Connecticut businessmen think Nord Star USA’s salty pilothouse boats will sell in cautious economy
New-boat sales are flagging, fuel prices remain volatile, consumer confidence is on the wane and new boats from overseas are more expensive, thanks to the weak dollar. But none of that’s surprising to anyone.
What is somewhat surprising is that this would be the moment two U.S. businessmen decided to combine forces to import a line of inboard pilot-house boats from Finland.
For them, this is the right time — and the right boat, says Ceasar Anquillare, chairman of WinMarine Ventures LLC, of New Haven, Conn. Anquillare and John Uljens, the president and CEO, announced in August an agreement with Finnish builder Linex-Oy to distribute the line of six Nord Star boats, from 24 to 40 feet, in the United States. Nord Star USA is headquartered at Birbarie Marine in Branford, Conn.
“We’re not as negative as most economists,” says Anquillare, a career venture capitalist and licensed captain. “Despite the downturn in the economy, new boat and motor sales in 2007 amounted to $14.4 billion. According to our research, at least 320,000 powerboats will be sold this year. Although the number of unit sales may diminish by 20 percent this year, there will be an estimated 5,500 to 6,000 inboard unit sales directly in our category.”
The Nord Star Patrol boats are single- and twin-engine pilothouse “trawlers” with a salty look and a solid pedigree. Built by the family-owned company under the care of patriarch Olli Lindkvist, the Nord Star line is well-known in Europe not only as recreational craft but as government safety-patrol vessels suited to the notoriously rough Baltic Sea and its environs. The partners made four trips to the London Boat Show looking for the right import, comparing dozens of prospective boats before choosing the Finnish boats nicknamed “sport utility vessels” by their owners.
The U.S. boats will be powered by Volvo Penta diesel sterndrives with Duoprop outdrives. (The 24 also comes in an outboard version, and the 40 will be powered by Volvo’s IPS.) Early focus will be on the 26- and 31-footers. Cruising speed for the 31 Patrol will be 25 to 30 mph, with fuel consumption of about 10 gallons per hour. It sleeps four and has a full head (with shower) and a galley. It will sell for about $375,000. After their unveiling Sept. 11-14 at the Newport International Boat Show, the 26 and 31 were scheduled to be on display Sept. 18-21 at the Norwalk International In-Water Boat Show.
“The American public is seeking a fuel-efficient, quality vessel that can provide both the family and fisherman pleasure time on the water,” says Anquillare. “With higher airfares and less time for travel, the monthly cost of a Nord Star becomes more attractive and offers the ability to take several weekend holidays during the season.”
Today’s financially pressed boater is also looking for bang for the buck — a well-built, easily maintained boat that retains its value year after year. The Nord Stars’ pilothouse design makes them year-round boats, and the diesel power is both reliable and long-lived. The 31 is also rated “B” by the International Maritime Certification Institute, meaning it can handle sustained winds of 46 to 49 mph and waves of 13-plus feet.
Anquillare and Uljens, a 36-year veteran of marine sales, have as much faith in the economy as they do in their boats, despite the current conditions. Already, they see a parting of the clouds on the horizon.
“This recession differs from previous economic downturns because of better inventory controls at the manufacturing level, which will lead to an accelerated recovery,” says Anquillare. “The plant closings in the USA mean production will also be down, and going forward there will be less inventory to sell.”
He sees exchange rates improving soon, too. “Many economists [believe] the Euro and pound sterling have been trading at artificially high levels,” Anquillare says. “In the UK, the pound has already seen a decline to its lowest level against the dollar in 22 months [as of mid-August]. The dollar has also strengthened against the euro over the past 30 days.”
Anquillare predicts the U.S. economy will strengthen after the elections, oil prices will stabilize, and boating sales will make a recovery in 2009. He says that while it’s unlikely the industry will return to the higher sales levels experienced in inboard powerboats until 2010 or after, boats such as the Nord Star, which offer speed, year-round comfort and fuel economy, may have an edge in the comeback.
Another factor in their favor is the state of the Finnish builder. Unlike in the United States, where some builders have been laying off workers, Linex-Oy is in the midst of a building boom. The firm moved into a state-of-the-art plant in Kalvia, Finland, in February and has hired skilled workers as production continues to grow, recently reaching 200 units per year. The efficiency promised by the new facility will enhance the region’s reputation for “Old World” craftsmanship.
“I have a passion for boating and also the unifying elements of design, fuel efficiency, construction, handling and seaworthiness,” says Uljens, the son of a Finnish cabinetmaker. “My Dad … taught me the value of quality and workmanship — fit and finish that I see in Nord Star boats.”
Marketing efforts will be focused on the Northeast, Great Lakes, West Coast and Pacific Northwest, and Canada, where Anquillare and Uljens feel the boat’s rugged character and all-year layout will be most fitting. “Initially, we plan to launch our venture through direct consumer sales in order to familiarize the consumer with our unique product,” says Uljens. “However, we are actively seeking quality dealers.”
WinMarine Ventures is currently negotiating with a major marina chain with repair facilities that may end up handling service. The popularity of Volvo Penta products means they’re easily serviced almost anywhere, says Uljens.
Uljens says the average buyer will be a knowledgeable boat owner who may be downsizing from a larger power- or sailboat and looking to reduce the costs associated with their pastime, without sacrificing comforts and with the benefits of fuel efficiency.
“Our venture will succeed because we have faith in the American consumer and the future of the boating industry,” says Anquillare. “We believe the timing for the introduction of Nord Star to North America could not be better.”
Nord Star USA can be contacted at (203) 415-0696. www.nordstarusa.com
This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.