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Survival story: small-shop boatbuilders

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The question is this: Why did so few boatbuilders (compared with dealers) go out of business during the recession?

Trade Only associate editor Reagan Haynes does a very good job of unraveling the various reasons builders, or at least their brands, seem to have nine lives. It’s an interesting topic because it speaks, in some ways, to the core of our industry. With notable exceptions, the boatbuilding segment has mostly been made up of hundreds of small businesses. There’s been some consolidation of brands because of the most recent economic shakeout, but most builders still operate small shops — even smaller since the recession.

They got into building boats because that’s what they love to do. The overhead was low, the technology was far from rocket science and when things got slow, you did something else. The small builders I knew repaired boats when they didn’t have an order for a new hull. Others fished commercially during the season and layed up a boat or two in the winter. Some went back and forth between building boats and pounding nails. Boatyards would sometimes build a hull in the offseason to keep the crew on.

There are still plenty of traditional small shops that employ just a handful of workers. The shed or building is usually paid for. The crew is small and flexible — they work when there’s work, building anywhere from one to several models, depending on the number of molds the owner has managed to acquire over the years. In an industry dominated by production boats, they offer “choice” to buyers who wanted something a little different or distinctive.

But successful boatbuilding today employs new technology, designs and materials; production efficiencies; stable supply chains; marketing and distribution; and much more. There is ample room for innovative niche builders, but they usually own their space, embrace the technology of tomorrow and can pivot on a dime. And they sell to an upscale market.

My sense is that things are changing on the typical undercapitalized small-shop front. The heart and soul of these operations is typically one (stubborn) guy with a dream. They’re smart, resourceful characters, jacks of all trades.

In truth, some are probably stuck — it’s not easy to reinvent yourself when you’re north of 50. Regardless, they build smart, seaworthy boats for their home waters, which they know well. Some turn out boats that are plain-Jane. Others are works of art. But they are known for time-tested boats, not new models, and that limits their growth.

These builders are starting to age out and, when they’re gone it’s unclear, probably unlikely, that there will be an able young person standing there, anxious to take over. If the tooling is in decent shape and the models have even a very modest following, someone will likely pick them up. Or not.

A chapter is probably closing.



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