A conversation with Ron Berman

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Sea Ray "reinvented" its concept of a yacht with the new L-Class.

Sea Ray "reinvented" its concept of a yacht with the new L-Class.

Sea Ray will have plenty of new boats at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show this year, including the L580 and L650 Fly motoryachts. I had a chance this summer to interview Ron Berman, the man who played a major role in creating and bringing those boats to the market. He is the vice president of product development and engineering for Brunswick Corp.’s Sea Ray, Meridian and Bayliner brands. Berman’s career includes a 12-year stint at Boston Whaler, where he helped shape the look and function of today’s Whalers.

Berman, 53, started in the boat business as a “cleanup boy” at a Florida builder when he was in his teens. His father, Mel, was an avid fisherman and guide, and he hosted a radio show in the Tampa Bay area, which allowed Berman to fish with “some of the best shallow-water anglers in Florida at the time,” he says.

Today, Berman runs a 2012 Boston Whaler 210 Montauk and lives “100 yards from the beach and 50 yards from the river” in Cocoa Beach, Florida. He took up surfing as a teen and is still at it today. He and his wife, Linda, have been married for 26 years and have three children: Emily, 17, Matthew, 18, and Melissa, 22.

Here are some of the principal points he made in our interview:

• My responsibilities at Sea Ray include overall product design, development and engineering, from the original content to the release of the boat. We take it from the vision of the boat through concept art to computer 3-D models, through building molds and then building the first test boat. We have 250 people focused on new-product development and tooling. We will produce 15 to 18 new models each year between Sea Ray, Meridian and Bayliner.

• I love to reinvent things. A new boat should not be a warmed-over version of the last boat you had. I like being able to take an idea and create something that has never been done or take an existing boat and find a way to reinvent it so it’s new and fresh and gets people really excited. I like to figure out what the boater wants and come up with a way to create it and use it on the boat.

Ron Berman

Ron Berman

For example, in the last year we introduced the Sea Ray 350 SLX. There are some similar boats on the market, but we redefined what a luxury big bowrider is. A lot of the design touches we have on that boat are starting to appear on some of the competitors’ boats. What we did with the L-Class boats is another example. We reinvented what a Sea Ray yacht is with the L-Class. Sea Ray never had a boat like the 650 Fly from a sophistication, styling, detail, use of space, craftsmanship standpoint. Even the Bayliner Element — a project we started shortly after I got back to Sea Ray — we knew we had to reinvent what a value boat is. The Element is now the foundation of Bayliner going forward.

• Value is important. At Boston Whaler, consumers were looking for practicality, durability, reliability, and it had to be a rugged boat and comfortable. A Sea Ray buyer wants some of those attributes, but a higher level of comfort and luxury. Certainly they want more eye-catching styling, and the detailing and finishes are more critical on a Sea Ray than a Whaler.

Everyone likes as much storage as you can give them. And everyone wants to be comfortable on the boat, and they want the most hassle-free experience they can get. What boaters want depends on the size of the boat, too. The person who wants a boat like the Sea Ray 350 SLX wants all the bells and whistles because he is already buying an expensive boat and that boat fits a usage he wants, and he is not necessarily buying the boat around his budget.

• We are very focused on what is important to the customer. There is a lot of information you learn from surveys, but you learn by actually spending time with boat owners. When you do, you find your answers. People want to feel like they are in something big and roomy. Maximize comfort. Every seat should have a good view and be comfortable. And you should feel secure. They want a boat that has very predictable performance and handling. They want a boat that allows you to maintain visibility, meaning when you get on plane you don’t lose visibility. They want a boat that doesn’t do anything erratic in rough water.

Sea Ray's 350 SLX.

Sea Ray's 350 SLX.

• Making people feel safer and more comfortable in their boats is something we’ve done through technology. Take, for instance, our Dynamic Running Surface — an automatic trim adjustment system that makes boating more predicable. Also, we have Quiet Ride, which does a great job of keeping noise down on the boat. And with any type of twin-engine boat, you can get joystick control — inboards, outboards, I/Os, you name it. We also just introduced something called the Command View camera system on our yachts, which gives you a view all around the boat so people feel more confident docking because they can see the side and stern in one image. These are all aimed at making people feel safer and more confident in their boats.

• I am proud of a technology that I worked on at Whaler, and I am a co-patent holder. Years ago, we did the 320 Outrage with active deck suspension in it. It was a pneumatic system with sensors, so if you put more weight on the boat and the deck sank, it would increase the pressure to keep the deck level. And when you hit waves it was like standing on pneumatic shock absorbers. That was pretty cool.

• I’ll tell you about the new L-Class. Sea Ray used to build a flybridge boat that had a smaller bridge, a longer foredeck, nice interiors. But over time, boaters’ preferences change. And with the introduction of L-Class, Sea Ray has not only changed its approach to flybridge models, but also the whole experience of customer ownership. We actually have a dedicated concierge that provides extra benefits to L-Class owners. We have a full-time captain on staff who will meet with the customer. Not only is the L-Class a step up in materials and finishes, but also the overall experience of boat ownership.

• Improve value for the customer — that’s how the industry can improve overall. We have to start getting our arms around the cost of boating. Boating has gotten very expensive. The marine industry has done it to themselves, to a certain degree. There are places where we have added features and technologies to the boat that are great and address the boater’s needs, but they have also driven boating out of reach for many people. We have to focus on creating better value for the dollar than we have over the past 10 or 15 years. We need to concentrate on the up-front cost of the boat and what it costs to own a boat.

• The guys I respect include Jerry Michalak. He basically penned every Sea Ray for many years. I was lucky enough to work under his leadership, and he made a big mark on my perspective of boatbuilding. I also worked with Rod Gerrard. He was a designer for a while at Sea Ray and Wellcraft and some other builders. As I understand it, Rod was actually part of the design team that remodeled the Chris-Crafts into what they are today. He was a very talented designer.

• There is a young designer I’ve worked with who I think is a superstar — Charlie Foss at Boston Whaler. He will be a big deal in the future. Charlie is really good. Other designers I admire include Fabio Buzzi, the Italian who is an offshore racer and boat designer. I admire his attention to detail in the design of fast boats. I got to know a guy in Slovenia named Jernej Jakopin. There is a company over there named Seaway. He is the technical brain of the operation. We are working on a project now. He wants to do things better and different every time. Seaway collaborated with Sea Ray on the 370 Venture with the hidden outboards. Lastly, I am fortunate to work with Tom Bucaccio, our senior director of design. It is fascinating to watch him lead our team of designers to create the new Sea Ray models and features. I have been fortunate to work with some of the best minds in the industry.

THREE GENERATIONS (from left): Ron Berman, son Matt and father Mel.

THREE GENERATIONS (from left): Ron Berman, son Matt and father Mel.

• My father was a broadcaster and writer. In the Tampa Bay area he was a local TV/radio fishing personality. “Capt. Mel” had his own radio show and built his own website around fishing. I got my first job boatbuilding because he had bought his charter boat from Lloyd Desouza at Delta Boats, who built custom boats in Port Canaveral. I moved from Tampa to Cocoa Beach in 1980 and did not have a job. So my father called Lloyd, and Lloyd offered me a job as the cleanup boy at Delta Boats. I literally started cleaning floors and emptying trash cans at a boat company as my first job. I was probably about 19. I’ve been involved with boatbuilding and design and construction ever since then.

My time at Delta Boats was incredibly valuable. There were six to eight of us who built about 25 boats a year from 25 to 48 feet. If you are part of a crew that small and you need a new model, you go build the plugs and the molds yourself. When it is time to build the boat, you know you’re going to help lay it up and put the stringers in it, build and install the deck, rig the engines, and do electrical and cabinet work. Now that’s hands-on!

I fished with a lot of good fishermen over the years because of my father, including a dozen of the best shallow-water fishermen on the west coast of Florida.

• Our first boat was a 24-foot Wellcraft AirSlot walkaround with an OMC big block. It had a main vee in the middle and couple of sponsons. The boat was a cross between a vee-hull and a tri-hull. That was back in the early ’70s. I was probably 12. At the time, outboards didn’t push a 24-foot boat very well — not like today, which explains the OMC sterndrive. When my father found out that bottom fishing was his thing, we needed a more efficient boat, so we sold that boat and got a 25-foot Delta with a single diesel. Little did I know that I would be building for Delta later.

• I own a 21 Montauk Boston Whaler, and it’s fairly customized. Imagine that. I was one of the first owners of the Mercury 150 EFI FourStroke. A lot of people say, why don’t you sell it and get a new one, but it’s the perfect boat for me and the way I boat today.

Most of the boats I’ve owned are under 21 feet because I like shallow-water fishing. I have owned everything from 11-foot skiffs to my 210 Montauk and boats in between.

• The Sea Ray 370 Express of the mid ’90s is one of my favorite boats. It was a raised-sheer inboard express fishing boat. Also, the Whaler 370 Outrage is a favorite. It continues to be one of Whaler’s most successful big boats in the lineup. In ’02 or ’03 at Whaler we did the 270 Outrage, and that was the first time we used the sheer line that Whaler has used for the last 10 years. It was a notable project because it signified a significant change for the Whaler brand in terms of styling, design and features. It made the mark that a lot of Whalers have followed for the last decade or so.

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue.

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