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Irwin Jacobs’ pontoon alternative

Aluminum/fiberglass Escape will be a ‘game-changer,’ he says, grabbing market share from the tube boats


Irwin Jacobs has opened up about a new line Larson Boats plans to unveil this spring — one he hopes will take market share away from pontoons. In fact, the line was kept so hush-hush that before Soundings Trade Only broke the news in early April it had been virtually unknown, even to Larson dealers, despite Jacobs’ plan to debut it for them in May and launch production shortly thereafter.

Jacobs has gone to great lengths to keep the early renderings of the Escape, an all-new aluminum-fiberglass hybrid, “hidden away” in a sealed area of the company’s 650,000-square-foot complex on 60 acres in Little Falls, Minn. “This hasn’t been out there yet at all,” he says. “This isn’t going to be just another pontoon.”

However, it was inspired by the pontoon, particularly given the segment’s success, as well as pontoons being the only type of boat Jacobs can get his handicapped daughter aboard, he says. The Escape will be accessible for people with disabilities.

Jacobs says the new line, which initially will be offered in models of 20, 23 and 25 feet, will only go to Larson dealers who opt not to carry pontoon lines. “Up to this point we don’t blame our Larson dealers for having pontoons, but now we want them to be loyal to our product,” he says. “And that won’t be a problem once they see what these are. Our problem is going to be building them fast enough. We’re just kind of nervous about filling the pipeline initially just for our dealers.”

During the Escape’s two years of development, focus groups signed confidentiality agreements. Of the 19 pontoon owners who were part of a focus group that did get a peek at the early renderings, “every single one of them said, given a level playing field on cost, they would exchange their pontoon boat for ours,” Jacobs says. “All 19 of them said we have surpassed their greatest expectation, and that was based on renderings.”

The Escape will have the space and layout typical of a pontoon, but “it will have some unique spaces within it,” Jacobs says. “It will have all of the features of what pontoons have today, times something else. I think this will be very much embraced by customers in salt water looking for a pontoon. The Escape answers this question in more ways than one.”

The boats will be competitively priced and offer more bang for the buck on the engine, Jacobs says. Each Escape model will be built of aluminum and fiberglass, will feature “unusual colors and will be visually different from top to bottom.” All will have Larson’s patented VEC (virtual engineering composites) technology hulls and patented rotomolding technology that, Jacobs says, Larson has “spent a lot of money developing.”

The line has three additional patents on various features. One of the patents is on the unique sponsons that will enable it to outperform competitors, Jacobs says. “They will be in the middle of the market price-wise, and it will have features that no other boat or pontoon company has, even in the high end of the market,” he says. “This is clearly a game changer in that it’s going to offer features never offered before, but it’s clear that the market today is embracing pontoon boats and even some deckboats. We think this offering will replace features that they have in either of those segments today, and we don’t believe that they will be duplicated.”

The new facility at the Larson complex was converted from a storage facility, Jacobs says. “We will have support with upholstery and fiberglass and so forth from the other facilities around it,” he says. “This will be an assembly operation.”

Consumer feedback was important to the development of the Escape, Jacobs says. “There are so many family-friendly features on it — I think it’s going to boggle the mind of the dealers and the customers.”

Larson Boats president Al Kuebelbeck became familiar with pontoons as president of Crestliner, though it was a different world for pontoons in those days, Jacobs says. Larson is the umbrella company for the Larson, Triumph and Seaswirl Striper brands. All of the operations were consolidated in Little Falls after Genmar Holdings’ 2009 bankruptcy and restructuring. As Genmar CEO, Jacobs filed for bankruptcy protection for all 15 Genmar companies in June 2009. The case was converted to a Chapter 7 liquidation, and the assets were auctioned. Platinum Equity, a private equity investment firm, purchased the Larson, Triumph and Seaswirl brands from Genmar and sold them to Jacobs’ new company, J&D Acquisitions.

Larson celebrated its centennial last year. The celebration included a relaunch of the All-American, an open-bow runabout that helped make a name for the company in the 1960s.

Now Jacobs is focused on filling the voids he sees in the pontoon segment, based on extensive study during the past two years. “They’re missing a lot of things still, and you’ll see them all in the Escape. It’s not just another pontoon. This will grab market share the day it comes out.

“This is a 100-year-old company,” Jacobs adds. “Whatever we’ve come out with, I’ve been proud to stand behind. This is going to give recognition and prestige to Larson for bringing something to the market nobody else has ever tried.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.



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