A rebirth for Triton and Earl Bentz

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'Re-energized' founder looks forward to a new era of entrepreneurship

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The new start that Triton Boats will have under private-equity ownership has reignited founder Earl Bentz's entrepreneurial enthusiasm.

"I'm as excited and re-energized as I was when I first started this company," says Bentz, 58, who will remain at the helm as Brunswick Corp. transfers Triton to Fishing Holdings, an affiliate of Platinum Equity. Brunswick says its sale of Triton was part of an effort to focus on core brands and marine segments, and Bentz believes the move will be a good one for the company he founded in 1996.

"It's nice to be working with a group in Arkansas who, like me, are avid anglers and who know and understand the fishing industry," Bentz says. "And our team here is very excited about it as well."

The manufacturing operation of Triton's fiberglass boats will move from Ashland City, Tenn., to Flippin, Ark., where Fishing Holdings is based. The change in ownership also means Triton will shift from exclusively using Brunswick's Mercury engines to offering all brands, Bentz says.

Triton production will occur under the same roof as Platinum's Ranger and Stratos brands, which the private equity firm bought from Genmar last winter. Interestingly, Stratos is a brand Bentz founded in 1983. Brunswick will continue to make Triton aluminum boats under a license agreement.

Three distinct brands

Although Bentz will only be responsible for Triton, there will "obviously be a partnership from a manufacturing perspective," he says. But he is careful to point out that all three brands will be distinct. They will maintain individual designs, sales organizations and leadership.

"They're not going to come out looking like Oldsmobiles and Buicks," Bentz says.

Brunswick's sale of Triton in late July surprised some industry watchers, who saw Triton as one of the jewels of Brunswick's still robust, but dwindling, list of brands. Bentz said there had been rumors Triton would be sold, given the low volume of boats coming out of the Tennessee plant during the recession.

Bentz continued to oversee Triton during the five years Brunswick owned it. But as someone who has twice worked for large corporations, Bentz seems happiest when he is able to tap into his entrepreneurial spirit.

"It's an awful lot of fun to be back at the helm of the company that I started and to be able to make product and market decisions - and frankly, to be able to work with my dealers, some of whom I've worked with for 35 years," Bentz says.

The man behind it

Bentz began making those dealer connections in 1975, when he started his bass boat career with Hydra-Sports. But that wasn't Bentz's first foray into the marine industry.

When he was 14, Bentz began rigging boats at his uncle's South Carolina dealership. He was hired to do service, but became enthralled by his uncle's passion for boat racing and began to compete on the racing circuit.

Despite a near-fatal crash that broke Bentz's back, he was invited to join the Mercury Racing Team and won nine national and two world championship titles in eight years.

In 1975, when the bass boat industry was in its infancy, Bentz began doing research and development for Hydra-Sports and became the first person to drive a bass boat powered by a V-6 outboard (the engine that now powers 75 percent of bass boats).

Before becoming vice president in 1981 - when he retired from racing - Bentz headed customer service and sales and marketing. In 1983, he left to found Stratos Boats. He sold the brand to Outboard Marine Corp. in 1987 and remained president as OMC became the world's largest producer of fiberglass fishing boats.

He resigned in 1996 to found Triton Boats, manufacturing a wood-free fishing boat designed for freshwater and saltwater use. Bentz stayed on as CEO when Brunswick bought the brand in 2005 during its era of brand acquisition.

Why Triton? Why now?

But since the recession began, Brunswick has shed several brands in an effort to boost its bottom line. Triton's problem was overcapacity at its plant because the market was down 60 percent, Bentz says.

"If we had stayed here under this roof, with no more volume than was coming through this plant, we would've been looking at price increases in the 15 to 18 percent range," he says. "That wouldn't have allowed dealers to be competitive in the marketplace. Doing what we're doing ensures we can keep dealers competitive."

The problem Triton faced is a familiar one in manufacturing these days, Bentz says.

"We built these gigantic facilities when things were good. Now there's only so much you can do to cut expenses," Bentz says. "[The plants] are a big horse that eats lots of hay. This [new arrangement] is one way to exist in a profitable way in a down market."

Brunswick began manufacturing Trophy sportfishing boats at its Tennessee facility to offset the low demand for Triton boats during the recession, but the market continued to deteriorate and the decision did not provide the volume that was sought, Bentz says.

"The problem we've all had, and Ranger and Stratos had the same problem over there, is underutilization of facilities," Bentz says. "They're looking for more dollar and unit volume."

Adding Triton to the Flippin plant will reduce Platinum's overhead and make the entire facility more efficient, Bentz says. The Flippin facility is a good place for Triton because it has been operating for nearly 50 years and has experienced workers.

"I'm not concerned about our quality going forward," Bentz says. "Triton has the reputation of being a premier brand and will maintain that."

Logistics

The plant Triton will share with Stratos and Ranger has 500,000 square feet and sits on 140 acres of land, Bentz says. The Tennessee facility has 290,000 square feet and is on 36 acres.

"When the market does return, we'll be in a much better position to respond," Bentz says.

The Tennessee facility still makes Trophy boats and was not part of the transaction with Platinum, Bentz says. Triton will find new office space in Nashville to operate sales, customer service, marketing and product development. Payroll, human resources, invoices, accounting and manufacturing will occur at the Arkansas facility, Bentz says.

"We're coming in and giving many of our manufacturing employees the opportunity to go to Arkansas to continue building boats," says Bentz. "We've got some employees looking at houses there, others who have put their houses on the market and many who have expressed interest in being a part of it."

Amicable parting

Bentz is pleased with the way Brunswick chairman and CEO Dustan E. McCoy has dealt with Triton.

"Dusty has, I think, handled things fairly and properly for the shareholders at Brunswick, and this move to pick Platinum ensures the success of the brand, and for that I'm grateful," Bentz says. "And I'm grateful he helped make me a part of it."

Bentz says he has committed to a long-term relationship with Platinum and it has committed to him. Platinum scarcely has been heard from since it entered the marine industry, but its acquisition of Triton has turned heads.

"They've been nice and courteous in all my dealings with them," Bentz says. "Our job is to provide an excellent product for the dealers and back it up with great service. Obviously, the bottom line is to have a profitable brand for us and the dealers."

The plan is to keep Triton, Ranger and Stratos in separate dealerships, Bentz says.

"The strategy has always been, even when we were competitors, to be in separate dealerships," Bentz says. "Our goal will be not to put them all under the same roof, but that's on a market-by-market, case-by-case basis."

After 44 years in the business, founding two brands and working with two of the largest boat-owning companies in the world, Bentz seems excited to once again be driving product and marketing decisions.

"The market is down overall, but the number of fishermen has increased," he says. "I'm excited to keep this business going."

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue.

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