For centuries the Dutch port town of Harlingen was the location of a lively fishing industry and a thriving local ship building trade.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, the town harboured the Netherland’s Frisian Admiralty, the naval force that defended the country’s trade and security interests in North Sea.
But in the 2000s the character of the town changed as the ship building put itself at the mercy of a new kind of clientele: super-rich oligarchs.
For the first time, mega rich Russians keen to demonstrate their wealth flocked in to commission the construction of super-yachts – far larger and more high-spec than the kind of boats the port town had previously built.
Large numbers of jobs were created and the economy was boosted. But the town’s ship builders were also placed at the mercy of their capricious customers and the business cycle to which their customers wealth responded.
A case in point is the Icon Yachts ship yard, established in 2005.
The company has employed the locally-qualified craftsman, most of whom had graduated from the well-regarded NHL Hogeschool, the nearby technical college.
But workers have also had to adapt to the demands of very different product specifications; larger, steel hulls; more powerful thrusters and more experimental designs.
The building of super yachts can be lucrative, and at first Icon Yachts was highly successful.
In 2009, a report by shipping auditor Lloyd’s said “the company in a relatively short time (4 years) has developed a fully grown system”.
The company, which was founded by Canadian businessman Alex Shnaider, was building some of the most expensive boats in the town. The Baton Rouge, for example, completed in 2010, could be chartered at a cost of €455,000 a week. The boat was owned by Martin Bouygues, the 12th richest man in France, and came fitted with a dancefloor, pool and sizeable bar area.
But the luxury boats business is also notoriously unstable.
Soon after the Baton Rouge was finished, the company saw a dramatic fall in demand.
Between 2010 and 2012, it was forced to let go almost half its employees. In 2012, it recorded liabilities of €11 million. And in 2014, after failing to obtain a single new contract during the previous two years, it was forced to file for bankruptcy.
Ship builders like local-Harlingen resident John van Cappellen were forced to turn to other more traditional shipyards for work, where their technical training was less applicable. Others endured a period of unemployment.
Alex Shnaider, on the other hand, along with his local business partner Ton Van Dam, could look further afield to solve their financial problems.
Shnaider’s personal business empire, which included significant investment in the Trump Tower in Toronto, Canada, were not doing well enough for him to bail the business out himself.
But by the end of 2014 the owners had tracked down another young oligarch on the make, Alexander Mazanov, who had made his fortune in the Russian banking sector.
Mazanov purchased the company for €8.5 million and will pay an additional fee for designs, contracts, brands and work in progress.
Under new ownership, Icon’s prospects have significantly improved.
In April 2015, it was commissioned to build an 80 metres long yacht, one of the biggest in its history.
But the recent past has taught Harlingen’s ship builders to save for the future.
This is a town that rises and falls with the fortunes of the worlds’ business elite.