How to start your own successful brokerage even if you have no brokerage experience

Did you catch the recent episode of Great Canal Journeys? British actors Tim and Pru headed through some of the most picturesque scenery in northern France. For them it was a once in a lifetime holiday, but for Graham Wharmby the beautiful French canals are a part of his daily life!

Graham runs Boatshed Bourgogne and Boatshed Midi Canals in France with his partner Magali. They are the first Boatshed brokerage dedicated to the Inland Waterways of France and they share a passion for canal and river cruising, be it for work or for pleasure. Graham has over 20 years professional experience on the French waterway system on passenger and cargo vessels from 30 to 180 meters. He and Magali met in 1993 whilst working on the same river cruise ship.

They were recently awarded the Boatshed Best Business Development award as a result of their ongoing efforts creating partnerships with local marinas and hire fleet operators.

I recently got the chance to interview Graham about his enviable lifestyle, and business!

Graham, what first got you interested in boats and boating?
Watching the trading narrow boats passing by on the Grand Union near where we lived. It seemed like a free an adventurous way of life to a small boy from the city.

Tell us about your first boat?
I cobbled together a rowing boat in my parents garage at the age of ten and went boating on the River Ouse. It was an awful contraption with no stability but that just added to the fun. My first real boat was a Springer narrow boat that I lived on in Little Venice during the period I skippered for the London Waterbus Company.

I don’t have a boat at the minute. I wouldn’t have the time to swab the decks let alone go for a cruise!

How long have you lived in France?
I first came to France in 1990 but the company I came to work for (a charter barge operator) folded so I returned to the UK. I came back to France in 1992 and started work on a 65m hotel barge and then went on to Bateaux Mouches in Paris.

At the time they had a fleet of nine 1000 passenger cruise boats and four restaurant boats. It was an amazing boating experience with Schottel, Voith and traditional (prop. and rudder) propulsion systems. It’s a big boy’s toy box and the best boating job I could imagine. If I had been an airplane pilot instead of a boat pilot it would have been like flying a glider in the morning, a helicopter at lunchtime and an F111 fighter in the evening!! And Paris is just beautiful, viewed from the river.

How long have you been running your Boatshed business?
Magali and I started our Boatshed brokerage in mid 2011 so we are really a very young company. It was not an easy beginning. Brokerage is not well known over here except on the Med. Coast and most boats were either sold privately or as part exchanges through new boat dealerships.

What made you choose Boatshed?
I spent a little over a year choosing a partner to work with. I knew I did not want to “go it alone” so I spent time researching the options of buying into a franchise or negotiating partnerships with existing structures. It became obvious to me that only Boatshed had anything substantial to offer. The Boatshed boat sales website was very complete and their brokers systems and “tool kit” seemed innovative, pertinent and effective. It seemed to us that Boatshed had something different, effective and relevant to offer to our project. As I tell our clients, “I do not say Boatshed is a great organisation because I have a Boatshed office. I have a Boatshed office because Boatshed is a great organisation!”

What are the more challenging aspects of what you do?
Probably anything and everything to do with administration. All boats must be registered over here and France has two authorities, Maritime and Inland. Inland waterway vessels over 20m are subject to specific legislation (like over 24m vessels at sea) and with an international clientele, vessel registration and compliance is a bureaucratic obstacle course that can be “interesting”. I know one Australian couple who bought their boat privately and it took them nearly two years to get the registration sorted out!!

What is the best thing about your job?
Meeting so many different people from so many different walks of life and getting to see so many different boats. Be it round the world sailors retiring to a more gentle cruising lifestyle or a high pressured professional chilling out at weekends they all love boats and they all have a tale to tell.

What is great about boating where you live?
Cruising the canals of France is a very special experience. Generally less crowded than many other cruising grounds and most 38m Freycinet canals are free of commercial traffic these days so you can enjoy the nature, the countryside, the bistros and the vineyards in complete relaxation. The other thing is the sheer diversity. A cruise from Calais to Carcassonne will start in a flat land with brick built houses just like in the UK and (having cruised through Paris) take you through vineyards past Roman architecture and finish up in a Medieval walled city.

Do you have any advice for someone thinking of selling their boat?
Yes. If you’re serious about selling, talk to an experienced broker with good local knowledge and plenty of international clout, then keep your boat looking at it’s best right up to hand-over day.

Do you have any advice for someone thinking of becoming a broker?
After my investigations of three years ago and my experience with Boatshed since, I would not consider setting up a brokerage business outside the Boatshed organisation. I would go so far as to say that any existing independent brokerages should be thinking seriously about joining forces with the group to consolidate their position within their sector. No matter how much boating experience you have if you have no previous brokering experience the Boatshed support team will be absolutely vital to you. If there’s an existing Boatshed office in your area then there may be a possibility to gain experience by joining the team as a broker. That’s our case in the Midi Canals office where we would be pleased to have a broker either long term, or as an introduction to running their own business.

You may also like:
How to buy a boat – the process / Thinking of selling your boat? / Don’t cross the Atlantic until you’ve read this! / 2013: Our amazing year! / Get started with your own Boatshed business / More news articles and stories.

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