Groupe Beneteau named George Armendariz as its CEO for the Americas in summer 2016, about two years after the group acquired the Cadillac, Mich.-based Four Winns, Glastron, Wellcraft and Scarab brands in June 2014. Beneteau scooped up the four brands after Genmar went belly-up in 2010.
Armendariz, who spent 21 years with Brunswick Corp. in numerous roles, including vice president and general manager of Belgium-based Brunswick Marine Europe, oversees not only the U.S. brands, but also the Beneteau, Prestige and Jeanneau powerboat lines that the French company sells in the United States.
The company is leveraging the U.S. brands to capitalize on market trends, positioning Wellcraft as a saltwater fishing boat and giving customers the option of outboard power on the traditionally sterndrive-powered Glastron and Four Winns lines.
Beneteau, based in France, is manufacturing in the United States; Beneteau sailboats have been built in a South Carolina plant for more than 30 years. The company is just beginning to produce some of its French powerboat brands in South Carolina and is planning an expansion at its Michigan plant to assist the European plants, which are building at capacity.
Q How was the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show for Groupe Beneteau? It was the show’s first edition with new owners; how did that go?
A In general, the show was good. People were definitely in a confident mood in terms of the engagement I saw happen between visitors and people in various boating exhibits. In terms of how that translated into business for everyone, I don’t know. We were quite happy with the results. We didn’t hit it out of the ballpark by any means, but the results that we’ve been able to tally so far are good, solid results across all brands.
I thought the organization was good with the new owners. I thought the infrastructure was improved over previous years. There were some things a little different that people had to get used to.
Q Like what?
A I think the way the boats were displayed and having more of the larger yachts on the other side of Bahia Mar, I think threw people over to that other side who wouldn’t have otherwise gone over there, and that was good. The signage left a bit to be desired; there was some confusion over where some of the brands were located, so that’s an area for improvement next year.
Q You said revenue had climbed 12.6 percent. How is the U.S. market performing?
A Of our major markets — Europe and North America — the rate of growth in North America actually outpaced the rate of growth in Europe. We have some fringe markets that were showing triple-digit growth rates — 100 percent, 200 percent — but the numbers are so small it’s really not a valid indicator. It’s the major markets that we key in on, and we were pretty happy with our growth rate in North America. I think it’s fairly well accepted by those that look at [Statistical Surveys Inc.] data that retail is up somewhere in the 5 to 5.5 percent range across the board, certain segments less and certain segments more, and our retail is pretty much tracking along with that. Our wholesale, though, increased 8.1 percent in North America, so we’re pretty happy with that. That was a higher percentage than the increase in Europe.
Q To what do you attribute that?
A I think it’s a combination of things. It’s continued development of our distribution channel, particularly for the four American brands. It’s a maturing in the marketplace of some of our French brands that have been here for several years already but are beginning to gain more traction as mainstream brands — brands such as Prestige.
On the sailboat side, our primary brands — Jeanneau and Beneteau — have a long history and tradition in the marketplace and for a long time have been the market leaders. That segment seems to be growing, finally. Not great. We’re not jumping up and down. But there is growth; it’s not declining anymore. There was modest growth in the 25-foot-and-above monohull sailboat segment. We’re certainly getting our fair share, and then some, of that growth.
Q The 25-foot-and-above monohull segment has, as you said, been challenged.
A The decline was pretty dramatic, and then it just kind of stayed there, dragging bottom for the longest time, and we’re finally starting to see some very modest growth. It’s not a lot, but at least there is some growth taking place there.
Q For what percentage of sales does the U.S. market account?
A The Americas account for about 35 percent of global boat segment revenue. And global revenue is right around $1.2 billion, a little over, for our fiscal year that ended August 31.
Q What is the group’s growth strategy? Will it focus on organic growth, acquisitions or both?
A The growth we talked about at the press conference was [based on] the world through our eyes. I’m sure everyone has a slightly different view of the world and the recreational marine market, but that’s the world as we see it through our eyes. That’s based on organic growth with our current portfolio of brands and product and anticipated product development that we have on the horizon over the next three years. That’s not to say that we’re not open to growth through acquisition, but none of what we talked about in the press conference is based on that. It’s all pretty much organic.
Q Where might there be some white space for Groupe Beneteau?
A There are a couple segments in the marine industry that we do not play in. One is tow sports, or tow boats. We have some multipurpose boats in the Four Winns line, with things like forward-facing drives, that are suitable for wakesurfing and some traditional tow sports, but they’re multipurpose boats. We don’t participate in the single-purpose tow-boat segment.
We’re not in the aluminum boat segment in any way. Everything we do is fiberglass. And we’re not in pontoons. So those are three fairly large segments in recreational marine that we are not presently in. And we don’t consider that as part of our landscape as we view the world.
Q They’re all growing segments.
A Yeah, they are growing, and not ever having been in those segments, and most of us not having spent any time in those segments with other companies, it’s bit of an enigma, I have to say. But they are growing, no doubt about that.
Q Builders sometimes like to be part of all the growing segments, a philosophy that can cause markets to become saturated. It can be difficult for every company to offer everything.
A There’s a lot of “me too” and a lot of “I want to get on that bandwagon” going on. If you look at some of the recent acquisitions and changes of ownership, you can see some of that happening. Our philosophy has always been fairly conservative. It’s more the slow but steady growth plan that is appealing to us and our shareholders. Our shareholders have seemed to embrace that philosophy. We prefer to stick with what we’re good at, and that’s building fiberglass boats in a variety of segments from 16 feet up to 105 feet with Monte Carlo Yachts. The variations to that that would follow market trends are things such as increasing our development of outboard models. That’s clearly a trend that’s on the rise. The outboard engine business is growing in double digits, and we want to take a slice of that, which is growth for us. It’s something relatively new for us, yet it’s still consistent with our core product and our core competence, which is fiberglass sport boats.
The other segments that we’re looking at — again, really are extensions of our core competence — are things like saltwater fish with our Wellcraft range. We’re homing in on that segment, yet we’ve clearly defined ourselves as a center-console brand. We’re going to stick to what we know, but we have pretty high growth expectations out of that.
Q Where might we see some of the future outboard development?
A Well, we’ve already launched some of those for the 2018 model year. We’ve launched three larger Four Winns with outboards in a size category that for us had always been sterndrive. Four Winns is really a sterndrive company. However, we’ve launched a 35-foot outboard-powered boat, a 29-foot outboard-powered boat and a 25-foot pocket cruiser with an outboard. On the 25-foot-and-below segments, whether it’s our deck boats or runabouts, all new product development is being designed to accommodate sterndrive and outboard. And we’re doing the same thing on Glastron. Glastron is going to do a transition to more of a deck boat configuration, all of which are being designed to go outboard or sterndrive power. That’s new for us. That’s not the tradition for the Cadillac-based brands.
Our French product, especially the Jeanneau brand with the MCs and the Leaders, have a long tradition of being outboard-powered, and that’s the way they entered this market a few years ago. They continue to gain traction.
With Wellcraft, we’ve completed our product development on the smaller end of the range with the launch of the 182 at the 2017 Miami International Boat Show. We’re launching a 202, a 20-foot boat, this model year, and our product development from here is going to be focused on the top end, above 30 feet.
Q Those brands have been through a lot of transition and have a long history, which can be both good and bad. They have good brand recognition, but sales can be challenging for brands that have been through so many changes. How has interest been?
A You know, we’re lucky in that all four brands, particularly the three non-jet brands, have very strong brand equity in the marketplace, and they have a very positive, strong legacy. Despite the changes in ownership and the financial turmoil those have been through over the last 10 years, they still have strong brand equity. So capturing that and overlaying onto it the strength of Groupe Beneteau has been nothing but positive.
Our distribution channel — we have dealers that are 25-year dealers with us, and they are expressing a sigh of relief. It’s like, “Now we’re comfortable, now we’re aware of what’s happening, now we’re prepared to reinvest in our business to support your brands.” That’s the kind of attitude that we’re hearing from our dealer body. And we’re starting to get the attention of new dealers. We’re getting people coming to us asking if there’s space in their territories for them to work with one of our brands. So that’s been nothing but positive for the Cadillac-based brands, the fact that they now have the strength of Groupe Beneteau to ensure their position in the marketplace.
Q Shifting to the French brands, you said Prestige is starting to gain traction after having been in the marketplace for a few years. Beneteau also seems to be continuing its trajectory. Do you find those brands are resonating with U.S. consumers?
A Absolutely. Prestige and the larger motoryacht boats have gained a top position in the seven or eight years they’ve been in the marketplace, and that’s against other more traditional brands in that segment. So we’re very happy with the evolution of Prestige. We see that continuing. We displayed a couple of new Prestiges at FLIBS. Our product launches are just a continuation of that. We’re finding that brand really gaining traction and continuing to build equity.
Our outboard-powered Jeanneau-branded boats are newer on the marketplace than Prestige is, but they’re hitting a segment that’s very fertile now, which is the under-30-foot segment, with a style that is a bit different. It’s got a European flavor to it.
On the Beneteau side, the Beneteau brand is really best known for sailboats, and that’s true for Jeanneau, as well, but even more so on Beneteau. The Beneteau power offering in the Americas has been focused on the GT Express Cruisers, the Swift Trawler and the MC Sedan Bridge yachts, and that’s going to continue.
Q Last time we spoke, you mentioned that some of the French brands intended for the U.S. market would start being built in the States. Is that happening? Will there be cross-pollination the other direction, with American brands designed for the European market?
A The second piece of your question, American brands being manufactured overseas, is not on the horizon. I know there’s been a lot of speculation about that, and frankly, I have no idea where it’s coming from, but that is not on the horizon. As you know, because we issued a press release about it, we closed the plant in Brazil about nine months ago. We announced the closure of the plant, and it has completely shut down; operations have completely ceased. We moved some of the tooling that was in the Brazil plant to the South Carolina plant. We will be producing there one of the models that had been produced in Brazil: the GT40. Production of that started in November. We’re intending to have the first American-made GT40 on display at the Miami boat show.
In Cadillac, it’s a little bit different. The products we are considering for that plant really revolve around a plan that was announced publicly at our dealer meeting in September to invest in that facility with the objective of doubling capacity within the next 12 to 18 months. That’s going to enable us to introduce some selected European models that would have manufacturing synergies with our core product in Cadillac. So yes, we will be cross-pollinating in that respect. But it’s all activity over here, not in Europe, and it’s driven primarily by the fact that our European plants are operating at capacity.
Q Can you talk about the expansion at the Cadillac plant?
A There’s one manufacturing facility that has been mothballed for the last five or six years. It was mothballed by prior ownership and has remained mothballed up until now. We have just created a capital expenditure plan to rejuvenate it and re-equip it to begin manufacturing again by September 2018. That will relieve our primary manufacturing site in Cadillac of some of the diversification that now is all funneled through one plant. Right now we’re building everything from a 16-foot Scarab to a 37-foot Four Winns express cruiser in one building. That’s 3,500 units. We’ll ease that congestion a little bit and ease flow.
Q What kind of investment is that?
A We’re looking at somewhere in the $2 million to the $2.5 million area, and it’s primarily to rehabilitate the building from an aesthetic and work safety and efficiency standpoint, as well as re-equipping it. As you can imagine, when a manufacturing site is idle for as long as this one has been, things get cannibalized. So all of the things that have been cannibalized over the last five or six years are going to be replaced. That will be for boats 25 feet and below.
Q How much will capacity increase, and do you have a sense of how much product sold in the United States is built here?
A Most of the power is built in the U.S., as well. About 80 percent or so of our powerboat volume comes from the Cadillac brands. On the sailboat side, we serve most of the demand from the South Carolina plant, up to the Oceanis 45. All of the larger boats, Jeanneau- or Beneteau-branded, come from France.
We are very proud of the fact that we are the only European boatbuilder that has that American presence. If you were to ask our dealers about American-made product versus French-made product, while they like the fact that it’s made in the USA and talk about that with their customers, they don’t see a lot of difference between French-made product and American-made product. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve. Two boats, same models, side by side, one made in the U.S. and one in France, should not be different. We’re pretty good at achieving that.
Q We’ve been hearing about choppiness in the larger-boat segment. What are you seeing?
A I’m hearing the same thing you are. I don’t think we’re experiencing that the same way we’ve been hearing from the street on other brands. I can’t say that size segment is on fire, but for us it’s stable.
Q Why do you think that is? Confidence is up, people are using credit cards. Some larger-boat builders are adding capacity.
A I don’t know the answer to that. I guess my opinion would be the used-boat market is still very influential on that segment. It’s a much smaller segment than the 25-foot-and-below segment. So anything that’s out there on the used market has a proportionally greater impact on new-boat sales. And the brokerage market is very robust, from what I hear, the stuff you put out. To tell you the truth, while I watch market trends and data, we spend 80 percent of our time focused on our brands and what we need to do to make our brands succeed.
Q I saw in your annual financials that there had been some tailwinds in charter due to the hurricanes.
A That was the disaster that blew through the Caribbean and decimated the charter fleets. Most of the fleets, whether they were multihull or monohull, used our brands predominantly. We had a dominant market share in the Caribbean. So obviously they have turned to us when it comes to replacing charter fleets in the Caribbean. We are scrambling to replace that fleet as quickly as possible. We have taken a number of steps to, one, help cutters assess and repair the damage; number two, helping them with basic needs as soon as power was restored.
Our commitment to them is we will serve their needs as quickly as possible. We’re balancing that with our core distribution channel and shifting some production around in France and the U.S. to make room for more sailboats, and that’s including our plant in South Carolina.
This article originally appeared in the January 2018 issue.