Art in Motion

One designs mega yachts. The other rebuilds classic luxury automobiles. Douglas talks to two Victoria entrepreneurs who have built reputations of global renown creating art in motion for the world’s most discerning and passionate clienteles.

Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Entrepreneurs Greg Marshall and Rudi Koniczek have a lot in common. Both grew their careers out of childhood passions. Both create — or recreate — luxurious modes of transportation for the one-per-centers of the world. Both run their firms outside mainstream business districts, in tucked-away rural areas near Victoria. And both are internationally renowned entrepreneurs, the best of the best, with the skill and ardour of artists. 

Gregory C. Marshall’s Magnificent Vision
Naval architect Gregory C. Marshall, 54, whose offices occupy a timeworn, unadorned West Burnside farmhouse set in an apple orchard, began drawing boats as a small boy, covering notebooks and even blackboard edges with rows of ever-larger boats.

“Weekends, the janitor wiped the blackboard, thus inviting me to start another set of drawings,” says Marshall, blue eyes crinkling at the recollection. 

His father, Victoria architect Donovan Marshall, arranged for Marshall to meet famed yacht designer Bill Garden, who inhabited an island off Swartz Bay. Thus began Marshall’s long apprenticeship with Garden, which challenged the teenager to learn the details of yacht design: hull shape, structural integrity, stability, motive power, styling and decorating.

“Garden said my compulsion for big yachts wouldn’t last once I saw how complicated they were,” Marshall recalls. “But I liked big yachts from the first and still do. That said, I’ve designed boats ranging from 15 to 330 feet.”

At the moment, Marshall is designing a yacht so secret, he won’t even reveal its size. “The owner wants absolute privacy, so I can only tell you the boat is between 55 to 80 metres [180 to 262 feet] and that it’ll be constructed by a German boatbuilder over the next two to three years. I can’t tell you the owner’s name, nationality or anything else … If I were to estimate cost, it’d be well over $100 million. The total depends on the yacht’s final finishes, the custom-made furnishings, exotic woods, art work and the quality of the joinery.”

Gregory C. Marshall runs his internationally renowned, award-winning design and naval architecture studio out of a West Burnside farmhouse. With his crew of 14 employees, he creates the vessels of his clients’ dreams. Photograph by Jeffrey Bosdet.

Laid-back Luxury
Marshall studied naval architecture at Newfoundland’s Memorial University, but he continued to work with Bill Garden during the holidays. He then undertook a month-long assignment styling an 80-foot yacht for Fryco Yachts in Houston, but stayed with the Texas firm for eight years, always refining his technical know-how. Eventually, a regional commission drew Marshall back to his beloved Vancouver Island.

He is often referred to as one of the world’s top five yacht designers. Asked if it’s true, Marshall laughs, leaning back in his chair on his farmhouse’s narrow porch. “I don’t know. Maybe in the top 10?”

He’s not one to boast about his numerous international accolades, such as Superyacht World rating the 45-metre Big Fish among the top 50 finest yachts ever built, or winning the World Yacht Awards’ Best Motoryacht under 500 GRT, or being awarded the Show Boats Design Awards’ Most Innovative Yacht in the World four times. He remains in his modest farmhouse, where the only glitz lies in the computers and glossy screens used by his 14 employees.

“We like the rural atmosphere here,” he explains. “Yacht design is a high-pressure business with frequent, tight deadlines. We have quiet, a badminton court for when the guys grow bug-eyed, and space to walk among the apple trees.”

His crew uses advanced design software, but Marshall still hand-sketches a new yacht’s initial outlines, space concepts, layout and styling. After that, vice-president Gordon Galbraith and the other long-term staff execute the highly complex calculations involved in designing a floating mansion. Software includes Rhino 3D for surface modelling, Catia for interior 3D design, SolidWorks, Ship Constructor, NavCad and AutoCad.

Built to Last
Mega yachts contain not only superb living spaces, Jacuzzis, gyms, multiple helm stations, crew quarters, gourmet galleys, integrated navigation, security and entertainment systems, but they must carry water, fuel and their own motive power. Huge engines push them through corrosive salt water. Yachts must be able to survive storms and have enough fuel to travel to the remotest locales. And all their byzantine systems must be integrated seamlessly.

To decide how the owners want their living spaces organized and decorated, Marshall’s team models each stateroom in 3D. With the click of a mouse, they can change the size and location of a cabinet, wall or bed — and the salon or stateroom is automatically reconfigured to include the alteration. Software can also show instantly how furniture and walls look finished in mahogany, teak, oak, leather or cashmere, and present washrooms clad in marble, granite or tile. And these consultations can take place online, so owners, no matter where they are, can discuss their preferences in real time.

Not all mega yachts are glamorous. Over the past decades, Greg has designed 11 yachts for an Egyptian mogul. “The interiors are edgy and beautiful, but their exteriors are almost ugly to make them unattractive to pirates,” he says, noting that security is always an issue for the super rich. Some yachts keep security guards on board and include safe rooms able to withstand even biological attacks. “Our personnel had to be trained to provide that level of security. It’s all about lines of sight and advanced threat analysis.”

Marshall says the nature of clients is changing from retired multimillionaires/billionaires to just-as-wealthy younger buyers.

“I make conference presentations and visit the high-end boat shows, like Monaco and Fort Lauderdale, and these entice some successful 30- to 40-year-olds to come to us,” he says. “They’re less interested in high-end decoration than in the activities they can enjoy from their yacht. They want room for mountain bikes, surf- and kite-boards, kayaks and so forth. They’re more sporty than boozy.”

Moreover, he explains, they’re genuinely interested in reducing the yacht’s environmental footprint. “They want to go as green as possible and are willing to pay to achieve it. As one example, we now install phase-change insulation, materials that store and release heat or cold and therefore reduce heating/cooling requirements. We can therefore shrink the size of generators, and in turn, fit smaller engines. The yacht is lighter and needs less fuel.”

Marshall believes that building and operating superyachts offers net benefits to the world. “I see them as wealth-transfer machines. A yacht will take two million man-hours to construct.  Crew, maintenance and provisioning create ongoing jobs. Some people call these yachts ‘obscene.’ I think it’s obscene to put the money under the mattress. Yachts put wealth back into the system.”

Rudi Koniczek’s Kinetic Art
When Rudiger Koniczek — known universally as Rudi — walks me into his spacious, tidy workshop at Rudi & Company, I see three mechanics bowed over the engine of a classic Mercedes, all brandishing screwdrivers. There’s not a computer in sight. And that’s the difference between luxury yacht design and luxury automobile restoration: Koniczek and his team focus on hard mechanics, not software.

“I saw the light in 1972, when electronic ignition was introduced,” Koniczek recalls of his decision to focus on classic cars. “I knew that one day, cars could only be repaired by
swapping out electronic parts. [At Rudi & Company], we are mechanics, not computer geeks.”

The firm is best known for its restorations of the Mercedes 300 SL, known for its gullwing doors. Mercedes built these iconic automobiles as both racers and production cars, and constructed 3,258 of them.

Today, these highly collectible vehicles are ranked as the number-five sports car of all time, each of them selling in the $1 million to $2.5 million range. But before reaching those stratospheric prices, many of these cars come to Koniczek to be reborn in their original birthday suits.

From Matchbox to Mercedes
Koniczek became besotted with cars when his mum bought him a Lesney Matchbox car — or Dinky car. “I was about 10, and it cost 39 cents — a lot of money for an immigrant family,” says Koniczek, who arrived in Toronto from Germany in 1954, at the age of five. “It was a miniature car that fit inside a matchbox.”

He reaches over and daintily picks up a pristine matchbox, one of dozens he keeps in his office bookcase. “It inspired me to read about race cars. I wanted to be a race-car driver.”

It seems Koniczek was a born entrepreneur. At age 12, he made hand puppets and put on shows for the neighbourhood kids, who paid a nickel to attend. Soon he was staging shows at birthday parties. He obtained an after-school job in Toronto’s Terminal Hobbies shop, took model-car kits home, then displayed the finished products in the shop’s windows. They sold well. He built Mercedes slot cars with their tiny electric motors and ran them on the hobby store’s tracks. (A large slot-car collection graces the shelves of another bookcase, and he has a 60-foot track in his home.)

Koniczek must have had an early, strong sense of self, because at age 15 he took a case of slot cars he’d built to the Mercedes-Benz Canada headquarters and asked to see the president. Miraculously, he found himself ushered into the great man’s office. “His name was Herr Rainer Lange-Mechlen, and his office looked just as I’d imagined it,” says Koniczek, as he tips back his rather ratty Australian bush hat ornamented by racing goggles.

“A giant leather-covered desk, a formally dressed guy with a high, squeaky voice. I showed him my cars. He looked at them, then at me and said to his assistant, ‘Give this man a job.’ That’s how eventually I became the only factory-trained Mercedes mechanic in Canada.”

He studied with several “Meisters” who imparted their knowledge to him. He travelled across Canada, troubleshooting and training others in the intricacies of diesel fuel injection. When it was time for him to be independent in 1971, he chose Victoria as his destination. He launched Autohaus and became known for the interesting and international cars on his lot. But restoration called to him and so Rudi & Company was born on the farm off West Saanich Road. Classic-car aficionados come to him from as far away as Bahrain and Japan. The most famous Canadian restoration was Pierre Trudeau’s silver 1960 Mercedes 300 SL roadster, the car today’s prime minister drove when he married Sophie.

Painstaking Work
So what does it take to restore a Mercedes 300 SL, a classic Porsche, a 1937 Lagonda V12, a Bugatti and other historic automobiles?  A car arrives at the workshop, sometimes via container ship, sometimes airfreighted. Koniczek and his team of eight assess the car. He then invites the owner for a discussion in Victoria.

“Many arrive in their private jets,” he says. “I interview them. I don’t want to work with those who’ve bought a classic car just so they flip it for profit. I look for passion. Commitment. These cars are art in motion, kinetic art.”

Once the owner and Koniczek reach an agreement, the painstaking work begins. The crew, several of whom have been with the company for 25 years, completely disassemble the car. The entire process is photographed so that every part, every nut and bolt, is documented. This is the only time contemporary technology is allowed: the team uses a digital camera. This demolition can take two months. Then the reverse tasks begin, with the restoration process usually taking 18 months. If a part is worn or dilapidated, it’s replaced by a newly machined part. Tattered leather seats are reupholstered in-house with leather just like the original, using traditional colours. The wooden dashboards recover their gloss; the suitcase in the car’s trunk is covered with linen in keeping with the original time period. Seatbelts are manufactured like those used in racing cars 50 years ago. Victoria’s Coachwerks Automotive Restoration, a company that’s collaborated with Koniczek on at least 120 projects, completes the bodywork and paint. The restoration will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

While Koniczek is looking at retiring, the meticulous work at Rudi & Company will continue with the shop’s operations moving under the umbrella of the GAIN Dealer Group. Koniczek says he has a long history with GAIN, through their Mercedes dealerships and auto events, including many at the new Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit.

“The team at GAIN knows it’s about more than money,” Koniczek says. “We share a vision for bringing people to Vancouver Island and exposing them to the majesty of what we have here.”

Koniczek drives me (in a Mercedes, of course) to his secret storage place. On the way, he tells me about his delight and pride in the seven grown children that he and his wife, Patty, have between them. At his warehouse, I’m blown away by the multitude of classic cars, which include Koniczek’s father’s 1975 Mercedes sedan in its pristine, original condition and a gleaming 1950s Citroën Deux Chevaux. Automotive art indeed!

Koniczek is happy. He’s happy to pass on his skills to a younger generation, happy to “bring fresh money into Canada,” happy to have followed his thirst for bringing classic cars back to perfection. 

“I love this work,” he says. “And I measure my wealth by the ability to share with others.”