By all counts Lia Riva had a formidable childhood. Born 70 kilometers northeast of Milan in Sarnico, she spent her carefree youth on the shores of Lago d’Iseo, where the water gave her a feeling of serenity that would last a lifetime. “I remember being in a very fast boat as a young child, I was maybe 3, and I wanted to jump in the water even though I couldn’t swim. My family had to pin me down in my seat,” Lia Riva recalls from her villa in Cap d’Ail, while offering an essential espresso. This is the first interview she has done from here.
The villa is home to Ms. Riva (as she’s often referred to), a short escape from the hectic work life at Monaco Boat Service along Quai Antoine 1er, where her father Carlo opened the office in 1959. “I have an apartment in Monaco, but I can’t live without a summer garden, without a view, without the fresh air. This is where my three children come with my grandchildren,” she emphasizes, looking at the countless picture frames that line the walls and shelves between the mountainous piles of books (“When I go to sleep, I read a good book”) and numerous pieces of art.
“An art critic once told me, ‘Your house is a beautiful work of art, but you have too many pictures of your children and grandchildren.’ I replied that for me, photos are more important than pieces of art.”
But don’t get her wrong, the woman is crazy about art. Maybe it’s because she was educated in Italy to “see beauty.” “Art is meant to make you ask questions. I’m not an art critic but there are artists, like Rothko, who somehow manage to make you see deep into your soul.”
Lia, who believes “You live not only to earn money, you live to help others,” was one of the original supporters of the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco, which is spread over two buildings, Villa Paloma near the Jardin Exotique and Villa Sauber near Larvotto beach, that opened in 2008. “A group of us wanted a museum of contemporary art in Monaco so we spoke with Prince Albert. The original idea was to build a museum on an island in the sea just in front of Monaco, but the Principality refurbished two villas instead.”
Between the books, the photos, the objets d’art and the family coming in and out of the room, it’s organized chaos. “It’s true, I always have several different projects on the go at the same time and I like to tackle a little bit of one, and then the other. Even now, I am preoccupied.”
In addition to managing 50 employees in the Monaco, Cannes and St Tropez offices, Lia oversees the Riva restoration shipyard (R.A.M.) in Sarnico and she is working closely with authorities to rebuild the Carlo Riva Marina at Rapallo, which was damaged during a storm in October 2018. She’s been a strong promoter of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Europe chapter (and hosted a Gala for the foundation in the Riva Tunnel last October). Closer to home, the humanitarian is trustee of the association Monaco Aide et Présence (M.A.P.) that works with children around the world, to ensure they are fed, cared for and educated.
“I remember being in a very fast boat as a young child, I was maybe 3, and I wanted to jump in the water even though I couldn’t swim. My family had to pin me down in my seat".
It’s been a tough couple of years for the naturalized Monegasque. On top of the marina, her father died in April 2017. Her gaze lingers on a photo of her dad, whom Prince Albert named “Personnalité de la Mer” in 2005.
The great-grandson of Pietro Riva, who started building boats in 1842 in Sarnico, Carlo Riva transformed the family business in the 1950s from a leading manufacturer of small racing boats to designing and building pleasure boats.
In 1952, he visited a massive industrial boatyard in Algonac, Michigan, to secure exclusive engine importation to Italy. Two years later, he designed and built a modern plant in the outskirts of Sarnico (which he would expand several times to keep up with an increase in production) and from here began the construction of his legendary mahogany models, from the single-engine Florida to the world famous Aquarama. In 1957, he founded R.A.M., the first Riva Boat Service, to tackle international sales and assistance.
“My father was meticulous. He’d say you look at the outside and it’s beautiful, but you don’t see what’s inside, which is more beautiful.” Having studied engines from General Motors in the U.S. and instruments from the Netherlands, he designed and built something never done before.
The mahogany motorboat with iconic white and turquoise interiors became a favorite to stars like Bardot, Loren and Sellers. “When I was a little girl, we used to come to Monaco in winter. I remember because my mother especially enjoyed it. My father was already bringing the best pleasure boats on the Côte d’Azur and he wanted to bring his boats here to Monaco in Port Hercules but there were no pontoons, it was just the quai in 1959. He then had the idea to build a 100-meter tunnel under the palace to store the wood boats in the winter, like a cave where you can store old wines at the right temperature. So he went to Prince Rainier, who he knew well, and told him his ideas. When the mines finally started blowing up the rock, the palace windows trembled.”
Carlo Riva was a pioneer in the development of Monaco’s boating and yachting industry, which, according to Monaco’s statistics bureau, IMSEE, is now the fourth largest sector, generating 5% of revenue (€750 million) in the country and generating about 1,500 jobs.
“When my father passed away two years ago, at the last minute we decided to pass by the Sarnico shipyard in Italy before the funeral. All the workers were blowing the horns of the boats because they really felt something for him,” shares Lia.
Carlo sold Riva in the early seventies; today it’s owned by the Weichai Group, who bought a 75% stake in Ferretti Group in 2012 for $228 million. The pained expression on her face answers the question about selling the family business.
Taking over the reins at Monaco Boat Service from her father (her sister Pia runs the Carlo Riva Marina and her other sister, Carla, tragically passed away 25 years ago) was a challenge for Lia, as the shipyard was “a little bit masculine and, of course, Italian.” But she is not one to put up with nonsense and, she assures, things are changing. Plus, she has one of her three daughters working in the business as well. One of her biggest accomplishments was re-opening the office in St-Tropez in 2009, after her father lost the location to another dealer.
As the exclusive Riva dealer in Monaco and France, Monaco Boat Service brings together the network of 1,500 Riva boat owners. “We offer something that money can’t buy, we make owners feel like they are part of a privileged family.” Lia also organizes the spectacular biannual Riva Trophy, with owners racing their own Riva boats from Monaco to St-Tropez. The 14th edition takes place summer 2020.
A forward thinker, Lia comments that the use of solar or electric energy is “not only for the boats but our overall future.” Monaco Boat Service believes deeply in initiatives that represent both the boating community and Monaco’s environmental agenda, like in the Monaco Solar & Energy Boat Challenge, founded by engineer Marco Casiraghi, which brings together young engineers and experienced shipyards to develop alternative propulsion systems, using only clean energy sources.
Having moved to Monaco from Milan in the seventies with her husband (they have since divorced), Lia was one of the first members of the Yacht Club de Monaco, when it was a tiny unassuming cubbyhole just down from Monaco Boat Service. When the shiny new five-story yacht club, designed by Sir Norman Foster, opened across the port in 2014, it inaugurated the Riva Aquarama Lounge located on the top floor.
Bernard d’Alessandri, Secretary General of the Monaco Yacht Club, commented at the time: “Since the 50s, stories of Monaco and Riva cross their paths. Cooperation has been going on for 60 years, naturally evolving with time. We are very proud that our two realities met in this new scenario, sharing their expertise to create a cozy and sophisticated ambiance.”
Lia has seen the prestige of the Monaco Yacht Show grow from year to year, and Monaco Boat Service, together with Catherine Fautrier, Monaco’s Ambassador to China, organizes a private dinner in the Riva Tunnel for upcoming Chinese families who are considering strengthening their ties to Monaco. “The Chinese market is an important connection for the Principality, as proven by President Xi Jinping’s visit in March,” emphasizes Lia. “It’s essential to offer a warm welcome and let them discover the Yacht Show.”
With a larger selection of boats up to 65 meters, the less-flashy Cannes Yachting Festival held two weeks before the Monaco event is more tailored for Riva boats; a classic previously-owned 1965 Aquarama sells for around $600,000 whereas as the 1996 Riva Aquarama Special, hull No 774, the last hand-built wooden Riva sold to the public for over $1 million.
“I was recently on an enormous 80-meter plus yacht with friends. It was like a deluxe grand hotel but, you know, the personal contact with the water is so much less. It’s not like a Riva.”
With Monaco Boat Service’s 60th anniversary bash around the corner, there’s a stream of people coming and going, and Lia’s phone is pinging with text messages. “This one’s from my sister about the Carlo Riva Marina,” she says politely.
“I remember my father smiling. He was always positive and even in the worst-case scenario he was pragmatic and looking for a solution. I see myself in him to some degree but I am my own person.”