Young Turks: Chris Allard, 29, Metal Shark Aluminum Boats

Posted on Written by David Shaw

32_youngturks_03Patrol- and rescue-boat builder has $193M government contract, will continue foray into recreational market

When Chris Allard was 10, he sketched a 23-foot powerboat of his own design, something he often did at that age. He liked it so much he thought Boston Whaler should build it. Showing a fair amount of gumption for a child, he mailed the drawing to the company’s president, asking him to do just that.

“It was really a terrible drawing, barely stick figures, but I got a letter back, along with a hat and two tickets to the upcoming boat show in New York,” Allard recalls with a laugh. “I met the president at the show, and he encouraged me to pursue naval architecture.”

And that’s what Allard did. He grew up around boats on Long Island, N.Y., living aboard trawlers with his parents and his sister during the summer. He moved on to restore a 1968 classic 18-foot Donzi, which he still owns, and graduated from the Webb Institute in Glen Cove, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in naval architecture and marine engineering.

Allard is now 29 and president of Metal Shark Aluminum Boats, based in Jeanerette, La. A subsidiary of Gravois Aluminum Boats, Metal Shark builds high-speed welded-aluminum patrol and rescue vessels for the Coast Guard, Navy and Army, and for law enforcement and fire/rescue organizations throughout the United States and abroad (www.metalsharkboats.com).

32_youngturks_04In September, after a lengthy bidding process and the production of a prototype built to meet performance requirements specified by the Coast Guard, Metal Shark was awarded a $193 million contract — with fulfillment to run seven or so years — to build 500 Response Boats-Small for use by the Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection and the Navy. The Coast Guard announced its initial delivery order Sept. 28 of 38 boats worth approximately $13 million.

The RB-S, as it’s known, is a 28-footer originated by Metal Shark that features a deep-vee hull based on Metal Shark’s well-established Defiance model in wide use by the military and law enforcement. Twin 225-hp Honda outboards provide a maximum speed in excess of 45 mph, and the minimum range is 150 nautical miles with a crew of four. According to Coast Guard press material, Metal Shark’s boat will replace the existing small-boat fleet in service since 2002, and represents “one of the largest boat buys of its type for the Coast Guard.”

“The contract is a great opportunity for us,” says Allard. “It’s a very high visibility project, since the boat will be the standard small-boat platform for the majority of the Coast Guard’s inshore missions nationwide. It will give us a lot of long-term revenue and stability to continue our expansion.”

Into recreational

The company has been steadily growing, Allard says, and part of that expansion led to a foray into the recreational market with the introduction in 2008 of the 35 Courageous, a rugged 35-foot offshore center console designed specifically for anglers who fish hard and often in rough conditions. To date, the company has built 15 of these boats and, says Allard, interest in the Courageous remains strong.

33_youngturks_05The 35 Courageous rides a deep-vee hull and is powered by twin 350-hp or triple 300-hp outboards — typically Mercury or Yamaha 4-strokes. Cruising speed ranges from 40 to 45 mph, and the boat has a top end of 65 mph with the triple-engine configuration.

“The hull was designed for a comfortable ride, and to carry as much speed and comfort in rough conditions as possible,” Allard says. “It wasn’t designed to be the fastest boat on the block, but it was designed for hard service. That’s key. Durability and reliability is what this boat is all about.”

Allard says the boat is only available factory-direct. A national dealer network for service and warranty work is in place in most regions, and locations where it is not are served with factory personnel. Depending on options, delivery of a finished boat can take between 120 and 180 days. A fully outfitted 35 Courageous, with electronics, engines and a trailer, costs roughly $250,000 and can handle 12 passengers.

Making the leap into recreational boats at about the time the new-boat sales market plunged off a cliff was not for the faint of heart, but Allard says he believed the 35 Courageous was positioned to meet the needs of hard-core anglers who want a boat that’s a bit different from what is in neighboring slips. “Pleasure boats are all merging together, kind of like cars,” he says. “You can hardly tell them apart anymore. Some people just want something different.”

Last year Metal Shark introduced its 40-foot Fearless, which sells for an average of $400,000. Allard says the Fearless, a high-performance patrol boat, has “accidentally” appealed to upscale megayacht owners, who buy it as an “expedition” tender, and to other buyers who want a 70-mph center console that can stand up to brutal conditions. “The Fearless is seeing interest from the [luxury] recreational market, which we frankly weren’t expecting,” he says. “It doesn’t look like a recreational boat. It’s attracting very high-end buyers who want a rugged and almost Humvee-like craft.”

33_youngturks_06Bigger is evidently better, according to Allard. Based on the trends he is seeing, buyers in the recreational and non-recreational markets are going for larger boats of superior quality. In the past three years, the bulk of the company’s sales have gone from boats of 25 feet to those of 35 feet or more, though Allard attributes this mostly to the requirements of its core military and commercial customers, who are looking for larger vessels.

The company typically sold about 100 units annually through 2010, but that number decreased this year because of an emphasis on bigger boats that yielded higher prices per unit. The dollar volume in 2011 was about the same as that of 2010, Allard says. With the RB-S contract and other new ventures coming online, Allard expects the company to produce approximately 120 units in 2012 and a growth rate of 20 to 25 percent per year through 2015. The RB-S contract will amount to approximately 30 percent of Metal Shark’s production in the coming years, according to Allard.

Building with aluminum

Designing and building bigger boats like the 35 Courageous and RB-S on a large scale requires state-of-the-art technology. The company’s five in-house naval architects use 3-D rendering software during the design process, and on the factory floor some of the company’s 80 full-time employees use computer-guided routers and other equipment to build the boats. The company expects to add an additional 40 employees early in 2012, in part to meet the production schedule for the RB-S.

“Most aluminum boats are handmade,” Allard says. “When you hand-make an aluminum boat, you can’t necessarily design in some of the same shapes as you can with a fiberglass mold. We use a female jig, which is very similar to how you would build a fiberglass boat. The jig allows us to design and build in shapes that we couldn’t otherwise build without it.”

Patrol boats, like the RB-S, that are run at maximum speeds need to be tough, and structural integrity is essential. Because aluminum is light and strong, it’s easier to build structural integrity into the hull than is sometimes the case with fiberglass. “With fiberglass construction in large center consoles, you’ve got to be concerned with possible structural failures,” says Allard. “We’ve not seen a lot of recreational fiberglass boats holding up to what we expect as a normal life span. In some cases, you’ll see structural problems in boats that are only three or four years old.”

On the other hand, fiberglass construction offers cosmetic advantages that aluminum can’t. “There are some portions of a fiberglass boat that are prettier, cleaner and nicer than an aluminum boat,” he says. “The aluminum boat is for someone who wants industrial duty,” such as a charter captain or an angler who heads offshore all the time.

Allard designed the 35 Courageous with his partner, Jimmy Gravois. They combined the high-tech construction methods used to build the government and military craft in the company’s 65,000-square-foot factory with Gravois’ more than 30 years designing and building recreational aluminum fishing boats. The Courageous just seemed to be a natural for the company, Allard says.

After interning at Donzi Marine while he was in college, Allard in 2005 went on to head the engineering and construction team at the commercial and military branch of American Marine Holdings, the parent company of Donzi Marine and Pro-Line Boats. That’s how he got his start building patrol and police vessels, although fiberglass was the preferred material at the time. In 2007, American Marine expanded to build these same boats out of aluminum, and the new division was called Metal Shark Boats. Gravois Aluminum Boats was named as the subcontractor. Later that year, American Marine decided to sell the aluminum-boat division, and Allard and Gravois acquired it.

“Jimmy was seeing a downturn in his [recreational boat] sales,” Allard says. “We believed it would be a good business venture to acquire Metal Shark, but we weren’t aware of just how bad it would get in the recreational market. We hadn’t intended to stop building recreational boats during this period, but we did. We chose to focus solely on the military and government.”

Since 2007 the company has expanded its facilities annually, adding 15,000 square feet to its 50,000 square-foot facility to date, with plans to add more space in late 2012 or early 2013. The expanded production capacity has enabled Metal Shark to more expeditiously meet its government orders, setting the stage to facilitate fulfillment of the RB-S contract, and to continue to dip its toe into the recreational market, something Allard and Gravois very much wanted to do from the start.

This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue.

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