Under new ownership, Hacker Boat Co. is expanding its market for mahogany runabouts
A New York builder of classic mahogany runabouts — the Hacker Boat Co. — has in the last three years hired 25 employees, gutted and rebuilt a huge showroom and a production building, increased its annual sales by 55 percent and immersed itself in the saltwater market.
“People continued to buy the boats during the 2008-09 downturn and we continue to have tremendous interest now through the middle of the winter,” says George Badcock, managing member of Erin Investments LLC, the new ownership company. “To us, that is the greatest sign in the world — that we are in the middle of December, January and February and we’re selling boats. Hacker Boat Co. never did that in the last eight or 10 years.”
The builder is on schedule to deliver five boats before Memorial Day.
“We’re not out of the woods yet, but the luxury boat market — at least our market — appears to be coming back,” says Badcock, 63, an avid boater and owner of antique wood vessels who purchased the company from former owner Lynn Wagemann. “People are spending money and they’re spending on luxury products.”
Cracking Florida market
A strengthening economy and Hacker’s heightened marketing efforts have led to more sales, Badcock says, and Florida has become a hot market. In the last 18 months Hacker has sold half a dozen boats that were delivered to Florida, Badcock says.
“For us to expand in Florida and garner as much exposure as we can at the shows seems to be a natural move,” he says.
Hacker (www.hackerboat.com) exhibited at the St. Petersburg Power & Sailboat Show for the first time in November, and the company sold a boat. “We’re finding some people who haven’t seen these boats and some who actually didn’t know they were still being built,” says Erin Badcock, Hacker’s director of operations and George Badcock’s daughter.
Hacker displayed two boats — its Neiman Marcus limited-edition 27-footer, built for the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, and a 30-foot triple cockpit runabout “with the same lines as the Hacker boats of the ’20s and ’30s,” Erin Badcock says.
The Silver Bay, N.Y., company displayed two Hacker-Crafts (a 30-foot Runabout and a 22-foot Racer) in February at the Miami International Boat Show, and a third boat — the Neiman Marcus limited edition — at the Yacht & Brokerage Show in Miami Beach. Hacker also was to exhibit March 22-25 at the Palm Beach International Boat Show.
Hacker sold 10 boats in 2009, a dozen in 2010 and 16 last year, says director of sales and marketing Ken Rawley. Revenue climbed from $2 million in 2009 to $2.2 million in 2010 to $2.8 million in 2011, and the work force has grown from 42 in 2009 to 65 today.
A century in the industry
Naval architect John L. Hacker founded the Hacker Boat Co. more than 100 years ago. (Hacker’s 55-foot 1939 Thunderbird was on a commemorative stamp that the U.S. Postal Service issued in 2007.) Known for speedy vee-bottom hulls and superb craftsmanship, the boats are sometimes referred to as the “Steinway of Runabouts.” Hacker constructs boats from 22 to 35 feet. Its 24-foot Runabout and 30-foot Sport were its top sellers in 2011, Rawley says.
“The classic Runabout is based on the design that is widely acknowledged as John L. Hacker’s masterpiece series,” he says. “The boat’s ride is free from pounding, vibration or noisy engine equipment. It has a perfect balance of weight that produces a level planing position at all speeds.”
Introduced in 1998, the more contemporary Sport excels as a family boat and is ideal for swimming and water sports, Rawley says.
Erin Investments took over management of the company in 2010, and then ownership in early 2011, George Badcock says. Hacker has renovated its former production building, turning it into a 2,600-square-foot showroom.
“That’s where the boats were previously built, and the maximum capacity was really five boats,” he says. “When we moved to a larger production facility we took that building and completely gutted it and revitalized it and made it into a two-story showroom, circa 1930, with restored furniture and, of course, new boats.”
The showroom has paid off. Hacker sold five or six boats right off the showroom floor in 2011. “We even wanted to put chandeliers in there, which is what they used to do in the ’30s, but we would have had to make too many changes to the electrical system,” Badcock says. “But it looks great if I do say so myself.”
Badcock moved production north of Silver Bay to Ticonderoga. He bought an old pallet factory a few years ago, had it renovated, and production began there in January 2010. It’s a 32,000-square-foot operation in three buildings — one for production (24,000 square feet), a machine shop (1,700 square feet) and a varnish and finishing building (6,300 square feet).
“We’re actually going on our third year in the new factory,” he says. “At any given time we can be building upwards of 20 boats.”
The company also owns and operates a boat restoration business, Morgan Marine.
About two years ago, Badcock hired wooden-boat restoration expert Kent “J.R.” Smith as production and restoration manager to streamline and modernize the company’s building materials and methods.
“He knows boats, knows how to work with people and has made a big difference with our company,” says Badcock, who also is the owner of an international truck and equipment leasing company, the Overseas Lease Group, which is based in Florida.
Before coming to Hacker, Smith, 46, operated a full-time wood boat restoration business. “I restored a boat for George and maintained another boat for about eight years,” says Smith, who has been a member of The Antique and Classic Boat Society for almost 30 years. “With the economy slowing down and not having a huge customer base, it made sense to come and work for George. So I [brought} my restoration knowledge to building new boats.”
Smith has spearheaded a handful of improvements. For instance, Hacker builders spend less time cutting wood, or “dimensionalizing,” as he calls it, for the builder’s triple-plank mahogany hulls. In a time-consuming, dust-generating procedure, the company was buying 1-1/4-inch pieces of mahogany, then cutting and planing the wood to quarter-inch pieces.
“Now we buy quarter-inch mahogany dimensionalized for us, so all we do is cut it to length and put it on the boat,” Smith says. “That was huge for us as far as speeding things up.”
Better materials have helped save time as well. Varnishing requires sanding between multiple coats. Builders were wasting time laboring to sand odd-shaped objects, so now the company uses varnish that requires no sanding between coats.
Hacker also does a better job of preparing its boats for salt water by using zinc anodes on rudders and engine shafts and installing only freshwater-cooled engines. The builder also installs dripless packings on the shafts to prevent water from collecting in the bilge, Smith says.
“We used a bronze casting with flax packing, which by its nature needed to drip to keep the shaft cool so it wouldn’t melt the flax,” he says. For hardware, stainless steel has replaced chrome-plated bronze (which is subject to pitting) and brass, which is prone to green discoloration.
Customization a common request
Not only have materials and methods improved, but so has the work force, Smith says. “We’ve hired from the boatbuilding schools, like those in Maine,” says Smith, who restored wood boats from Hacker, Gar Wood, Lyman and Chris-Craft while running his previous business, Cutwater Boatworks. “They bring with them fresh attitudes, so instead of ‘This is the way we’ve always done it,’ they ask, ‘How do you want me to do it?’ And they bring new ideas and skills to the table.”
Hacker does more customized work on its boats than ever before, so Smith makes sure that extra hours worked are tracked and billed.
“Every customer seems to want to personalize their boat, whether it is changing our stock interior colors or stain colors or a different deck or cockpit layout,” he says. “We try to do whatever the customer wants. I tell them, ‘If you can dream it, we can build it.’ Translation: Give us enough time and money and we can do anything.”
A recent example of custom work is a 33-footer that was headed to a Miami customer. “The wood dashboard was finished on the top with a polished stainless that we actually engine-turned to get the old-school look,” Smith says.
Hacker this year is also launching a new segment of its sport series called the XL model, which will have extras such as a refrigerator, additional cabinet space and electronics and bucket seats in the cockpit.
“The boat will look a little more European,” Badcock says. “We did this for a customer last year and, when we looked at the finished product, we said, ‘Hey, this looks good. Let’s make more of these.’ ”
All of these changes have required investment — more than about $5 million, Badcock says. “It has taken a tremendous amount of capital to upgrade five facilities and there are no loans, no mortgages,” he says. “It’s all raw capital that is invested. So from that perspective there’s no doubt it is a long-term investment. Every one of those facilities had to be upgraded over the last three years.”
So Badcock’s in for the long haul, and his passion for boats makes his commitment a strong one. “It’s a labor of love that they are beautiful boats and they deserve to have the best quality,” says Badcock, who travels a great deal internationally with his current business and plans to retire in a few years to spend more time at Hacker. (He has a home on Lake George.) “The more quality we put in them, the more beautiful they are — and the more saleable they are.”
Badcock’s grandparents had a summer waterfront home on New Jersey’s Lake Hopatcong and a winter home on a canal in Fort Lauderdale. “They always had a mahogany runabout, so I grew up with those boats,” he says. His grandfather had a 1931 Dee Wite and a Chris-Craft.
“I’ve owned a wooden boat since I got out of college” he says. “I now have a couple of antique boats.”
He has a 28-foot 1929 triple-cockpit Chris-Craft and a 1954 Chris-Craft racing runabout, a 19-footer.
What, no Hacker-Craft?
“Hey, I own the company, so that’s even better.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue.