approach and personal involvement in everything from design to construction.

“I would not call myself a boat designer in any official sense. But I suppose I am in that I do come up with a lot of concepts and ideas and I do lots of sketching. Sometimes I do mock-ups.

“The big difference between now and then (going back to the 90s) was that every boat I built was custom built. I would meet with a client and get them sufficiently enthused about what I could do for them and then sketch my ideas on scraps of paper in the meeting. 

“In some cases clients were wanting to spend in excess of $20 million on a boat, and it was remarkable how a sketch in a notepad could give them the ideas and design that they wanted.

“That’s how the business grew and of course reputation is what really counts. That’s what really carries you through to your next job.

“I exported a few boats, but most of them stayed in Sydney. Many of my clients knew each other.”

Warren acknowledges the unique attributes required to be successful in the boat building industry and believes in the importance of an ongoing relationship long after a brief is signed or a sale is made.

“From concept to warranty periods your clients are in your life for at least three years. In our game it is a specialised industry. Designers in particular have to be reasonable business people and instil confidence in an owner. You have to have a good reputation.

“No doubt reputation speaks for itself. We have met and worked for a lot of well-known people, and any of them would say good things about us.”

As with any industry, computers and globalisation and instant gratification have changed the way Warren and his team do things today.

“The world is changing and people don’t want to wait two or three years for their boat. So the investor now (in our case, Shipworks) has the funds to invest in products. You can let your head go and develop things without being constrained by an owner. You are designing more for a market.

“Design isn’t my full time occupation. We employ designers and I feed them with ideas and concepts. 

“We are now at seventy-five staff and growing. We kept about fifteen of the original team and some of them have worked with me for more than fifteen years. It’s quite different for them, but they get a buzz out of what they are doing.

“There is still a need for artistry and design, but computers are used a lot now in the detailing and manufacture. You still need the ideas people.”

Australia’s location and limited resources has always provided a challenge for Warren and his work.

“Working in Australia, with fairly limited resources, you can feel like you are working in a vacuum. I guess you don’t realise what you have created until you look back. For instance, I developed my own surface drive propellor system (to increase speed) out of frustration with sourcing what I required.

“I spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears – and money – doing it. I wouldn’t do that now. Nonetheless it worked.”

Warren says observers at the time shook their heads and asked, ‘How did you build that?’

“You don’t really think about it because you are so engrossed and obsessed with what you are doing on a shoestring budget.

“We have developed our own electric doors and roofs. These features are quite advanced compared to our competition. We often get our competitors spying on us at trade shows trying to work out how we do things. But it’s driven by need. It’s sink or swim.”

The current export push for the Warren team is to the United States, but the company’s boats can be found around the globe including South East Asia, Bahrain and Europe.

“The US is a green field to us, and our new owners are American. Our new boat was recently launched at Miami. We have three other vessels that are almost identical on the go in the yard in Brisbane. We really have to do this to compete. When people want to purchase a boat they don’t want to wait years for it anymore.

“Some boat builders around the world are now building boats worth $50 million on ‘spec’, to cope with the demand. 

“Our current boat is like the 911Porsche developed over many years. It’s a good feeling to be able to send our current boat anywhere in the world and know it will perform perfectly, thanks to our attention to detail and experience.

“You get so involved with every boat you create that when you look back, you think ‘that was pretty good’, but most of the time you are just getting on with it.”  

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