Innovative Sea Ray founder, who died at 84, built his brand by assembling a strong dealer network
Cornelius Nathaniel "Connie" Ray III, founder of Sea Ray Boats and an industry leader who helped drive the popularity of fiberglass boats, died Nov. 12 after a five-year battle with colon cancer. He was 84 and had been living at his ranch near Santa Ynez, Calif.
Ray founded Sea Ray in 1959 in Oxford, Mich., and built it into one of the world's largest boatbuilders. He sold the company to Brunswick Corp. in December 1986 for $350 million. Sea Ray was selling about 14,000 boats annually - $1 billion worth from 17 to 60 feet - in 2007, according to "Commanding the Waterways: The Story of Sea Ray," Jeffrey Rodengen's 2008 company history.
Ray started humbly, manufacturing family runabouts out of a garage. He had bought a small fiberglass shop that also fabricated golf cart bodies and coffins, but he dropped the sidelines and turned to building boats exclusively. "He saw that the future [of boating] was in fiberglass," says Pete Beauregard, an Algonac, Mich., Sea Ray dealer since 1964 and a friend of Ray's.
Ray didn't just ride the wave of boatbuilding in fiberglass. "He generated the wave," says Dick Bassett, founder of the Bassett Boat Co. of Florida, a Sea Ray dealership since 1979 and now a part of the MarineMax network.
From the start, Ray wanted to build the "Cadillac" of boats - well constructed and stylish, sold through a handpicked dealer network, says Bassett, another old friend of Ray's. Ray modeled some of his manufacturing, design and distribution methods on the big automakers headquartered in his hometown of Detroit. "He raised the bar with his designs - the automobile-type steering wheels, wood-grain dashes, upgraded interiors, stylish hull lines," Bassett says. "C.N. wanted his boats to be different. He didn't want them to look like everyone else's."
"Styling was very, very key to him," says Beauregard. Ray brought in GM designer Harley Earl to help design his early boats. Earl's fins didn't sell well, but his application of auto styling to Sea Ray interiors - the dash and upholstery - and some of his other auto-inspired design ideas helped put Sea Ray on the map.
Working with Ray and Earl, Jerry Michalak, Sea Ray's chief designer for 37 years, built a reputation of innovative design and engineering, and quality construction. Bassett says the early Sea Rays were tough, their bottoms hand-laid with fiberglass 3/4- to 1-inch thick.
Ray was one of the first manufacturers to end the practice of building the hull and turning it over to the dealer to rig the steering and other items, even the windshield. "Sea Ray did total integration," Bassett says. "The boats came [to the dealership] fully assembled, looking beautiful."
But it was his dedication to building a superior dealer network that really set Ray apart. "Distribution was king," Beauregard says. While others scrambled to assemble as many dealers as they could to sell more boats, Ray sought out the best dealers he could find and gave them big territories. He wanted dealers who could show and service the boats well, cater to customers and ably represent Sea Ray. He also wanted to help his dealers succeed, Beauregard says. If they were successful, Sea Ray would be successful.
A former Army Air Corps pilot, Ray would fly around the country in his Learjet (sometimes flying it himself) to visit his dealers, spend time with them, ask them what he could do to help them sell boats - improve the product, offer sales incentives, make parts more readily available. "He really did have a personal relationship with all of his dealers," Beauregard says. And when Ray made a commitment to a dealer to solve a problem at the corporate level, it wasn't just "lip service," he says. "Things would get fixed."
Ray had a deep respect not just for his dealers, but for his employees. "Boy, was he loyal to his people," Beauregard says. He took care of his workers, early on offering them health insurance and later a retirement plan, profit sharing and stock ownership. He spent a lot of time at dealerships and on the floor at the plants. "He wanted to be with his employees and with his dealers," Beauregard says. "His company, his employees, his dealers - they made life tick for him."
After a customer bought a boat, Sea Ray would send the buyer a card with five or six questions on it to gauge their satisfaction with the sale, dealer service and product. Ray reviewed every card and sent it to the dealer where the sale originated, with a smiling or frowning face drawn on it. "If you got a frown, that was a call to action," Bassett says. "C.N. would always say, 'We make the best boats. We have the best people. No frowns.' "
An industry icon
Sea Ray president Robert J. Parmentier, who worked under Ray in the early 1980s, says Ray set the tone. "He believed ... that you built a good-quality boat, backed it up, delivered good customer service and got the best dealers," he says. If the company stuck to its knitting and did that, it would succeed.
In Ray's foreword to Rodengen's book - written for the builder's 50th anniversary this year - he says he already knew what he needed to do to succeed when he exhibited for the first time at the Chicago National Boat Show in 1960. "We were already setting ourselves apart from our competition with strict attention to the basics: superior products, superior dealers and a sincere appreciation of our customers," he wrote.
Parmentier describes Ray as one of the industry's icons. "He helped develop the fiberglass boat business," he says. "He was always a step ahead of his time."
Bassett remembers him as a remarkably charismatic man, a leader. "He was an innovator; he had foresight. He brought together the best dealer organization ever assembled," Bassett says. "This guy was a natural inspirer. He was a leader of men. After you got off the telephone with him, you wanted to go out and do something. He was a leader, he was a motivator, but with intellect."
Ray always did things first-class. Bassett recalls that one year he took his dealers to Monte Carlo for a sales meeting. Another time, Bassett arranged to charter a twin-engine prop-driven aircraft to fly Ray from Fort Lauderdale to Nassau in the Bahamas (the Rays had a vacation home on Lyford Cay), but Ray balked. " 'Dick, props belong on boats,' " Bassett recalls him saying. "He wanted a jet."
A horse breeder
After retiring from Sea Ray, Ray turned his attention to his other love - raising thoroughbred horses. He spent time at his Evergreen Farm near Paris, Ky., and at a small farm near Bradbury, Calif., and a training center in Camden, S.C. Like everything else he did, he pursued racing with a passion, winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint in 1996 with Lit de Justice and again the following year with Elmhurst.
Ray was born May 14, 1925, to Charles H. Ray and Virginia Bryant Ray in Detroit. He attended the Detroit University School in Grosse Pointe, Mich., joined the Army Air Corps during World War II and graduated from UCLA in 1949. Known to his friends as C.N. or Connie, Ray was "passionate about enjoying life, boating, aviation and animals, especially thoroughbred horses," says his son C.C. Ray.
Ray is survived by his wife of 28 years, Carol, a daughter and five sons. A sister and a sixth son predeceased him.
This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue.