A year later, a little brighter

Posted on Written by Chris Landry

30_year_01When Gougeon Brothers Inc. president Alan Gurski visited one of his customers in Maine last year, the shop was dead-quiet. The routing machines were off, and only the owner, his dog and one other worker were there.

30_year_02A year later, the whirring sounds of the CNC routers slicing through a hardtop mold greeted Gurski when he again visited Janseneering, a composite tooling company in Topsham. “All three machines were busy,” says Gurski, whose Bay City, Mich., company manufacturers and sells the popular WEST System and Pro-Set epoxies for boatbuilding and repair work. “There were probably six guys in the shop. They had other work going on besides the machine work and, of course, the dog was still there.”

Business has improved, but it’s far from thriving, says Janseneering owner David Jansen. In fact, he says, things had slowed in early May from what Gurski and two other Gougeon representatives had seen when they visited in late March. “I had a big contract that got cancelled on me,” says Jansen. “It’s a sign of the times. We’ll find other work. We just have to do some scrambling. There’s not a whole lot of stuff out there right now.”

Still, after meeting with more than 30 custom and semicustom boatbuilders and repair shops in Maine during a 17-day trip, Gurski and field sales executive Ben Gougeon say they saw evidence of an economic upswing. (Gougeon technical adviser John Thomas was also on the trip to resolve any customer issues with the products.)

“I’ve done this trip for three years,” says Gurski. “We get a yearly snapshot of the industry over 2-1/2 weeks in Maine. We feel we have a lot better gauge or bellwether of what’s going on than the builders themselves.”

30_year_03Based on last year, he says, things are much better. “It’s night and day,” he says. “It’s probably not back to where it was in June ’07, even into ’08, when I would argue we were spoiled as an industry, but there are more cars in the parking lots; there are more guys in the shops. The phone was literally ringing. Attitudes are better – the owners and the employees.”

30_year_04Last year’s trip was “pretty abysmal,” says Gurski. “It was a sad trip, so the industry, at least in Maine, has come a long, long way in a year.”

Outside of Maine

What about other parts of the country? Soundings Trade Only talked with Gougeon customers in Florida and the Mid-Atlantic, and these businesses pretty much echo what their colleagues to the north are reporting.

“Is it improving?” asks Doug Blount, president of DLBA Robotics in Suffolk, Va. “Yes. Is it improving much? No. We have seen a little bit of an uptick in the marine world. The first half of last year was absolutely horrible, marine-wise. In the last third of the year we started doing marine work again. We’ve seen a little motion with the smaller boats, like in the Carolinas, say, under 25 feet.”

 




The difference: Boat use is up

Business this spring for Gougeon Brothers Inc. was up by about 20 percent compared to last spring — and the reason is simple, says company president Alan R. Gurski.

“People are putting their boats back in the water,” he says. “I would argue that through the worst part of the recession a year ago folks just didn’t put their boats in the water. … People were really buckling down. So I think this year folks have come out of the recession a little better than anticipated. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as they thought or the media was telling them, so they are putting their boats back in the water.”

If boaters are using their boats, they’re also working on them. “The maintenance-type products like ours are doing very well,” says Gurski. “Our OEM business is still down, and it will be for a while. It will take some recovery time.”

About 60 percent of the epoxy manufacturer’s business is for repair and maintenance projects, says Gurski. In fact, the Bay City, Mich., company recently introduced two new products — 207 Special Clear Hardener and Six10 prethickened structural adhesive.

“We’ve even seen real growth from ’08,” says Gurski. “Business is better — and that is all around the globe, by the way.”

— Chris Landry

Blount’s company produces CNC-machined patterns, plugs and limited-production molds for the marine, wind and other industries. It has been hired to do some new-boat work, but Blount declined to give specifics because of non-disclosure agreements with those customers.

“They don’t want the outside world to know they’re spending money,” says Blount, whose father heads up a separate marine business, Donald L. Blount and Associates, a naval architecture and engineering firm. “There is some thought that 2011 is going to be a potential rebound year and the people that are starting to spend a little money are doing it with the intent to present at the Miami boat show.”

Here’s more good news: Four of the five boatbuilders we spoke to were working on new-boat projects. Matt Sledge, owner of Samoset Boatworks in Boothbay, Maine, is one of them.

“I spent all of last year doing nothing but repair work,” says Sledge, who builds both power- and sailboats. “Right now I am building a little 22-foot daysailer on spec. Hopefully, when I get this [boat] done, things might be picking up and I might have some orders for these. I got the impression from the Maine Boatbuilders Show and when the Gougeon boys were up that things are starting to turn around.”

Designed by Doug Zurn, the daysailer is a cold-  molded, plank-on-frame hull with a carbon fiber mast, says Sledge.

‘Serious’ inquiries

Down South, Mystic Powerboats in Deland, Fla., sold three 50-foot performance power catamarans for recreational use in the second half of last year. (The builder was just finishing the first one in midspring.)

“The interest seems to be up right now,” says John Cosker, who founded his business in 1996. “There is definitely more of a positive outlook, but people aren’t necessarily pulling the trigger yet. We’ve had a lot more inquiries, but closing a deal is still difficult. They’re there again and they’re talking about it, but they’re certainly not signing up in droves.”

The saturated used-boat market   doesn’t help, either, says Cosker. “People are still cautious and waiting for a solid upswing, waiting to feel a little more stable before they start to spend a lot of money, especially our product. It is pretty high-dollar value.”

32_year_05On Florida’s Gulf Coast, in Coral Cove, Hugh Saint builds the antithesis of Cosker’s high-performance powerboats. Saint’s retro-style custom wooden boats range from a 22-foot runabout to a recently completed 65-foot express cruiser with twin 1,700-hp Caterpillars and jetdrives.

Saint recently was building the interior of a custom 29-foot sportfishing boat and there was another interior job after that one. Plus, he “just got a call from a guy who has a 30-foot boat we built 17 years ago and he wants it refinished,” says Saint, 75. “So that is what is going on.”

There are no new-boat projects, but interest is high, he says. “We’re answering inquiries like crazy, so we feel quite optimistic,” he says. “We feel things are going to start happening before too long.”

The inquiries aren’t just tire-kickers, either, says Saint. “They’re well-qualified people,” he says. “So it is just a matter of whether we have what they want. It appears most of them can afford what we do. We’ve answered two dozen. One or two or three have got to happen. We might have just the opposite happen, and we might be getting too many orders.”

Waiting game

The qualified buyers have returned for Ricky Scarborough Jr., who runs Scarborough Boatworks in Wanchese, N.C. He was completing a 74-footer, but had yet to land the next new-boat project. Some of his current customers are seriously looking into buying another boat, he says. “These are not new boaters and I know they’re qualified,” says Scarborough, whose company designs and constructs custom wooden sportfishing yachts from 57 to 85 feet.

32_year_06When times were better, Scarborough Boatworks was building three boats simultaneously. “We’ve had as many as five going at once,” he says. That type of business may seem like an impossible achievement right now, but Scarborough is focusing on the positive. “The overall mood of people is better, yes,” he says. “The attitude definitely is better.”

Like Scarborough, boatbuilder French & Webb has work, including the construction of a Herreshoff yawl and the restoration of a 1926 Fife 8 Meter sailboat, but has yet to pin down new work. However, the company this spring submitted quotes on a few new-boat projects, says Peter Webb, who with partner Todd French founded the Belfast, Maine, company in 1996.

32_year_07“There was a point at which we were looking at the future, and we could see nothing,” says Webb. “And now there is more activity and we have to believe that things will gel, and a couple of these projects we’ve quoted on will come together and turn into real projects.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue.

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