Sea Ray founder dies after long cancer battle

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Cornelius Nathaniel “Connie” Ray III, founder of Sea Ray Boats, died Nov. 12 after a five-year battle with cancer. He was 84 years old.

Ray founded Sea Ray in 1959 in Oxford, Mich., and built it into one of the world’s largest boatbuilders with 40 models from 17 feet to 60 feet. He sold the company in December 1986 to Brunswick Corp. for $350 million dollars.

One of the early builders in fiberglass, Ray started out manufacturing a 16-foot family runabout in a small shop he had bought that had also fabricated golf cart bodies and coffins. Focusing on building boats, he turned to the Detroit automakers as models for merchandising. He introduced high styling, brought a GM designer to the plant to help style his boats’ interiors – the consoles and upholstery – like car interiors, and emphasized quality building and first-rate dealers.

“He believed that distribution was king, that you built a good-quality boat, backed it up, delivered good customer service, and got the best dealers,” said Robert J. Parmentier, Sea Ray’s president and an employee of Ray’s in the early 1980s.

In the introduction to Jeffrey Rodengen’s book, “Commanding the Waterways,” written for Sea Ray’s 50th anniversary this year, Ray said he already was on this path when he exhibited at the 1960 Chicago National Boat show.

“We were already setting ourselves apart from our competition with strict attention to the basics: superior products, superior dealers and a sincere appreciation of our customers,” he wrote.

Parmentier describes Ray as one of the industry’s icons. “He helped develop the fiberglass boat business,” Parmentier said. “He was always a step ahead of his time.”

After retiring from Sea Ray, Ray turned his attention to his other love, raising thoroughbred horses at his farm near Louisville, Ky.

Born May 14, 1925, to Charles H. Ray and Virginia Bryant Ray in Detroit, Ray attended the Detroit University School in Grosse Pointe, Mich., joined the Army Air Corps during World War II and graduated from UCLA in 1949. Known to his friends as C.N. or “Connie,” Ray was “passionate about enjoying life, boating, aviation, and animals, especially thoroughbred horses,” said his son, C.C. Ray.

Ray is survived by a daughter, five sons and his wife of 28 years, Carol. His sister, Trudy, and a sixth son, Cornel, predeceased him.

— Jim Flannery

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Comments

9 comments on “Sea Ray founder dies after long cancer battle

  1. bill mudgett

    As the Orlando Retailers Conference pointed out, we need to know our customer and embrace his needs. As an Industry, we have fallen short. Mr. Ray “picked” his dealers and set expectations for them to grow, a-win-win for the manufacture, dealer, and boater!
    Being in the industry for 35 years, I watched this strategy work and am lucky to be working for a great manufacture that understand Mr. Ray’s montra.
    God Bless and my condolences to his family, dealers, and friends,
    Bill M
     

  2. Howard McMichael

    I met Connie in the 1960s when we became a Sea Ray dealer. He was always a pleasure to be with and in business you could take his word to the bank. We need more straight gentlemen in our industry as well as the world.

  3. JACK DOLAN

    CONNIE RAY, WHAT A GREAT GUY!  WE SOLD OUR FIRST SEA RAYS IN 1961 THIS WAS THE START OF OUR GREAT MARINE ADVENTURE. EACH YEAR THERE WAS A TRIP TO SOME NEW FUN PLACE IN THE WORLD. WE SOLD LOTS OF BOATS AND  REALLY ENJOYED THE RELATIONSHIP. WE WENT ON TO REPRESENT MANY OTHER COMPANIES AND BOAT BRANDS IN OUR 54 YEARS BUT CONNIE WAS THE GREATEST!!   JACK DOLAN

  4. Chris Aruta

    My two fondest memory’s of my 22 years in the marine industry both involve Connie Ray. The first was 1987 when he attended the grand re-opening of the Sea Ray dealer in NE Ohio and took the time to introduce himself when I was but a lonely boat-wipe cleaning boats on the showroom floor. The second was a year later when I sold my very first new Sea Ray. I’m sure the other Sea Ray dealers recall the customer survey card the new owner would return after delivery. Well, C.N. read each one of those and initialed mine with a smiley face. I laminated it and it sits on a shelf in my office. Those were the days!

  5. Dennis DeLong

    As a kid we spent summers on Oxford Lake, I remember Connie’s prototype zooming around the lake, racing with my Dad in out 1958 Barbour. My Dad, a Ford engineer said “Mr Ray has the fastest boat on the lake and the way to the future of boats”.

  6. Cole B

    SRV, Express(EXP), Sedan Bridge(SDB), Sundancer, Monaco, Seville, Sorentto, Laguna, and Pachanga all are just some of the models that have helped to transform and shape our Industry and whose silhouettes distinctly told you, that’s a Sea-Ray.  I had the privilege of meeting CN on a few occasions  and they are all dear to me but when we flew into Mid-way airport and then got to ride in his French helicopter to the Abbey for the dealer meeting and then had the introduction of the Pachanga on the River boat; that was in a league of it’s own, and when I saw the Pachanga reborn this year I remembered it all over.  Hat’s off to Brunswick for continuing on in that great tradition that CN started over 50 years ago, may it be around for 50 more.  God speed CN Ray and Thank You for everything. 

  7. Jeff

    My folks helped a friend start one of the first Sea ray dealerships, Boatland, in NY. They never met Connie but ther boss(and mine for 2 summers) did at the NY Show. Nothing but good to say, R.I.P.

  8. Fredric Brown

    OMG
    I had just heard of C.N.s passing. What a nice guy. I met him in the early 80′s when I was a Sea Ray Dealership in California (Kens Boat Center/Valley Marine Centers). He paid my bills needles to say, and I was a Devout and still are a Sea Ray Guy….
    Back in the 80′s , what a time for Sea Ray. Man I had them lined up on Friday for delivery ! I don’t know how C.N. did it but that man read every C.S.I. index card and either stamped a Happy Face , or a Frownie Face. on the cards and would mail them back to me.
    Ever since he sold the company I have tried to get back into Sea Ray. I have found it near impossible and most of operations remind me of Car (Max) any relation ?
    I know he was sad when he sold . I also know that he was Proud of what he created. God Bless him for supporting so many Families for so long. See you in Boat Heaven C.N.
    Freddy B

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