Florida and fishing boats

Sea Hunt has stood out as a top seller in a healthier center console market.

Sea Hunt has stood out as a top seller in a healthier center console market.

With all the buzz around aluminum fishing and pontoon boats, one segment that has been overlooked until recently is the saltwater fiberglass fishing boat segment. Though it’s a relatively small part of the overall market, this segment has taken off since late 2011, when Florida’s housing market first began to recover from the 2008 bust.

In just two years, the segment has seen a 35 percent increase in sales, says Jack Ellis, Info-Link Technologies’ managing director — a significant spike, especially considering that sterndrive sales continued to drop through 2013 and appear to still be on the decline. Ellis says the sportfishing market began to take off late in 2011. Roughly 14,500 saltwater fishing boats 15 feet and larger were purchased that year, he says. The number rose to more than 19,500 in 2013.

Those numbers still hold true when considering saltwater fishing boats 25 feet and larger, says GE Capital business solutions manager Charlie Brooks. On a 12-month rolling basis through November, sales of saltwater fishing boats 25 feet and larger grew 27.55 percent across the nation, 25.39 percent in the Northeast and 33.58 percent in Massachusetts, Brooks says.

Info-Link data show that the bulk of the segment’s sales from October through December were in Florida, unsurprising because the season there is year-round, Ellis says. There were 1,107 sold in that state, 529 in Texas and 413 in North Carolina. All states except Tennessee showed that the segment is growing and not declining, a phenomenon Ellis says is rare. “Usually when we look at these there’s a mixture of red and green,” reflecting a decline in some states and growth in others. “Right across the board we see saltwater fishing boat sales are increasing.”

Ellis speculates that the reason for the boom is that saltwater anglers are a passionate bunch who did not migrate to less costly aluminum fishing or pontoon boats. “We’ve heard all the talk about a shift from the higher-content, higher-priced fiberglass boats to the slightly less expensive aluminum pontoon boats, but you don’t have that choice if you’re going offshore fishing,” Ellis says. “Rather than losing the customers to some other segment, they just put off the purchase, especially down here in Florida with the housing crisis. I think they just said, ‘We gotta wait this out,’ but they definitely seem to be buying boats again.”

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Inventory could grow scarce

The size range measured by GE was significant because those boats are high-dollar purchases and typically come with broader margins for dealers, Brooks says. The segment has been on fire, leading to concerns for some about getting product.

“Keep in mind when you’re talking to your reps, you’re competing with the rest of the country for that inventory,” Brooks told dealers attending Marine Retail University, a daylong conference put on by the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Dominion Marine Media in Brockton, Mass. “One of the things we keep an eye on is the potential for inventory shortages. Saltwater fishing boats are such a big part of the market up here. That stuff is just flying through the channel, and there really is no inventory left out there to speak of, which really puts pressure on saltwater fish manufacturers.”

Russell and Ross Lemieux, two of the four brothers who run Inland Marine in Chepachet, R.I., say the Sea Hunt brand they had on display at the Providence Boat Show is a big seller. “We’ve sold so much product. They can’t build them fast enough,” Ross Lemieux says. “They want to keep the quality up, so they don’t produce more. We’re six weeks out now, but that won’t be the case soon.”

Russell Lemieux thinks the wait will increase as the weather grows warmer, and Ross thinks that could be a potential deterrent to sales. “It’s just supply and demand,” he says. “Dealers need to order early. The fishing boat segment has been hot since 2011, 2012, so if customers are really thinking of pulling the trigger, they should buy now. It’s a fine line. They don’t want to overproduce, and you don’t want to overstock and get stuck.

“The way you saw folks ordering, they were getting a lot in October, November and December because they realized they won’t be able to get them,” Ross Lemieux says. “So this fall has been tremendous. It’s been our best fall and winter since we’ve been in business 39 years.”

And it could’ve been better, says Richard Lemieux, “if they’d been able to keep up with orders.”

December sales and the housing market

New-boat sales in December tracked largely with expectations, rising from about 120,000 units sold in 2012 to 140,000 units in 2013 on a 12-month rolling basis, a trend one industry analyst attributes in part to the rebounding housing market in Florida. That real estate rebound might also explain why saltwater fiberglass fishing boats have enjoyed a steady climb since 2011, a rise that has continued throughout the typically slow winter months because Floridians comprise the bulk of December new-boat buyers.

“Certainly sales are up again in December, but you’re talking about a month that is 2.5 percent of annual sales, and most of that is in Florida and Texas,” Ellis says. “To say the industry did well in December is not incorrect. It just doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the overall industry.”

This year, about 6,000 boats bigger than 15 feet were sold nationwide in December. “So it’s not like it’s a totally insignificant number of boats,” Ellis says. “But it’s 6,000 out of a quarter million.

“The reason I think they’re doing better is because Florida, by far, is the big market this time of year, and Florida has gone through a pretty big rebound this year in terms of boat sales,” Ellis says. “I think the rise in sales is a reflection of the improvement of the real estate market in Florida.”

Lesley Deutch is senior vice president at John L. Burns Real Estate Consulting, which advises builders, hedge funds and other investors and specializes in the Florida market.

In a November interview with the Chicago Tribune, Deutch reflected on her 14 meetings and 20 community visits around the Sunshine State, saying land prices and home values are rising rapidly. An increase in building has occurred in such areas as Orlando and southwestern Florida, which is seeing another retiree boom.

“One of the things we’ve seen over the years is a fairly strong correlation between home sales and boat sales,” Ellis says. “Most people have much of their equity and net worth tied up in their home. When you see the value of your home cut by 30 percent, which happened in certain parts of Florida,” people are less likely to spend.

“In general, people are feeling more comfortable nationwide, but they’re certainly feeling more comfortable in Florida,” Ellis says.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.


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