When Christophe Lavigne arrived at Four Winns 12 years ago to head the engineering department, the Cadillac, Mich.-based company had a traditional office layout with designers, architects and engineers separated in cubicles. Lavigne changed that, installing what he called the “brainstorming table,” a 25-foot-long collaboration area.
Today, as vice president of engineering, warranty and customer service for the American brands of Groupe Beneteau, he has retained the gathering point for his team of 70 engineers and 20 customer service agents. “The idea is to make people share their problems, their ideas, and everyone can benefit from the debate,” Lavigne says. “I love the exchange.”
The home office in France encourages the same approach. Groupe Beneteau CEO Hervé Gastinel wants collaboration, within and across different organizations, to become a pillar of its global corporate culture.
Collaboration suits Lavigne well, who studied engineering in France and, after college, took a job with Jeanneau working on sailboats. He moved to Canada to work for Doral Boats, where he was in charge of engineering. After 12 years, he relocated to the United States to work for Genmar, eventually heading product development for Four Winns, Glastron, Wellcraft and Scarab.
Lavigne has overseen the evolution of all four brands. Four Winns is moving from traditional sterndrive runabouts and cruisers to outboard boats, including a Vista 355 scheduled to launch at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. The Four Winns name remains popular in the Great Lakes and northern areas, and the company is looking to make inroads in the Southeast. “The challenge for us as a company is to design a boat that’s compatible for both propulsion systems,” Lavigne says.
Glastron, known for sporty bowriders, is also moving from sterndrives to outboards with a series of deckboats targeting Southern markets. Lavigne says Glastron and Four Winns also are developing wakesurf boats with ballast, speed control and Volvo Penta’s Forward Drive propulsion system. Scarab is offering a surf package, as well.
The Wellcraft brand, too, has an outboard focus, with a line that includes center consoles and bay boats from 16 to 35 feet. That brand has picked up significant market share in the past year. At its dealer meeting in Sarasota, Fla., Wellcraft launched two 35-footers. “The brand is on fire,” Lavigne says. “It was a big question six or seven years ago, what to do with Wellcraft.”
As for Scarab, Lavigne says he took heat from offshore performance enthusiasts when Rec Boat Holdings decided to use the Scarab name for jetboats. In the 1980s and ’90s, Scarab offshore boats were among the most popular in the go-fast game. “I didn’t receive death threats,” he quips, “but the purists weren’t happy that we violated its origins.”
Lavigne says the current line of jetboats continues the Scarab performance lineage. “The brand means competition, agility and speed,” he says. “We have been true to the name in that regard. There is just no real demand for the traditional high-speed, super-cool Scarab of the 1980s and 1990s.
“We are number two in the world among jetboat builders,” he adds. “That new product was a revolution for us.”
The Big Picture
Lavigne says that even though he works for a corporation based in France, he has to think and design boats with a North American mindset because 80 percent of the U.S. brands’ business is in North America. “When people in Europe buy a Four Winns, a Scarab or a Glastron, they are buying a piece of America,” he says.
At the Michigan facility, the company is building two outboard pocket cruisers for Jeanneau, the NC 795 and NC 895. The plant has five-axis routers, CNC machines and 3-D printing capabilities, and it uses what Lavigne calls “squish molding,” in which there are two molds with resin and fiberglass injected between them. The molds are compressed, or squished, by pressure, distributing resin evenly through the part. It’s an alternative to resin transfer molding that delivers a part that’s finished on both sides. It’s also more environmentally friendly.
Such technology has helped to halve boat-design time, Lavigne says, also crediting software improvements and designer skills. The company has developed immersion goggles that position a designer “in the boat” so he can see what he’s working on. On the materials side, the facility is working with lighter, stronger foam cores, carbon fiber and adhesives such as Plexus. “We glue more and more, and screw less and less,” Lavigne says.
Across the Atlantic, the rules of design are similar at Groupe Beneteau’s European brands. “It’s very important that the brands retain their own design identities,” says Erik Stromberg, director of product marketing for Prestige Yachts. “You need an in-house team that understands the identity and what makes it tick.”
Groupe Beneteau has facilities in France, Poland, Italy and Slovenia. Lavigne and his team meet regularly with counterparts from overseas. Americans are recognized as being good with upholstery, Lavigne says, so they help Beneteau and Jeanneau in that area. “A big part of Beneteau is leveraging synergy,” he says. “We have meetings almost every day with the French and Polish teams so we can share and work on the same CAD files.”
The group has a central research, design and technology facility in France where engineers from Beneteau, Jeanneau and the other brands develop engine installations, rigging, plumbing and other systems. The engineering center also determines the best equipment, such as bilge pumps and blowers. “When we find the best bilge pump, we buy them by the thousands,” Stromberg says.
Prestige has a 25-person design team. A project manager will stay in place until a boat is finished, but other team members move around as needed. Prestige’s design area, like the one in Michigan, is an open space that encourages collaboration. “The design philosophy is to play on the strength of our brand, the seaworthiness, and blend the practical sense of a seaworthy boat with Italian design,” Stromberg says. The brand is designed for a global market to achieve the group’s international sales goals.
North America is the largest single market for the company, though a close percentage of its boats are sold in Europe. Stromberg says the biggest changes in recent years have come from adding interior and industrial designers to the team. “These yachts are no longer pretty packages with furniture inside,” he says. “Every bit of the boat, from the door handles to the curve of the furniture, comes from an interior design house somewhere.”
The Prestige design team works on a five-year product plan. Any model expected to debut in three years is considered to be in active product development. Prestige is currently doing a design brief on a 65-foot yacht. After the brief stage, the plans will go to the design team and exterior design partner Garroni Design of Genoa, Italy, before going to management. Once the project gets the green light, Prestige will conduct a feasibility study before prototyping it.
While outboards haven’t moved into the type of yachts that Prestige builds, Stromberg says the group has benefitted from being one of the biggest builders of outboard boats in Europe. “What took us by surprise was the growing sizes of the boats with outboards,” Stromberg says. “We expect to see new models growing on the Jeanneau side into the 35- to 40-foot range in the next cycle, three to five years out. It will be longer before outboards come to Prestige.”
During the next five years, Stromberg expects to see “more volume, more comfort, more features and more household-type appliances. That arc will continue. People are going to want more comfort.”
Stromberg says the current trend toward larger boats with owner-operators should top out around 70 feet. Innovations will come from the household and automotive markets, he says. At the forefront is connectivity.
The Beneteau-Jeanneau design group developed a connectivity program called Ship Control using NMEA 2000 links to connect to multifunction displays from major electronics brands. “We saw the trend coming and thought it best not to be married to one supplier,” Stromberg says. “It’s also a great example of collaboration across our companies.”
Regardless of which brand they work for within the group, Stromberg and Lavigne say that designing boats is a cool occupation. “The process is really fun, but the results are even better,” Lavigne says. “The reward is seeing someone enjoy my boats.”
Lavigne’s Rule: Converting Outboards to Sterndrives
Designer Christophe Lavigne’s baseline rule is that boats from 20 to 27 feet should get the same performance from an outboard rated for 50 hp less than a sterndrive. The positioning of the centers of balance and gravity and the fuel tank play a key role in achieving this goal.
Boats are designed with the stringers to have multiple configurations for propulsion systems and for the fuel tank to be positioned accordingly. Because an outboard — and its weight — is positioned far aft, the fuel tank is moved forward or aft to ensure that the boat is properly balanced.
One design evolution is that a boat might use an outboard with a longer shaft mounted on the trailing edge of a swim platform. It used to be that it was almost automatic to use as short a shaft as possible to achieve optimum performance. That’s not the case today. — E.C.
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue.