Over the shoulder, American builders can see China

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson
Bill Sisson

Consider this the first of several “meditations” on boatbuilding, the U.S. consumer, China and trends both domestic and global.

Post-recession, the U.S. boatbuilding industry remains a unique mix of mostly small businesses — from tiny one- to three-person shops turning out a handful of boats a year to larger operations employing hundreds and producing hundreds or thousands of boats annually.

At the industry peak, more than 900 builders called the U.S.A. home. Today that number is probably less than 800, which is still a very sizable tribe.

Our traditionally entrepreneurially driven companies build boats for a dizzying range of niches: specialized wakeboard boats, skinny-water flats craft resembling minimalist sculptures, aluminum pontoons with slides and wet bars, express cruisers driven by pod propulsion and joystick controls, 40-plus-foot center consoles powered by triple outboards, long-distance trawlers, deep-vees on steroids, kayaks, convertibles, bass boats, Down Easters, 100-foot-plus yachts and specialized military craft. And that list doesn’t do justice to all of them, including the custom builds.

In big-picture terms it is that diversity and the ability to satisfy a customer base with interests more varied and unique than anywhere else in the world that remains a real strength. It speaks of innovation, ingenuity and versatility.

Despite our many small, specialized segments, there is strong foreign competition here in certain broader categories, particularly express cruisers, motoryachts, trawlers, sailboats and superyachts, where a number of countries have a deserved reputation for quality builds.

This competition from overseas is especially intense, given the economic softness in much of the world, and should keep U.S. builders on their toes. Competition can be good — or it can be disruptive.

U.S. boating consumers are squarely in the crosshairs of builders worldwide. (A sluggish recovery is, after all, still a recovery.) Who wouldn’t want them as customers?

Asia remains the primary builder of trawlers and power cruisers bound for the U.S. market. France, Italy, England, Australia and Turkey are strong competitors in express cruisers and motoryachts. Scandinavia and Germany are known for quality in power and sail. Italy, Germany and the Netherlands are leaders in superyacht production. And New Zealand builders can produce anything your imagination can conjure up.

China? China is an emerging powerhouse and is likely to grow dramatically in the years to come. One question is how much of its production will be aimed at its growing domestic market and how much will be exported.

The relatively low-volume segments of our market are not likely to be threatened, given their small size. Neither China nor anyone else outside our shores will ever have much interest in turning out flats boats, jet-powered river racers or strip-planked epoxy kayaks, to name just three of three dozen small categories.

Chinese investment in established boat companies is on the rise, but how much actual production will migrate to the mainland is unclear. The Ferretti Group, owned by a large Chinese manufacturing company, smartly touts its “Made in Italy excellence” as part of its marketing narrative in exporting its Italian-built yachts to the Asia-Pacific market.

Made in Italy; Made in the USA; Made in Maine. That means something to luxury consumers and experienced boaters. I am old enough to remember when Made in Japan was a pejorative. Not any longer. But Made in China still has a good way to go before it become synonymous with luxury.

That’s not to say high-quality yachts aren’t built in China because they are — Marlow Yachts, Nordhavn and Ocean Alexander, to name three. And Cheoy Lee has been in business for more than 140 years.

“We’re not talking about Happy Meal toys,” says Gene Weeks, a veteran of the U.S. performance boat scene who spent two years in China helping Cheoy Lee develop and build its Alpha line of express cruisers. “The misconception is that ‘Made in China’ equates to lesser quality. This is not the case, as is evidenced by Apple, for example.”

One sign of the growing Chinese presence can be seen at METS this year, where the China pavilion should be “remarkable,” according to Irene Dros, manager of the maritime domain at Amsterdam ARI, the venue that houses the show. Dros recalls that when she started at METS in 2001, there were maybe three or four Chinese companies in attendance. This year the number has swelled to between 60 and 70.

That’s what you call a sign of the times.

This article originally appeared in the November 2013 issue.

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