Rich 100: O captain! my captain!

Burger king Jack Cowin and yacht supervisor Phil Stevens treat each other as extended family.

Jack Cowin and Phil Stevens met in 2001, when Stevens was a first mate on Australian businessman Kerry Packer’s boat. Cowin’s yacht, Slipstream, was being built and in need of a captain. Cowin says, “You get to know someone, you get to trust them.” He characterizes their current relationship as “extended family”; Stevens says it “couldn’t be better.”

Stevens, who is English, started out “at the bottom” as a deckhand fifteen years ago, when he had become bored with “humdrum” office life in the U.K. After a few nautical exams and some time considering the move, Stevens decided on a life at sea.

Cowin, who as owner of burger chain Hungry Jack’s, and the master franchise for Burger King in Australia, could be called that country’s fast-food king, is a well-travelled adventure-seeker (he spent mid-November in Botswana, trekking through swamps in 40°C heat). He and Stevens have taken the 145-foot, Australian-built Slipstream to the Maldives, the Caribbean (where they “pretty much saved the life” of a stranded man, says Stevens), the Mediterranean, and sailed from Thailand to Burma just after the 2004 tsunami. Stevens says, “Typically you do a summer season in the Mediterranean area, and the winter season in some far-fetched location. You try and follow the sun.”

Stevens supervises Slipstream’s staff of 10 people (the yacht is chartered when Cowin isn’t using it). Says Cowin, who spends approximately four weeks per year on-board, “He hires and fires the staff. He’s got complete autonomy to make the decisions. When I come on the boat, I’m a guest.” Now, Stevens is overseeing the construction of a new, 200-foot yacht in Cherbourg, France, to be launched in 2009. Once completed, Stevens will move on to captain the new boat, and Slipstream will be helmed by a new captain.

Cowin, whose net worth we’ve estimated to be $548 million, doesn’t think the economic difference between himself and his employee has much impact on their relationship. “I’m there to enjoy myself and have a good time. Really, money doesn’t come into it. Everybody’s aware that you’re the owner of the boat, but it’s really a non-monetary sort of world that you live in when you’re out thousands of miles away from anyplace.”