Coming alongside as pontoons surge

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes
Taylor Made and Ameritex displayed a Sylvan pontoon equipped with their canvas at IBEX.

Taylor Made and Ameritex displayed a Sylvan pontoon equipped with their canvas at IBEX.

Pontoon sales climbed once again this summer, posting a 23 percent year-over-year gain in August alone. The category has been one of only a few that have consistently rebounded since the economic downturn. That sustained popularity — along with the pontoon’s rapid evolution from “grandpa boat” to versatile (and even stylish) vessel — is leading some builders and suppliers to rethink their plans.

A recent and ongoing expansion at Taylor Made Systems and its Ameritex Fabric Systems unit’s Rome City, Ind., facility is part of an effort to be closer to pontoon clients and step up service to one of the few growing segments in the industry, Ameritex president and co-founder Don Zirkelbach says. The companies began working with pontoon builders about two years ago as the segment began to grow.

The transition was natural, Zirkelbach says, and it has paid off. Today, pontoon business is enjoying a 20 to 30 percent growth rate in the overall business Ameritex does. “The rate of pontoon growth has been fast, so it’s led to nice growth for us, as well.”

The fact that pontoons are changing so rapidly has also led to increasing opportunities for supply OEMs, says Mike Oathout, vice president, sales and marketing, at Taylor Made Systems. The pontoon has become “the Swiss Army Knife of boats” and that gives the supply chain room to create innovative products to appeal to a growing demographic.

“Obviously the market has evolved past the cliche of your grandpa’s pontoon,” Oathout says. “Now you can tow behind them, sleep on them, fish off them, barbecue on them. They’re just a great overall value in the marketplace today.”

The Taylor Made-Ameritex expansion started in April and has been ongoing with the addition of equipment. “We’ve expanded our frame operations in a plant that builds frames for all our supporting canvas for Bimini tops for pontoons. The canvas is still manufactured in Florida, but we marry it in Rome City, so shipping and freight costs are substantially less than they would be,” Zirkelbach says.

Higher expectations

The increasing emphasis on style and a shift in powering options has led to demand for different products on the boats, Zirkelbach says. “Pontoon boats today are much more stylish, and they have a tremendous amount of speed because they’re powering these boats with larger engines.”

That created a need for canvas that would withstand the higher speeds, so Ameritex began to transition its products geared to powerboats to pontoons. “The overall design of the canvas actually is aesthetically appealing, which accentuates the style of the boats,” Zirkelbach says. “We pride ourselves on designing canvas to flow with the boat’s lines and withstand high speeds.”

The shift of some consumers from the fiberglass powerboat market into pontoons is creating more demand for high-performing, stylish products, Oathout says. Those consumers are used to a certain fit and finish and quality on boats.

“Because of that, companies like Taylor Made and Ameritex are getting more opportunities,” Oathout says. “People coming from a 28-foot Sea Ray are used to very clean, robust design on fabric. Also, they think more about protecting the driver station. We’re getting a lot of interest in wraparound windshields, and part of that stems from the consumers’ prior experiences.”

Workers produce canvas at an Ameritex facility in Bradenton, Fla.

Workers produce canvas at an Ameritex facility in Bradenton, Fla.

All of that adds up to innovations that might be adapted from existing powerboat options, but are evolving to pontoons for the first time. “One of the biggest concerns that customers have is that it’s a daunting task to take down and put up the canvas that goes along with a full glass enclosure,” Oathout says.

Ameritex is now sewing in QR labels to canvas pieces so consumers can scan them and get a 20-second instructional video on a mobile device instead of sorting through manuals. It also gives time-saving tips and instructions on how to roll up the canvas and store it. “This is what the new consumer is looking for, and this is what we’re giving him. We feel today’s consumer is really hungry for this information.”

The company also is offering color-coding because the task of putting up and removing canvas can be time-consuming and daunting. “If you can imagine a 26-foot pontoon, it has a lot of side curtains and front curtains,” Oathout says. “That’s a tremendous amount of fabric to put up and take down, so we’re color-coding parts that go together. That has really taken some of the guesswork away from what part is supposed to mate with other parts.”

Catering to pontoons

Some of the innovations, such as the dielectric welding process Ameritex uses to create waterproof tops in the same vein as convertibles, are adapted from technology being used in other segments of the boating industry. But the unique nature of pontoons is also creating room for companies to branch into new territory.

Ameritex is going through the patent process for a cover design for the playpen and the expensive upholstery inside.

“You have to cover that whole playpen area, which [on] these boats [is[ 25, 28 feet long,” Zirkelbach says. “With the typical cover today, you’ve got to take this big cover out of storage and snap it all around the rail. It can take a half hour, and I think that prevents people from taking their boat out for an hour on a weeknight. So Ameritex now has a cover with no snaps that attaches using tension, and it can be put on in less than 10 minutes. These are the types of products we’re working on so we can get consumers excited about boating and encourage them to say, ‘I am going to go out for that quick night cruise.’ ”

The challenged sterndrive market is prompting more vendors and suppliers to seek other revenue sources, says Phil Smoker of SmokerCraft, which makes Sylvan pontoons, a client of Taylor Made and Ameritex.

“So many pontoons are not necessarily customized, but people are buying them to their liking, so there needs to be a lot of options for consoles, tops, furniture stylings, and that does open the door for new OEMs,” Smoker says. “Lighting options for the undersides of decks or tubes, some of that is coming from the sterndrive segment, so it’s not all new, but there are also a lot of new things unique to pontoons. If you look at the tops, now there are automatic tops that you don’t manually have to maneuver.”

The focus Ameritex and Taylor Made have placed on simplicity has been a selling point for Sylvan, Smoker says.

Taylor Made and Ameritex displayed a Sylvan at the door of the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference in October, and Outhout says that was one of the best things the firms have ever done at a show. “We had tremendous interest from people walking into IBEX. They saw this pontoon boat that was fully outfitted with everything you can imagine in terms of canvas. We were able to obtain feedback from customers about what they liked and didn’t like.”

Closer, more nimble

The expansion at the Indiana plant was also part of the companies’ strategy to be closer to their pontoon base, and the facility has room to continue growing. “We have become more of a local supplier to a lot of pontoon boatbuilders by having a full engineering staff and products nearby so we can offer that very localized service,” Zirkelbach says.

The engineering staff on hand can personally respond when a manufacturer has questions or challenges or needs help with troubleshooting, and being closer helps the companies react. “We also have the capability to make changes on the fly,” Zirkelbach says. “If something has moved on the boat or we need a change in the canvas, we can do it. That’s a tremendous service for the customer to be able to react so quickly.”

Smoker agrees that this is a big selling point. “One of the things that Ameritex has done, one of the challenges they’ve overcome, is there are so many variations in these products, and so many model layouts, and in a lot of cases the canvas or covers that work on one boat can’t work on another boat. They’ve been very involved throughout the process, from R&D. They have really invested in making sure they’re involved throughout to help keep up with new designs.”

And there are still plenty of opportunities for additional suppliers, Smoker says. The higher horsepower creates a need for different steering options, or bigger gas tanks, for example. “That’s all playing into the pontoon segment. There are more bar style models, more dollies, more of those fiberglass pieces you might find on cruisers or deckboats, so from that standpoint we’re seeing more companies cater to the pontoon market that hadn’t before.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.

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