We talk to Jan-Erik Viitala, Axopar’s founding partner and Creative & Innovation Director, about current trends and his company’s big focus on boating as an enabler for many adventures.
What attracted you to working in the marine industry?
I was born and raised in Vaasa on the west coast of Finland. Even from a very young age, I remember spending lots of family time day trips to local islands by boat. Aged eight, I was crewing on sight-seeing vessels, taking care of ropes, collecting tickets, and serving coffee. My father later built an outboard-powered hardtop boat, and I completed the interior. So, I’ve been around the water since childhood.
My career commenced in the automotive industry, working for one of Finland’s biggest car retailing groups and rising to head the BMW marque within that company. But the sea always had my attention. When the opportunity arose to launch a new boat brand named Paragon, I jumped at the chance. I have now co-founded four boat brands: Paragon in 2008, XO Boats one year later, Axopar in 2014 and BRABUS Marine most recently in 2017.
Tell us about your business?
Axopar titles itself an ‘adventure company’. We were the first boat brand to make a bold decision to promote boating life and what you can do with boats, rather than the product itself. Our passion since the company’s inception has been to get more people to the water and out on it. This approach was natural because we saw many customers utilising our boats for this purpose.
In the beginning, we attracted experienced boaters who had previously owned five, eight or even ten boats. They had grown beyond spending days drinking champagne at anchor and wanted to experience more. Today an Axopar owner doesn’t just use the boat to commute to a bay for a day and then drive back. Lots of our customers carry kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, bikes, hiking and mountain climbing equipment, scuba, snorkelling and spearfishing gear – or other kit for any conceivable activity you can enjoy via water access. This sort of adventurism is now attracting new people to boating too.
The way in which our Axopar 28 and 37 operate makes them particularly suitable for a beginner and easy to handle. They are functional and comfortable but can also be driven quickly between different destinations. We also offer a lot of value for money, which is how we have attracted many new people into boating.
Another thing that marks us out is we work very closely with companies that share our passion for boating as a means of adventure. Partners such as Jobe Watersports, Simrad Yachting and Brabus Marine are among those who mirror our values for emphasising the boating lifestyle and getting people out on the water.
What interesting trends are you seeing in the industry?
There are three trends I would highlight.
The first is we are seeing boaters becoming more and more cost-aware due to rising inflation and fuel prices. The initial purchase price of the boat and running costs such as insurance, storage, and servicing are all considered. This challenge plays to Axopar’s strengths because since day one, we have been pushing to provide one of the best value-for-money products, with one of the best fuel economy performances available. I don’t see that we will be losing people out of boating in general due to cost awareness, but there might be a shift in the market where people rethink their buying decisions and how much money they are willing to spend on a boat.
The second trend is that the global pandemic made the adventure theme even more vital than when we identified it in 2014. There is so much more you can do on a boat than boating itself – the boat is no longer the main activity but an enabler for many adventures. People are now searching for faster, nimble, and more capable craft, not necessarily larger yachts like big, floating palaces. You can choose to be secluded and safe from contact or to head into the harbour where there are people to meet. Axopar today is the equivalent of a 4x4 sprinter van on the ocean, meeting the new trend for agile and functional boats.
The third trend I see, unfortunately, is copycatting of our products. Some other companies are trying to jump onto this adventure theme without understanding what it is all about. It’s not enough to make a roof rack to put a kayak on top of a boat’s hardtop or to place an outboard on the back of a hull optimised for inboard diesel power. The risk for companies trying to move into this adventure genre without being invested in the concept is it can take their eye off the ball and hamper the things in their core businesses at which they are skilled and experienced. We are flattered to be copied and emulated. However, at Axopar, our number one way of pushing for improvement is to compete against ourselves – to create new models with greater efficiency and functionality benchmarked against our past products.
What is the importance of METSTRADE to your business?
We like the idea of having everybody gathered under one roof where our whole team can, over three days, actively schedule and work closely with our primary suppliers – it’s like quick dating! We already know each other and interact virtually, but face-to-face meetings are essential when discussing challenging topics and future development requirements.
Secondly, we want to be aware of all innovations that come out, and METSTRADE conveniently gathers them in one place. Thirdly, the show offers an excellent opportunity to evaluate and even compare similar products against each other to find the best equipment for Axopar’s purposes.
How do you plan a typical METSTRADE visit?
At the start of Axopar, it was only me visiting, and I had three full days of meetings. Today we are the biggest boat manufacturer in Scandinavia and visit METSTRADE with at least 10 people, including designers, engineers, procurement, prototyping and future development team members. Each of those four teams needs to have meetings focused on their different functions, so more coordination is required now. That’s the business we’re in today.
Which METSTRADE areas and activities do you most look forward to?
For me – all of them.
I go into every booth, walkway, and department. I do this even if it’s not my main interest because I want to find inspiration and understand what’s available on the market. This way, you might find unexpected opportunities – a product not functionally suitable for Axopar might become functional with some modifications.
I like the DAME Awards and visit the DAME showcase to view the shortlisted and winning products.
I also love the Boat Builder Awards. It’s great that METSTRADE and IBI appreciate and acknowledge boat manufacturers. We have won many awards that focus just on boats, for the Axopar 22, 28 and 37. It is important, though, to highlight the efforts of boatbuilders themselves who keep pushing the envelope of development and new technologies. I’m so happy that this has become more and more of an industry standard.