Deep Sea CEO

With the impending birth of underwater tourism in the region and the increasing desire of global governments to improve their security and self-defence capabilities, now is the optimum time to be in the submarine business. Andrew Mernin downs periscope, opens the ballast tanks and goes underwater with Hervé Jaubert, CEO of submersibles manufacturer Exomos

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By  Andrew Mernin Published  September 10, 2006

|~||~||~|My missions in the French secret service brought me to Arab countries for ten years,” says sea-dog Hervé Jaubert from his nautical headquarters. In one corner, two luminous eels writhe slyly around each other while the rest of the office is a treasure-trove of marine memorabilia with model submarines, mini-pirate ships and even a clock displaying high-tide times. “I have been everywhere in the region from Lebanon, to Morocco, to Libya, so when I came to Dubai I was already familiar with the culture and the people so it was an easy move,” he adds on the reasons behind making the UAE the global centre-point for his business. The Frenchman set up the company, which manufactures military, law enforcement and recreational submarines, in Dubai in 2005 under the vast umbrella of Dubai Ports World. Recently winning a US $120 million (AED 440.7 million) deal with the Indonesian government to provide it with ten military submarines, the company has imminent contracts with a number of unnamed but “interested” GCC governments, according to the Jaubert. With his “conservative prediction” that in ten years he will sell 70 underwater patrol vehicles at US $25 million each to coastguard divisions around the world, the sub business is also targeting the tourist resort market, with a deal with the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi currently in the pipeline. To say that Jaubert is a man of the sea is a huge understatement. Building his first submarine aged 14, he then spent five years at the French naval academy and ten years in the secret service specialising in engineering and reaching the rank of commander. And it is the military experience that Jaubert attributes to his success as a CEO. “The Navy teaches you to be a man,” he says proudly. “The one rule that is very important to me, not just as a Navy officer, but also as a CEO, is that you establish your authority by being competent. This is done not just by simply being the chief, but also by people looking at you as an example and as a lighthouse — you show the direction because you know where to go and how to get there,” he adds. Today Jaubert employs 160 specially trained staff to design, build and test each Exomos model, however he says he now takes a less hands-on approach to his fast-growing underwater empire. “I used to build submarines myself but don’t do it anymore because it’s not efficient — in fact today my people won’t even let me pick up a screwdriver, they take it away from my hand and always say ‘no, no boss don’t do it, we’ll do it’.” TOP SECRET With his latest top-secret model — a Swimmer Delivery Vehicle (SDV) undetectable by radar and designed to transport Navy Seals and commandos — Jaubert sees his military and law enforcement vehicles as the most profitable in the Exomos range. And, for obvious reasons. The way he markets them to potential customers is completely different from the way the company’s recreational arm sells itself. “For law enforcement and military vehicles, covert operations contact me. They are not publicly known so there is no way of me knowing who or where they are,” he says mysteriously. “They hear about me through boat shows or publications and then contact me with a very precise idea of what they want. I have to sign confidentiality agreements to protect the design and I can’t tell anyone where, how many, what they do or release a picture of the model,” he says. Leaving Jaubert’s office, we embark on a tour of the Exomos production room, a warehouse fit for an epic fight-scene between James Bond and one of his many enemies. Manufacturing submersibles of all shapes and sizes, the current Exomos fleet includes a one-man recreational submarine worth US $37,000, a US $7.3 million submersible yacht and the military US $19 million Submersible Patrol Vessel (SPV) Intruder, which carries six people in the dry cabin and ten swimmers. UNDERWATER TOURISM Jaubert’s favourite among his weird and wonderful submersible stable is clearly the US $1.5 million Nautilus — the centrepiece in the Exomos strategy to bring underwater tourism to the Middle East. “I used to read Jules Verne books as a child and always wanted to build the Nautilus (from ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’) and now I have. It looks like it has been built 100 years ago, so it travels underwater and back in time. I wanted to offer people something they would remember for a long time.” With the capacity to carry ten people, Jaubert plans to charter the fish-shaped Nautilus to resorts for around AED 5000 (US $1361) per hour. Alongside selling voyages to the ocean bed, he also aims to be the first person to truly tap into the up-until-now unchartered underwater hotel sector. While underwater hospitality developments such as the Hydropolis — slated to be built off the Dubai coast — have been launched, nothing concrete has ever materialised. That could soon change if the Exomos CEOs deep sea knowledge can be applied to the construction trade. “Underwater tourism is going to grow and grow,” he says. “I’ve already designed an underwater hotel but now isn’t the right time (to build it). “In Dubai we have to wait a bit because of all the construction projects in the water, the visibility is no good. Once they are all finished, we are going to put an artificial reef into the water and develop the marine life.” FRIENDS IN HIGH PLACES As part of the Ports, Customs and Free Zone corporation (PCFC), Exomos also has a close affiliation with fellow-member company Nakheel — the Dubai-based construction giant. As well as providing the company with the use of his submarines in the development of the Palm Islands project, Jaubert is also working on a ‘super-speedboat’ to meet the challenge of the Nakheel chairman, Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem. “Last year Mr Bin Sulayem asked me to build a boat that could go faster than 60 knots (111 kmph) so I took up the challenge and built two. One goes 112 kmph and the other 160 kmph. On this boat I own the sea. A coastguard boat can only go 72 kmph, this can go 160,” he says standing behind the wheel of the vast blue beast. Jaubert goes on to boast that Virgin chief executive Richard Branson was “extremely impressed” by the boat after taking for a recent test drive, and that the seats on the craft are worth US $35,000 alone because of their hydraulic suspension. For the mega-rich CEO, escaping the rat race and descending into the deep in your own personal submarine may seem like a very attractive way to spend precious free time. And with the cheapest one-man submarine costing US $37,250 this may not be beyond the realms of affordability for some, however Jaubert warns that it could be an extremely time consuming hobby and admits that Exomos only sells two or three vehicles to individuals every year. “A submarine is a life-support machine, it requires training and maintenance, and it’s not like a boat, you can’t just forget about it and leave it in the water for months. It is like an aircraft — you have to have a checklist and make sure everything is in order.” NO COMPETITION Existing in such a specialist field, it would seem that one thing not on Jaubert’s agenda as a CEO is dealing with the competition, as he proclaims: “I have no competitors in the world. There are a few garage-type operations where they can build one submarine at a time but we are only talking about five or six companies worldwide.” If Jaubert’s prediction that submarines will become a widely used mass-transport mode comes true, then more and more competitors may appear on Exomos’ radar in the future. Citing his motivation for building submarines as being to “help people discover the beauty and freedom of the ocean”, Jaubert is an executive completely submerged in the mysteries of the underwater world — the sonar ring tone on his mobile phone just one of the many indicators of his obsession with the deep. While this fascination continues to fuel his business’s success across diverse sectors, it also looks set to create a lucrative and widespread underwater tourist industry in the depths of the expanding Middle Eastern waterworld.||**||

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