A centennial that almost wasntPosted on Written by Reagan Haynes
With bankruptcy behind it and Jacobs again the owner, Larson Boats eagerly enters its second century
Larson Boats has been in the same business for 100 years, and Al Kuebelbeck knows thats exceptional. As the company celebrates its centennial, Kuebelbeck reflects on the challenges of recent years, from a bankruptcy restructuring to the Great Recession, and hes looking ahead to what he believes will be some of Larsons most exciting times.
We went through a lot, says Kuebelbeck, the companys president and CEO. If you look at the different recessions weve had, Larsons always been able to weather the storm.
That proved difficult during the Great Recession. The past three years have probably been the toughest three years that Ive participated in this business, he says, noting that some of Larsons boatbuilder competitors failed. That affords us the opportunity to gain some market share because were still alive and still here. We landed in bankruptcy in 2009, and we worked our way through, and weve repositioned ourselves in the market. We didnt sit on our laurels. We worked hard on developing new product that we feel is apropos for the market were dealing with and the generation were dealing with.
Larson is the umbrella company for the Larson, Triumph and Seaswirl Striper brands. All of the operations were consolidated in Little Falls, Minn., after the 2009 restructuring.
The process has not been without difficulty. Genmar Holdings Inc. CEO Irwin Jacobs filed for bankruptcy protection for all 15 of Genmars companies in June 2009. The case was later converted to a Chapter 7 liquidation, and the assets were auctioned. Platinum Equity, a private equity investment firm, purchased the Larson, Triumph and Seaswirl brands from Genmar and sold them to Jacobs new company, J&D Acquisitions. Some vendors and dealers alleged that Jacobs left them holding the bag for unpaid warranty claims and work already completed.
Last January, Charles Ries, the bankruptcy trustee for Genmar Holdings, filed dozens of clawback lawsuits seeking millions of dollars paid to alleged insiders and Genmar subsidiaries before the companys 2009 bankruptcy filing, asking Jacobs to return $2.7 million. In February, Jacobs countersued Ries, accusing him of publishing false statements about Jacobs prior business dealings. Both lawsuits remain open.
Most of the 43 years that Kuebelbeck has spent in the marine industry have been with Larson 38 of them with Jacobs and he defends Jacobs against those who criticize him. Working with him is very rewarding, Kuebelbeck says. I fully understand there are a lot of negatives out there, [but] most of the negatives out there there isnt much substance to it.
Jacobs got into the marine industry in the 1970s when he purchased Larson because he believed so strongly in the brand, Kuebelbeck says. Frankly, without him having that strong feeling in Larson, I dont think Larson would be having its 100th anniversary this year, Kuebelbeck says. Were completely restructured, and coming out of the bankruptcy Irwin couldve walked away, but he had such dedication to the company he stuck with us. Were building the brands back up, and Im excited with what weve got coming down the line and anxious to see how its received.
Weve been very busy, Kuebelbeck adds. Weve been working very hard to develop new product.
Its important to give people a reason to spend money on new boats, and innovative products are the key, he says. In this last three years, the whole buying structure has changed, Kuebelbeck says. We rely really heavily on the entry-level boat buyer, and hes been noticeably absent in the market these days.
Kuebelbeck thinks pent-up demand, combined with new products, will help spark sales. New product is what gets the younger generation to buy, he says. This Y Generation is unlike any weve seen. The electronics and all thats coming out our new generation lives and breathes it. Our products need to have the things that are going to keep them interested.
The company has a strong bond with the Little Falls community after so many years there, Kuebelbeck says. In any company, you can be sophisticated and have all the technology in the world, but if you dont have good people, you dont have a company, he says. Weve got loyalty. There are people who have been working with us 18 and 20 years. Thats what makes my job a lot easier. They are 150 percent behind this company. And Irwin is also. I feel so strongly about whats going on now and appreciate the opportunity to get the message out there a little more truthfully.
After staying out of the public glare for the past few years, now is the time for Larson to get the word out to boat buyers so they understand where the company stands, Kuebelbeck says. Larson launched 11 new models at its dealer meeting in late August, including a revival of the All-American, the iconic boat Larson built from the 1950s to the 1990s. Dealers responded well to the new products, says executive vice president Mike OConnell.
Were always trying to hit this market niche of super-high value and low cost, OConnell says. One of the seamstresses in the audience had been with us 47 years, and wed said, What about if instead of the most efficient stitch line you did the most beautiful stitch line, even if it cost a little bit more? Or what about if we built the most beautiful, elegant hull instead of the most efficient hull, even if it costs a few more bucks? How can we build a boat that shows off what Larson is really about?
Orders have come in at or above planned projection, and the company planned for a pretty significant increase in orders, OConnell says.
The All-American is how Larson made its name in years past, Kuebelbeck says. Were resurrecting the old and combining it with the new, he says. Its pretty cool, and I think its the start of the next hundred years. I think were going to show the world that we meant what we said. Were going to come out with the interest of our buyers at heart.
This article originally appeared in the October 2012 issue.