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It’s payoff time for recession’s R&D disciples

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The headline surprised me: “U.S. to be World’s Top Oil Producer in 5 Years.”

Just a few years ago, who’da thunk it?

Recently I was studying a series of photos showing a triple-outboard-powered boat crabbing into a slip with the outboards positioned at different angles?

Just a few years ago, who’da thunk that?

Innovation and change is in the air. New boats, electronics, propulsion and other systems, and products are debuting at the shows and making their way into the hands and slips and dreams of boating consumers. Clearly, not everyone spent the Great Recession and its aftermath hunkered down or sweeping the shop floor for the umpteenth time. Turns out engineers, designers and entrepreneurs — licensed, degreed and of the seat-of-the-pants variety — at companies large and small kept themselves busy.

And there is plenty of evidence — anecdotal and otherwise — that those who invested time and money in new-product development are faring better than those who sat on their hands. It’s the difference between those who saw the last several years as an opportunity to take market share through innovation versus those who shunned change and opted for the fetal position. Given the uncertainty that still sometimes permeates the air, that sort of boldness requires vision, ingenuity, resources and something of a leap of faith.

Welcome to the new world, Columbus.

“The issue, of course, is that nobody knew how deep the recession would be or how long our industry would be in the doldrums,” says Bentley Collins, vice president of sales and marketing at Sabre Yachts and Back Cove Yachts. “As it turns out, the risk we took developing new boats on the same pace that we were on prerecession was the right choice.

“Those who stopped until business was back to normal are still stopped, and now their most recent designs are five years old — a lifetime in a business where people respond so positively to new and innovative.”

The photos I referenced at the beginning of this column showed a big center console moving sideways, thanks to Yamaha’s new Helm Master system, which not only includes a joystick, but also automatic trim control, speed control and steering friction control (see P. 48). That system — along with new 4-cylinder 150- and 200-hp 4-stroke outboards — was introduced in late October and will be available in March.

About four weeks earlier at IBEX, Mercury Marine introduced its Joystick Piloting for outboards, which will be available in the spring. And Teleflex has its Optimist 360 system with joystick for mechanically controlled outboards.

There was also a nice uptick this fall in boat introductions, which are too numerous to mention here. One that got our attention is the Sea Ray 370 Venture, a twin-outboard boat in which the 300-hp Mercury Verados are smartly hidden in two compartments that also serve as sun lounges. One of the benefits of the outboard installation is that it allows for a large midcabin. That’s different.

The innovative duo of Ken Clinton and Mark Beaver of Intrepid Powerboats showed Trade Only senior reporter Chris Landry the company’s new 327 Enclosed Center Console, which has powered front and side windshields that raise and lower with the push of a button. Nifty. And the list goes on.

Innovative new product is the key to growth. “Frankly, it’s the only way to drive business forward,” Collins told me at the Fort Lauderdale show. “If I was selling [just] the boats I was prerecession, I wouldn’t be here.”

He continued his remarks in an email: “At the end of the day you had to have faith in the business you are in, and the investment is a requirement for any successful builder,” says Collins, noting that the company in 2012 will set a record for powerboat sales in terms of dollars. “It was all about the timing and the level of risk. We got it right. Many did not.”

Talk about change. We suddenly live in a world in which hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling are opening up vast U.S. reserves of oil and gas locked in shale rock. By 2017, the United States might overtake Saudi Arabia as the leading oil exporter in the world, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

Within a day of that news, the Wall Street Journal had a story describing how a French lawmaker was advocating for a larger role for the venerable carrier pigeon in the advent of a hurricane, war, nuclear accident or other modern-day Armageddon.

“Where modernity stops,” the politician told the newspaper, “pigeons can still go through.”

Who’da thunk it?

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue.

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