Sea Ray founder dies after long cancer battle


Cornelius Nathaniel "Connie" Ray III, founder of Sea Ray Boats, died Nov. 12 after a five-year battle with cancer. He was 84 years old.

Ray founded Sea Ray in 1959 in Oxford, Mich., and built it into one of the world's largest boatbuilders with 40 models from 17 feet to 60 feet. He sold the company in December 1986 to Brunswick Corp. for $350 million dollars.

One of the early builders in fiberglass, Ray started out manufacturing a 16-foot family runabout in a small shop he had bought that had also fabricated golf cart bodies and coffins. Focusing on building boats, he turned to the Detroit automakers as models for merchandising. He introduced high styling, brought a GM designer to the plant to help style his boats' interiors - the consoles and upholstery - like car interiors, and emphasized quality building and first-rate dealers.

"He believed that distribution was king, that you built a good-quality boat, backed it up, delivered good customer service, and got the best dealers," said Robert J. Parmentier, Sea Ray's president and an employee of Ray's in the early 1980s.

In the introduction to Jeffrey Rodengen's book, "Commanding the Waterways," written for Sea Ray's 50th anniversary this year, Ray said he already was on this path when he exhibited at the 1960 Chicago National Boat show.

"We were already setting ourselves apart from our competition with strict attention to the basics: superior products, superior dealers and a sincere appreciation of our customers," he wrote.

Parmentier describes Ray as one of the industry's icons. "He helped develop the fiberglass boat business," Parmentier said. "He was always a step ahead of his time."

After retiring from Sea Ray, Ray turned his attention to his other love, raising thoroughbred horses at his farm near Louisville, Ky.

Born May 14, 1925, to Charles H. Ray and Virginia Bryant Ray in Detroit, Ray attended the Detroit University School in Grosse Pointe, Mich., joined the Army Air Corps during World War II and graduated from UCLA in 1949. Known to his friends as C.N. or "Connie," Ray was "passionate about enjoying life, boating, aviation, and animals, especially thoroughbred horses," said his son, C.C. Ray.

Ray is survived by a daughter, five sons and his wife of 28 years, Carol. His sister, Trudy, and a sixth son, Cornel, predeceased him.

— Jim Flannery