In 2000, when Jono Morris and Mark Evans took over the reins of Australia’s premier boat builder, McConaghy, uppermost in their minds was growing the business to its full potential. Fourteen years on, it has exceeded their expectations.
Established in 1967, John ‘Macca’ McConaghy expanded from building 12, 16 and 18 foot skiffs and other small boats to building boats spanning America’s Cups, Whitbread/Volvo Ocean Race and famous ocean racing yachts for prominent owners around the world, necessitating a move to Mona Vale in 1989, where the business remains today.
It was an all-win situation when McConaghy employed Jono Morris and Mark Evans in the latter years, so when Macca felt ready to call it a day, the pair was ready-made to take over the business.
“Macca remains interested in the business though, and likes to see how it’s developing,” Morris says of McConaghy.
Talented and ambitious, Morris and Evans have been running the business for more than 15 years now, first as key employees and then as owners. The co-managing directors have been able to maintain the tricky balancing act of remaining financially conservative while diversifying and expanding noticeably over the last 14 years.
It has been possible because the two’s diverse backgrounds are the perfect recipe for a successful business. Morris is an architect who has sailed on and built impressive yachts from Australia and overseas, while dinghy sailor Evans’ business acumen and instinct for enterprise are an addition to the boat building apprenticeship he completed before heading overseas to work.
Their latest venture involves new investor, Graham Porter, who now has a 50 percent shareholding in McConaghy.
“His expertise is in management of companies in the commercial marine sector. He’s invested a lot of money in McConaghy with the intention of moving our Chinese operation in Zhuhai (near Hong Kong) to a new state-of-the-art factory nearby and setting it up with the latest technology and milling machines,” Morris explains.
“His input will enable us to efficiently build everything from hydrofoiling Moths, cutting edge grand prix racing yachts, to superyachts and commercial vessels on a large scale.
“Graham’s structured businesses own around 160 commercial vessels, some of which are the most efficient container ships in the world – and that’s why he’s got involved.
“He wanted to partner with us to see where we could apply composites to commercial shipping and container vessels. He also sees a great future in building new fuel efficient composite ferries.”
Canadian born Porter is a director of Seaspan International Ltd., one of the world’s leading independent containership owners. He is also chairman of Tiger Group, a shipping ventures investment firm based in Hong Kong.
Morris says of their new partnership: “It’s a very exciting time for us; Graham has a real passion and interest in what we do. There’s no doubt that composite materials are the way of the future in a range of different industries, and with Graham’s funding and expertise behind us, the possibilities are limitless.”
Morris and Evans have also recently opened a design office in New Zealand, run by eight past-employees of Fitzroy Yachts, the second largest superyacht builder in New Zealand until its doors were closed this year.
Morris says: “We’re not in competition with boat designers; we’ll do intricate hydraulics, electrical, plumbing and interior fit-outs. We now have the expertise to design and install all those complicated systems in-house. It’s something that’s been in the pipeline for a while and enhances what we already do.”
The pair also contributed to a history making Australian International Design Award™ in 2012, attended by Hollywood writer/director James Cameron.
McConaghy was responsible for 95 percent of the composite fabrication of the Australian designed and made Deepsea Challenger submersible. In it, Cameron completed a record-breaking 11km dive to the bottom of the Marina Trench, which had never before been explored by a single individual.
McConaghy’s world-leading ability to bond composite material to withstand incredible pressures in the deepest part of the sea earned it the accolade and confirmed the company’s status as the world leader in composite technology.
However, opening an operation in China was the basis for Morris and Evans’ most significant expansion. The confidence to do so developed from building a string of successful yachts, starting with Shockwave, a successful 78 foot yacht for Neville Crichton before they took over McConaghy.
“I project managed it and Mark built it. We had successfully worked together in the same complementary roles for some time, building the Farr 40’s and some racer cruisers. We built 14 boats together under Macca in those roles, but Shockwave was our lead in to when we bought the business,” Morris clarifies.
The first big boats built under their own steam were the sistership Reichel/Pugh 72’s, Chance and Pegasus. Chance ended up in Europe and became Enigma under second owner, Charles Dunstone, who won the Fastnet and other European regattas. Pegasus had great success for Philippe Kahn and then in Europe where she sailed as Black Dragon.
After that there were two water ballasted Reichel/Pugh maxi yachts; the 86ft Zephyrus and 90ft Alfa Romeo. Next came the canting keel 86ft Morning Glory and Genuine Risk, a 90ft Dubois design, and the 60ft Wild Oats X for the Oatley family.
The immediate success of these yachts led Neville Crichton to commission the next generation Reichel/Pugh 30 metre Alfa Romeo 2. Bob Oatley’s Wild Oats XI (pictured) followed soon after. All of these yachts have their names engraved on trophies, some hold race records.
“Mark and I started the business in China in 2006 and Geoff Ross’s Yendys was our first build. Mark moved to China with his family after we built Wild Oats XI in Sydney,” Morris says.
The catalyst for China, Morris says, “Was not long after we bought the business, we became acutely aware of escalating costs in Australia.”
“We had an opportunity to look at an operation in China, and were amazed at what they could achieve; the skill, the work ethic and the lower costs. So we did our homework and it was the logical choice.”
Things did not pan out as initially expected. “It was a joint venture with a Chinese partner; we were going to provide our expertise and our partner was going to provide the facilities and staff. Mark and a couple of ex-pats we were going to teach the Chinese how to build boats and Mark would then return to Sydney after two years.”
Evans arrived to find the Chinese joint venture was nothing but an empty shed, so he had to start from scratch, employing staff and buying all the necessary materials and tools. So it has turned to a long term project.
“We had to make it work. Relationships with the Chinese joint partner ended two years in, so now it’s solely a McConaghy concern which Mark runs with a mix of Aussie, Kiwi, English and Chinese employees.
The two have had to invest a lot. “But it’s given us a lot of opportunities we would never have had otherwise, such as building Adastra, the 140ft trimaran, owned by Hong Kong’s Anton Mardon.
“We were lucky to make the move when we did, there are a lot of opportunities there,” Morris confirms of China, where they have also built over 300 Bladerider and 400 Mach 2 Moths, along with the Elliott 7’s for the CYCA’s Youth Academy.
One of their most recent successes, after partnering with Jason Ker to produce the Ker 40 and 46, has been the Ker 46 Patrice. It proved a winner straight off the bat when launched in November for owner Tony Kirby.
McConaghy also joined forces with Botin Partners in 2013 to bring the next generation of grand prix racer, the Botin 40, designed and optimised for HPR, whilst still being competitive under IRC. They have already shown early promise.
“Mark thrives on the energy of working in China – you feel that anything is possible there – the world is your oyster. The Chinese love what we’re doing too; it’s something new and exciting and it’s a career path for them,” says Morris who at pains to point out, “Sydney remains our mainstay though, and always will.
“Since we started the business in China, we have continued to build many of the world’s best racing yachts in Sydney, such as the Farr designed Leopard 3, Reichel/Pugh designed mini maxis and Ian Oatley’s amazing ‘Q’, as well as a Judel/Vrolijk TP52.
“We have always intended to run the two businesses in parallel; we have a great team of highly skilled tradesmen in both locations,” Morris says. “We will be investing in more CNC milling equipment for Sydney as well,” he finishes.
Of their continuing expansion, Morris says: “Mark and I have injected a heap of new energy into the original business over the last 15 years or so, and as a consequence, it has quadrupled in size.
“Since starting in China, we have built over 1000 boats, ranging from Moths and Optimists to superyachts. In Sydney, we have built 60 boats since taking over from Macca.”
On McConaghy’s legacy: “Macca had been at it for a very long time and successfully built the business to where he was comfortable. When the time came, he realised he wanted a change.”
“He built a solid foundation for us, so we’ve been very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to build on what he started. Macca is happy to see the McConaghy name live on in all its glory.”
The company’s MC38 one-design, the invention of Harry Dunning of Newport, Rhode Island, is growing in Australia and overseas, so Morris’ efforts establishing the class at Hamilton Island Race Week last year have paid off.
Four of Australia’s more prominent yachtsmen put in orders for the boat this year. Robin Crawford, overall IMS winner of the 1992 Sydney Hobart with Assassin, was first. Marcus Blackmore, Lang Walker and Neville Crichton, all masters of one-design racing, are awaiting their new boats.
The four will join five Australians already racing, along with three from the USA and one each from Hong Kong, France, Puerto Rico and New Zealand, where the inaugural World Championship will take place from October 31 to November 2.
Morris and Evans had developed their relationship with Dunning when he was key designer at Reichel/Pugh. “Harry was the guy we dealt with on a daily basis,” Morris says. Dunning had worked at Farr beforehand and had a hand in four America’s Cup designs, including designing Mascalzone Latino.
Setting up on his own, before long, North American yachtsmen told Dunning of the need for a new one-design boat. They wanted something faster, requiring less crew and more transportable than the existing one-designs.
Putting the build out to tender, McConaghy came out on top. However, the US owners who commissioned the original design did not go ahead. “It was a cool looking boat with a lot of potential, so we stuck our necks out and made it happen,” Morris says.
“We made a lot of changes in consultation with Harry; we aimed at what we felt the market would be looking for and Harry made the modifications,” says Morris of the yacht that started life as an MC36.
“Showing our belief, we bought the first boat,” Morris says. “Ross Hennessy was next, followed by the international owners who are racing in IRC events. The boat was built for pure one-design, not for IRC, but the various owners are getting better and better results out of their boats in the right conditions,” he adds.
“It’s the biggest single investment Mark and I have made since owning McConaghy’s and the boat has proved a perfect marriage between us and Harry, who also designed the new Red Hand, a beautiful 60ft harbour day racer based at the CYCA. We hope to do more work with him soon” says Morris, whose company has also built thirty-nine 18 foot skiffs since 2001.
“We market the MC38’s in-house. Most of the products we build in China are marketed in-house. Ellen (Pragnell-Raasch) looks after the websites, sales and marketing and supports the whole MC38 thing,” ends Morris, who with Evans was thrilled when the MC38 and Ker 40 were voted winners in Sailing World’s 2013 Boat of the Year Competition.
This story was originally published in the June-July issue of Australian Sailing + Yachting.