Visitors to the Adriatic coast will have noticed a rise in sightings of red semi-submarines in top tourist destinations in recent years. Meet the man behind the project.
(Photo credits DMBH)
I first met Mladen Peharda some five years ago when he launched his first semi-submarine at the Days of Croatian Shipbuilding in Podstrana. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of watching his company and client list grow, and finally caught up with him where else than in his workshop while he’s finishing the mould for his new “jumbo” semi-submarine model.
1. Right at the start, I have to ask, is there a tourist destination by the sea in Croatia that doesn’t have one of your semi-submarines sailing through the harbour? How did you start this extremely successful project, especially since I know your background is really not in shipbuilding?
I am very proud that, out of 36 locations I originally scouted for my semi-submarines, they are present in 27. There’s still room for expansion, but what makes me even more happy is that the project proved to be even more successful in some smaller, less known towns than in major cities. True, I am not directly linked to the shipbuilding industry in terms of my background nor did I even receive any formal schooling and training in that industry but I see that as my huge advantage. When I was still sailing and competing, finances were pretty tight so I had to take care of my own equipment and fix my boats so that’s where the first true appreciation for plastic was born. I also think my sailing experience in smaller classes gave me a priceless feel for the boat and my long-time experience as a sailboat skipper enabled me to sail and test various types of boats in all weather conditions so that came in very handy when I was testing the advantages and possible pitfalls of my own semi-submarine project. I have to say it was the combination of all of the above mentioned and countless hours of daydreaming and desire to produce something completely out of the box that lead me to the semi-submarine project.
2. You have conquered Croatia, orders are coming in from around the globe, your semi-submarines are already present in Montenegro, Italy and Spain, but you just can’t sit still and you’re in a middle of a new project and even larger vessel. Can you tell us what is it that you’re working on?
55 PAX semi-submarine was supposed to kick-off 5-6 years ago and it was supposed to be a logical upgrade of the existing model done by my agency in Biograd. By pure coincidence, instead of ordering a larger custom built model, after 5 years spent on developing the 12 PAX model I decided to give it a shot and build it myself instead of dreaming about it. After we built and delivered about 25 pieces of our original small semi-submarine and completed our plan of closing a line of destinations from Umag to Budva we applied for funds from the Ministry of Economy. It all, of course, started from the interest of our current satisfied clients who were constantly asking for larger models. With this conservative development approach we allowed ourselves to spend enough time on high quality research and development so now I can safely say that the 55 PAX model is probably the best product of its kind in the world.
3. You do not sell your semi-submarines just as a bare product, instead, and this is really interesting, you sell them along with a very detailed business plan which was recognised by various banks so they offer extremely attractive credit lines for your products. Can you describe what kind of a business model are you offering?
When I started this project a while ago, the original idea was to offer the semi-submarines as a franchise business, however, because of various legal and regulatory problems and endless regulation procedures, we decided to opt for direct sales with the best possible „know-how“ on how to capitalise on the business once you buy it. For this whole story started as a production for my own tourist agency and since I have over 200 hours of skipper experience, endless bookings and countless hours of experience in other tourism related projects I acquired all the necessary knowledge to be able to help each and every client with tips and recommendations to get them started. Basic services included in the whole package are helping / consultancy in financing the vessel, business plan development, development of web pages and training of both skippers and booking agents once we hand over the semi-submarine to the new buyer. We continue our business cooperation post sale, and the intensity depends on the interest of the buyer.
4. Were you surprised that institutions, especially financial ones, realised the quality and potential of your project? Also, considering that you now have a shelf full of awards and accolades for innovation and enterpreneurship, it is obvious you were recognised by your peers too.
I have to say it was such a thrill when we walked into the bank to present our project when we were working on our very first semi-submarine, not to mention that we were ecstatic when our project was well received and financing approved. Now, after 5 years of successful operations, each new client has an even easier time discussing finances with banks. It’s important to know that all our clients have very healthy financial records and when you combine that with the proven success of our products, banks are not afraid to back them up.
(Photo Slobodna Dalmacija)
5. In the last three years various versions of semi-submarines appeared along our coast, however, from personal experience I have to note while your models are safely cutting the waves even during somewhat rougher seas, other models are forced to wait for the winds to calm down and stay safely tied to the shore. What are the major differences, what sets Agena Marin’s semi-submarines from all the others?
Since the name itself was very unusual and the whole design of our vessel was extremely attractive to the media, we had fantastic media support from day one. Of course, when you appear in all media outlets, when your products start appearing in almost every port along the coast and all of them obviously working well, it is just a matter of time before competition and similar models start popping up. Considering that the construction of the first prototype took three years along with additional 5 years spent on further development before we started serial production and that most of that time was spent thinking about and testing optimal manoeuvring capabilities, fuel consumption, stability and maintenance instead of how much profit we will have left after every season, all accumulated knowledge and experience, most of which was trial and error, resulted in a product that was on the highest possible level of quality. It today’s „fast-working“„fast-consuming“ world, this kind of an approach is everything but standard. Knowing that even a single day lost during the season because of a smaller or larger breakdown is both a logistics and financial loss for the owner, we decided right from the start that our product will never be low-cost, instead we wanted it to be unstoppable which in the end means that there will be a price difference. At first it might seem significant, but after few years of operation, it quickly turns to our advantage without commenting on the value of second-hand vessels on the market. Split is one of the best examples we have since, along with our model, there is a very similar one tied very close to ours. Tourists notice the difference while the boats are standing still in the harbour where they are a lot more protected from winds and natural elements, let alone when they begin their cruise
6. Now when the completion of your 55 PAX semi-submarine is drawing near, what’s next on your already packed schedule?
Unfortunately, it seems that other working tourist boat projects will have to wait for a while since the current interest for both small and large sub-marine is still overwhelming and I don’t think that in the next 12 months I’ll have time to think and dream of a new project let alone start working on serious research and development.
7. We always ask our young and successful entrepreneurs if they can give some advice to upcoming generations, who to push through the administrative forest and how to survive in a country where owning a business is everything but easy. What is your opinion, is it enough to just have an idea and courage or do you need that „certain something“ to make it?
Many people say things were so much easier before, and I cannot completely agree with that. Every time, every era has its challenges and possibilities and we are the ones that create them. We shouldn’t fool ourselves and think that administration is any better abroad, every country has its „quirks“. You have to adapt. What is positive and what should be said out loud to all young „start-up“ entrepreneurs is that the state administration is improving in terms of their attitude and readiness to help new entrepreneurs who are creating new values, employing people or in one word „creating“. Of course, once you embark on this journey you have to be „crazy“ enough and persistent enough to break brick walls with your head but that is one of the challenges. If you are not ready to do it, then maybe it’s better you don’t go down that road.
Check out the semi-submarine experience in Medulin in the video below.