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Lunch at The Four Seasons with: Sheri Wilson-Gray

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-12-12

Sheri Wilson-Gray frequently quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald, who famously wrote that the very rich "are different from you and me." She also quotes Ernest Hemingway, whose riposte was, "Yes - they have more money."

To that exchange, Ms. Wilson-Gray adds, "And they have big yachts."

As executive vice president of marketing services for Island Global Yachting, she's eminently qualified to burnish the exchange between the two literary lions. Miss Wilson-Gray sells or builds berths for luxury yachts, defined as vessels longer than 80 feet. After all, luxury yachts, as much as their -much - poorer cousins, rowboats, need a dock they can call home.

"It's a booming market for mega-yachts," she said. "Such yachts are not at all about transportation. They are about ego gratification."

Miss Wilson-Gray smiled.

"Bigger," she said, "is better - for some people, at least."

But what's big? And what's bigger?

Well, some 7,000 luxury yachts, or "boats" as the wealthy prefer to call them, currently sail the seas. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's boat, "Octopus," is the longest, at more than 400 feet. A Saudi princelet is getting one built in Dubai that will exceed 500 feet. The Wall Street Journal has reported that mega-yachts have grown in size from a typical length of 80 feet to 110 feet in the mid-1990s to well over 150 feet today.

"The market for luxury yachts has more than tripled since 1997," Ms. Wilson-Gray said. "Although most boats cost around $40 million, you are seeing more and more boats worth $100 million and above. In fact, there are firm orders of 688 mega-yachts currently."

According to Showboats International - the authoritative compiler of yachting data - contracts for motor yachts 150 feet or longer increased 15% to 118 in 2006 from 103 this year. Indeed, research shows that the market for mega-yachts has tripled since 1997.

"People have money as never before - and they're buying a dream when they acquire luxury yachts," Ms. Wilson-Gray said. "Price isn't an issue."

But berthing space is.

"While yachts are getting bigger, owners must deal with the reality that the places where you can berth them were built two decades ago," she said. "So large boats are making do with small berths. And there's only so much of a big boat that you can squeeze into a small space."

It's not just space that Ms. Wilson-Gray's New York-based company - which is headed by Andrew Farkas of Island Capital Group - offers.

"To match the lifestyle of mega-yacht owners, we offer a luxury leisure complex built around a mega-yacht marina," Ms. Wilson-Gray said. "There are 'upland' elements such as restaurants, shopping and residences. There are 18-foot-wide piers, and access to 600 amp power."

And who are her clients?

Mostly Americans, who tend to own more luxury yachts than anyone else. America has the overwhelming number of the world's billionaires - 313 out of about 600. According to Forbes, their net worth last year climbed to $1 trillion, up $45 billion from 2003.

But America lags behind Italy in building such yachts. In 2005, Italian companies constructed 260 boats, for a total length of 29,804 feet; the average length of yachts was 115 feet. Builders in America had 85 projects, for a total of 10,621 feet, with the average boat being 125 feet.

And how did Ms. Wilson-Gray - who isn't especially fond of sailing - get involved in the yachting business? The parent of her company is Island Capital Group LLC, a real-estate merchant bank. It decided to transform existing marinas around the world through its new Yacht Haven initiative.

The first such project is underway in St. Thomas, the United States Virgin Islands.

The group decided that it needed to build a recognizable brand, a new lifestyle destination concept designed for the affluent customer drawn to the boating lifestyle.

And so the call went out to Ms. Wilson-Gray, who was chief marketing officer of the $2.5 billion luxury retailer, Saks Fifth Avenue.

By the time the Indianapolis-born Ms. Wilson-Gray came to Saks, she'd already held senior marketing and brand-building positions at Procter & Gamble, Chesebrough-Pond's (Unilever), Bijoux Givenchy, and Monet.

"I had wanted to be in fashion retailing for as long as I can remember," she said. "Even when I was building hamburgers as a 15-year-old at Burger Chef in Indianapolis. By the way, I built the best hamburger you could imagine."

In her imagination, however, there wasn't a role involving the fast-food industry.

"Always do what you really want to do," her father often told her. "But to be successful, you've got to work harder than your peers."

She took that advice to heart. One of the three daughters of John Kenneth Wilson and his wife Fay, Sheri sped through Purdue University, obtaining a master's degree in management.

Procter & Gamble spotted potential in her, and so it was off to its headquarters in Cincinnati. She became one of America's first women brand managers, and the first African-American woman to gain that recognition.

Among the brands Ms. Wilson-Gray handled was Crest toothpaste.
But she hadn't given up on her dream about the fashion industry.

So Ms. Wilson-Gray accepted a position with Chesebrough-Pond's, and helped strengthen its fragrance brands.

Was it tough being an African-American woman in the upper echelons of management?

At one meeting, she happened to be the only woman from her company. A woman from a client company was making a presentation, and handed out spread sheets to all the men but not to Ms. Wilson-Gray.

Then she said off-handedly to her, "Oh, would you like one, too?"

"Only if it has pictures in it," Ms. Wilson-Gray said.

She had made her point.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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