Often used as lifeboats and by the military, RIBs are tough, sea-worthy and flexible. Spotting their business potential, Thomas Rönnberg set up the first Swedish RIB company, and is now preparing to take his boats to the European market.
Thomas Rönnberg has a pretty special relationship with his clients. Rupert Marine’s founder remembers all 200 of them by name, and the day before our interview he’d spoken to one of them, a French businessman, on the telephone for an hour – mostly about boats. Quite often, customers become friends and remain extremely loyal to the brand: throughout the 11 years Rönnberg has been in business, only two customers have sold a Rupert and not bought a new one. Quality, supreme craftsmanship and personal service are his buzz words, making his boats durable, safe, user-friendly and these days even fashionable.
The term RIB stands for “rigid inflatable boat”. A RIB essentially consists of a fibreglass hull, stainless-steel rods and an inflatable rubber tube that makes the boat stable, even in rough seas. Rönnberg first came across RIBs when looking for a boat for himself in the mid-1990s. Sensing a trend, he ordered two of them, and before long, acquired a licence to start selling them in Sweden.
A year later, he was ready to start developing and manufacturing boats under his own brand, Rupert Marine, primarily for professional users. Today, his clientele includes not only the Swedish police, rescue services and military, but many of the country’s affluent business people, architects and artists. “We build leisure boats with the quality of professional boats,” says Rönnberg, who holds streamlined design and ease of use in very high regard.“We don’t like to add a lot of unnecessary equipment. Rupert boats are simple and functional. Our clients use their boats a lot and want a boat they can take out to sea even in rough weather. They want a reliable boat that doesn’t require a great deal of maintenance.”
Rupert Marine builds its boats in a small factory in Åkersberga, just outside Stockholm, with a team of six people. The detailing and assembly are done in Rupert Marine’s workshop, while the bigger steel and plastic parts are ordered from sub-contractors. Around 40 per cent of Rupert Marine’s boats are made for professional use and the rest for private customers. The company’s speciality is custom-building boats to fit specific needs. Police boats might need sleeping cabins, whereas military and rescue boats require room for equipment, such as stretchers. Boats used for navigation training need multiple seats and GPS displays, while for sun worshippers in the Mediterranean, showers and sun loungers are more important.
Most Rupert Marine boats are equipped with two or even three Volvo Penta, Mercury or Suzuki engines, and can reach speeds of up to 60 knots. The smallest boat in the standard range is 5m long and costs around €20,000, while the biggest, a custom-designed 15m-long Rupert, came to around €1m. “We’ve tried making cheaper boats, but it just doesn’t work. Every time we try, we end up making an expensive one anyway, because we don’t want to compromise on quality,” says Rönnberg.
Rupert Marine seems to have no problems attracting customers. Last year, the company’s sales rose from €2m to €3m. Rönnberg is now planning to launch the brand in the European market. The number of employees will increase to 14, and production capacity will grow almost threefold from today’s 30 boats per year. “We’ve already sold some tender boats to mega-yachts in France and Italy, but I’ve been holding back on the European market. We haven’t had the capacity to deliver. Now we’re expanding and in 2009 we’re going to exhibit at the Genoa boat show for the first time.”
After that, the next challenge will be to make its boats greener. Like car companies, boat manufacturers are being made aware of the impact their business has on the environment. “We are in advanced discussions about developing boats that run entirely on alternative fuels,” says Rönnberg.
1961: Born in the town of Vilhelmina in Swedish Lapland
1976: Hitch-hikes 750km to Stockholm and starts working in the car industry
1980: Starts his own business, Sweden’s first reconditioning company for exclusive cars
1989: Starts a fashion company
1994: Becomes fascinated by Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIBs)
1996: Starts Rupert Marine