Crownline gets back to building boats

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Under new ownership, the company is setting its strategy with a 'back to basics' approach

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The new owners of Crownline Boats say they expect to restart production this fall, with plans to have models ready for the winter boat show season.

"We plan on going to the boat shows this winter with a powerful company and a good direction," says Nathan Heisner, inside sales manager for Crownline. "The main direction we would want to use is back to the basics. We're going to get back to the basics of boatbuilding and taking care of our dealers, taking care of our consumers and taking care of our employees."

The company announced in August it had been jointly purchased by Tony Zielinski, owner of Leisure Properties, and Dave Wilson, owner of Misty Harbor/Ultracraft, which builds pontoon boats under the Misty Harbor name and aluminum fishing boats under the Ultracraft name. Details of the transaction were not revealed. Crownline had halted production late last year at its Frankfort, Ill., facility.

Zielinski's extensive business experience includes working in Ford Motor Company's dealer development department. He also owns a marine retail establishment in Wisconsin. Wilson started Misty Harbor in 1990 and has grown the business into a leading pontoon-boat manufacturer.

"[Zielinski and Wilson are] two very powerful entities because they understand retail, wholesale, production and manufacturing, and it's not just that they understand it as a whole - they understand manufacturing boats," Heisner says. "It's just a powerful situation for us to be in."

Crownline also announced that the original leadership team will rejoin the company. In addition to Heisner, Kevin Riem will serve as vice president and general manager, Guy Coons CFO, and Tami Murphy director of manufacturing operations. Riem, who previously served as president and CEO of Crownline, left the company in October 2008 because of disagreements with the previous owners. He says his return is an opportunity to "right the ship and do the right things."

The company's previous vendors seem interested in again doing business with Crownline, Riem says, the exception being its canvas supplier that went out of business, but had its assets purchased by the Taylor Made Group.

"Everyone's lining up to do business with us again, I think, primarily because they know the original management team ... are back," he says.

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Nautic Global Group, manufacturer of Rinker Boats and Godfrey Marine brands, announced in June that it had entered into a non-binding letter of intent to acquire the assets of Crownline Boats. However, the agreement expired, meaning other interested parties could look into acquiring the company. The sale to the new owners became final Aug. 20.

"Nautic Global Group is committed to the marine industry and will continue to pursue growth via organic methods and acquisitions that add value to our investors and our dealer partners," NGG said in a statement.

Heisner says that despite the prolonged downturn in the boating industry, he's confident Crownline will come back strong. The company has more than 120 North American dealers and sells internationally through distributors.

"I think the first thing for Crownline to do is take a step back and thank all of our dealers and suppliers for standing behind us," Riem says. "There were opportunities for all these folks to take on other boat lines or go on to other things, and they decided to stand by us through this process."

Riem says the company is putting together processes to honor all warranties and "make the dealers whole." As for vendors owed money, he says, "Some of those outstanding balances are previous to us taking over, and so some of those things will have to be worked out."

When production resumes, the company will have more than 100 employees at its Illinois facility. Crownline plans to build a mix of all of its boats, which range from 18 to 34 feet. Quantities of each type - bowriders, deckboats, cuddies and cruisers - will depend on what dealers need and what they have in stock, Heisner says.

Riem and Heisner both say it's exciting to be back in business with Crownline following months of uncertainty. "It's something that we've waited for, for nearly eight months," Heisner says. "We've been through a long road of eight months answering questions, and we're very happy with the owners that have acquired this company - very, very happy.

"The industry is still down, [but] we do believe we've reached the bottom of the trough," he adds. "We are looking forward to coming back up and ramping up production, but we're not going to build too many boats at first. ... We do believe we've all seen the worst stage in the industry now, and we believe it's going to slowly start to get better."

This article originally appeared in the October 2009 issue.

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