Two centuries of innovating and adapting

We casually toss around words like innovation, quality and adaptability today as if they were so much small change. But how many companies are really doing the hard work of innovation?
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We casually toss around words like innovation, quality and adaptability today as if they were so much small change. But how many companies are really doing the hard work of innovation?

Hodgdon Yachts in East Boothbay, Maine, has demonstrated the unique ability to change and adjust to survive, grow and expand over the long term. Next year, Hodgdon Yachts celebrates its 200th year in business, which might make it the oldest boatbuilder in the country.

“As far as I know, we are the oldest shipyard in the country,” says company president Tim Hodgdon, who represents the fifth generation of Hodgdons in the business.

What qualities have endured from those early years, when Caleb Hodgdon, who operated a sawmill and gristmill, launched a 42-foot pinky schooner in 1816 for the local fishing fleet? “Quality and innovation,” says Hodgdon, without hesitating. “Our tenaciousness is another important attribute, along with our willingness to change and adapt.”

As recently as three decades ago, the company was still essentially a plank-on-frame wooden-boat builder. Tim Hodgdon took the reins in 1984 and transformed it into one recognized today as a leader in high-tech composite construction.

Hodgdon’s vision was to take the traditional yard to a much higher level of innovation, meaning infusion, carbon fiber and Kevlar, prepreg composite materials, advanced engineering and so forth. “Quite a difference,” he says. “The state of the art back then [steam-bent wood, bilge pitch and oakum] was certainly a lot different than state of the art today.”

Earlier this year, Hodgdon Yachts was named the 2015 Innovator of the Year by the Maine International Trade Center, an award given to a company that is competing globally through new products or processes.

Diversification has played an important role in the new Hodgdon Yachts. The company now has five divisions: Hodgdon Yachts, which builds custom sail- and powerboats up to 60 meters; Hodgdon Custom Tenders, which targets the superyacht market; Hodgdon Defensive Composites, which builds specialized military craft; Hodgdon Interiors; and Hodgdon Yacht Services.

“We’re always struggling here with diversification,” says Hodgdon, who is 60. “It’s critical to the company.” As with many companies, Hodgdon says, there is always a push and pull between diversification and sticking with what you do well.

“This is not an easy company to run,” says Hodgdon. “There are lots of moving parts.” Hodgdon’s daughter Audrey is the marketing manager and represents the sixth generation to work for the builder.

Hodgdon Yachts has about 140 employees and has built about 450 vessels since its inception. Not surprisingly, one of the keys to longevity and success is a strong, motivated work force. “The heartbeat of this company is the employees. Women and men,” says Hodgdon. “They really make it click.”

Hodgdon Yachts competes in a tough, competitive global market. And the clients and their teams are smart, demanding and experienced. “The expectations just grow exponentially,” he says. “It’s exciting. It’s challenging. There’s nothing easy about it. And it’s loaded with risk.”

The risk comes in part from tackling trailblazing projects that are truly cutting-edge. There is no better example than the Hodgdon-built 100-foot super maxi Comanche, which in mid-July set a new 24-hour distance record for a monohull during the Transatlantic Race.

The purpose-built speedster covered 618.01 nautical miles in 24 hours (a 25.75-knot average speed), making Comanche the fastest monohull in the world.

“The boat is amazing,” skipper Ken Read says in a statement. “You sail it heeled over, and it feels like you are right on the edge, but when you grab the wheel you are in control. The boat is a phenomenal piece of machinery.”

Innovative projects such as Comanche — commissioned by Silicon Valley billionaire Jim Clark and his wife, Kristy Hinze-Clark — beget more such undertakings. “Clearly, if you build a 100-foot prepreg super maxi, people know what you’re capable of doing,” says Hodgdon. “These kind of things work hand in hand.”

“Tim Hodgdon and the whole Hodgdon team lengthened buildings, they built ovens and they bought ovens,” Read says. “They wanted to look not just at this project, but they wanted to look at carbon-fiber manufacturing well into the future.”

That’s the long view on innovation.

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue.

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