As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexandra Lefakinis.
Alexandra Lefakinis grew up in the maritime industry, as one of two daughters of Bill Lefakinis who pioneered luxury and mega yacht chartering in a country predestined for it: Greece. The heritage company was founded back in 1969. The 2nd generation of the family business is women-led by Bill’s daughters Kassandra and Alexandra Lefakinis. The women carefully curate from a portfolio of over 400 exclusive vessels to excel the wishes of their clients, for a custom-made charter experience in Greece and The Mediterranean.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have known ever since I was young, growing up on yachts and watching both of my parents run the company, that I wanted to follow in their footsteps and one day takeover at the helm of Valef Yachts. It was the combination of my father’s determination, steadfastness & charm and my mother’s relatability, efficiency & compassion and how they applied these attributes to Valef Yachts that made the company so successful and one that I wanted to be a part of.
I began working at Valef Yachts during my summers off from the University, where I earned a degree in International Business and Management. Submersing myself in the yachting world by learning all I could about the individual yachts for charter on the market, greeting clients onboard and experiencing yachting firsthand by cruising with friends and family. After graduating I moved to Greece where I immediately worked for a company which managed, at that time, four of the top luxury yachts on the Greek charter market. While there, I experienced firsthand all that went into operating a successful luxury yacht from the owning side of the business. I took this know-how and experience with me, and after a couple of years I joined the family business fully, this time taking a more pivotal role in the business. Here I am today, Managing Partner.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Valef Yachts was established in 1969, by my father, Vasilios (Bill) Lefakinis, so the “Aha moment” was that of my father’s. Having left Greece at the young age of 13 to pursue a better education in the USA and after having established himself as professional businessman there, working for Filtrine Manufacturing, he saw the need to share the beauty of his homeland Greece with the world, and more specifically Americans. At the time of the company founding, 1969, there were no yachts for charter in Greece and he thought what better way to see his beautiful country than cruising among the thousands of islands on a private yacht. He seized the opportunity, returned to Greece, and gathered all of his friends who owned yachts in order to convince them to let him rent them out for charter. Thus began Valef Yachts and yachting in Greece!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
The vision of the company has always been to bring lifelong memories to our clients. One of the most common phrases we hear from past charterers, when looking back on their yachting experience, is “it was a trip of a lifetime”. Taking this a bit further, when my partner and sister Kassandra and I stepped into the business our vision elaborated. We not only wanted to continue providing such memorable experiences, but wanted to stand out even further as a boutique charter company, one that covers every detail in order to make the charter experience beyond all expectations and effortless to plan. We not only assist with the specific onboard yacht experience but also attend to all that surrounds it, from hotel and villa bookings to transportation and tours to restaurant recommendations and reservations. The more ‘hand-holding’ the client wants, the more we will give. The ‘one time’ charter is not our goal; we aim to have clients returning again and again and referring us to their friends and family who in turn will do the same. We have clients that reach out to us after 20+ years even, saying they are ready to charter again and there is no one but Valef that they will do it with.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
We as a company are straight-forward and honest and we relay this through our communications and actions.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Honesty. You have to be both honest with your clients and honest with your collaborators for a business to run efficiently. We are in a business where common ground needs to be found and all involved need to be happy and the way through that is honesty.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I started, I can easily say that at times it was overwhelming. There are so many facets to a successful yacht charter, so many details to cover from selecting the yacht, to transportation arrangements, to hotel bookings and tours etc. I am a bit of a perfectionist and getting all these pieces to flow smoothly takes a lot of coordination and one that requires selecting the correct collaborators/suppliers to work with in order for everything to flow smoothly. However, through experience you learn to manage all of these things and now everything flows as second nature.
One of the most difficult experiences I had was that of a yacht breakdown which happened only 2 days into a 10-day charter. The breakdown occurred late at night and I had to immediately find a yacht replacement that could get to the port where the yacht was disabled by morning. Due to our connections and close relationships with owners within the charter market I was able to find a yacht (in the peak of high season) which travelled immediately through the night to take over the charter. It was due to this management that we gained a client for life, one that has chartered every year for the past 10+ years and trusts us blindly.
There are very stressful moments in this business, and many things that go on behind the scenes, however it is through experience and credibility as a company that aids me in dealing with obstacles that come about. As I mentioned before, our goal is to give our clients the best experience possible, and when you hear their thanks and overwhelming enthusiasm about their experience, it gives you the drive to do it all over again.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Things are going well and strongly. We just came off of a difficult 2020 Covid year, with borders being closed, however this year yachting was booming and 2022 already looks extremely promising with bookings already secured. I am determined by nature and don’t give up easily. I know that steadfastness will prevail and that there are always bound to be difficulties, however if you persevere you will get through it.
Again, I believe that honesty and trust are the backbone to our success. Both personally and as a company. While we cannot control thing around us sometimes, we can always control our reactions to them. Our clients appreciate this and connect with us, feeling secure that someone has their back and will lead them in the right direction. As well as our yacht owners and crew appreciate it. They know that we are also looking out for them and are extremely happy and pleased for the clients we bring them as the relationships we build with our clients fall over to the yacht when they come onboard. I cannot tell you how many times we hear “Bring us more Valef clients” from owners and crews!
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know who you are as a company and the service you provide — through this you have direction and guidelines as to the path you wish to follow.
- Know who your customers are, and their needs — you must know who you are speaking to and you need to provide them with what they are seeking (or don’t know they are seeking) in order to fulfill their needs which will bring satisfaction, praise and a desire to see more.
- Know who your competitors are and what makes your service different and uniquely yours — you must know how you are different and how you can stand out above the rest. What are your advantages.
- Know how to communicate — the most important know-how is that of communication, to your customers, your employees and your collaborators
- Knowing when to let go — we all strive for success and think it is all about going after things and not about also knowing when to let go of things. Part of moving forward and evolving is adjusting to the times/markets and the release of stagnant, and even worse, damaging services and partnerships.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My greatest assistance has come from my parents. They have always been supportive as parents but I have also had them as figures to admire in business. There is much to say about them both, however, I will give one example of something I learned from my father.
At some point, early in my Valef career, we had a request to charter a yacht from an ambassador. In our business we get numerous “fake” inquiries which can, if we allow them, use up a lot of our time, to learn in the end that it is a scam. Well, when this ambassador called for the first time on our mobile phone, directly and not through his assistant (which would normally be expected), and bluntly asked for a great yacht to book after stating his title, the phone was about to be hung up on him when my father passed by, eager to learn about what business was at hand, and said, give me the phone. Moments later, after much laughter and story swapping, my father hung-up and remarked “ok, ‘so and so’ yacht is booked for the ambassador.” From that moment, the man behind the voice on the phone became an actual Valef client, chartering numerous times throughout the coming years and became one of our most valuable clients. This experience taught me never to turn away anyone in business and in life preemptively.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I can be found on Instagram.
Valef Yachts: valefyachts