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Startup sees logic in contrarian timing - Trade Only Today

Startup sees logic in contrarian timing

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Builder of 17-foot performance boat says the recession made money cheap and labor plentiful

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David Hartmann is often asked why he'd start a boat company just as the marine industry is struggling to climb out of a recession.

Now, he insists, is precisely the right time.

"There are good things to be said about this timing," says Hartmann, owner of Bristol, Conn.-based Hornet Marine. "There's a couple of things about a recession that make it really good for starting a business, and one of them is, basically, the cost of money is cheap. It's relatively inexpensive to borrow money, and labor is accessible. We're not supposed to be profitable this year - we're just starting out - so having a slow year in sales is fine."

Hartmann, a lifelong boater who owns a successful fastener manufacturing business, says he will offer something different - entry-level, custom high-performance boats manufactured by a company that prides itself on customer service and strong relationships with its dealer network. "We want to make it so you can get a boat built exactly for you - configured just for you," says Hartmann, who started the company last year along with Dave Martel, Jason Bolas and Erik Schubert.

While a traditional builder normally wouldn't get involved in service issues or parts replacement, Hartmann sees that as an integral part of Hornet's job. For example, if a customer calls and says he dinged his prop while out water skiing, rather than telling him to call the dealer, someone at Hornet can look up the boat's HIN, see where the customer bought it, and offer to ship the prop directly or make an appointment for the customer at the dealership.

"We saw a huge opportunity for improvement," says Hartmann. "We're going to solve your problem for you."

$16,000 and up

The company's first model is a high-performance 17-footer, which Hartmann says is based on an old but proven design - an early Jim Wynne/Walt Walters-designed deep-vee from the 1960s that the new builder modified for today's market. The starting price is about $16,000. "There's really no other boat on the market that's in that category," he says. "All other boats, 17-foot boats, are either open fishing boats or bowriders. There's just not anything else out there [like it]."

The boat, Hartmann says, will appeal to those looking for more than a personal watercraft, but at a lower price point than a larger boat. The two main target audiences are people who own PWC but want a boat, and those who live on the water and have a larger boat but want something smaller for quick trips around the river, lake or near-shore waters.

The base model will be powered by a 3-liter, 4-cylinder engine, and the "best power package" will be a 220-hp 4.3-liter V6 MerCruiser, Hartmann says. He says the boat will be capable of reaching 55 to 60 mph. The first boats will likely be powered by MerCrusier engines, though Hornet may look at Volvo as well.

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"We're not trying to set speed records; the goal here is to be fun," says Hartmann. "[Personal watercraft are] fun for a little while, but unless you have two of them and you live on the water, they're not that practical. You see the price point of those going up and up and up where the high-end jet ski costs $16,000."

A Hornet is a "real boat," he says - it's an all-purpose runabout.

What is a Hornet?

The inspiration for Hornet Marine is the Thunderbird - the first offshore powerboat with gas turbines. That boat was designed and driven by Wynne and Walters, and the crew also included Hartmann's father, Hal Hartmann.

"The three members of the Thunderbird crew all had direct involvement in the design of the Hornet Model One," Hartmann says. "It's not like we came out of nowhere. We have the same heritage and history as most any other performance boat company out there."

The name Hornet, he says, is a spin on one of Wynne and Walters' original designs. But while the design is based on a 1960s boat, it's been updated to meet 2010 standards.

"We've taken [the original design] and really changed a few things," Hartmann says. "We've lowered the center of gravity by lowering the floor. We've increased the storage capacity, made the seating much more comfortable, and made a couple of other minor changes to it."

Hartmann says he's not spending a lot of money on R&D. "We've got a proven hull," he says.

The fiberglass work is done off-site, currently at a plant in Connecticut, though Hartmann is looking to move that work to a larger facility, likely in the Midwest or Maine. The rigging will be done at the Bristol plant, but Hartmann would eventually like to open regional rigging centers in the Midwest, the South and other areas as the company grows.

Hull No. 1 has been displayed at a few boat shows, and the response from dealers has been "fantastic," Hartmann says. "When we went to New York, we started out hoping the dealers would be interested in taking it. After a couple of days at the show, the dealers were coming by, telling us how great they were and how we needed to make sure we partnered with good dealers. They were really showing why they were the ones to choose," he says. "There was really genuine, serious interest."

While the first Hornet built was used to garner interest, the second will be an all-black boat to ensure the mold quality is perfect. The third boat, Hartmann says, will be a show boat and the fourth will be the first one for sale.

Hornet plans to sell exclusively through dealers, with the expectation of selling 26 boats in 2010. By the end of 2011, the company hopes to build 100 boats a month. "We see us going to every regional show until we sign up a dealer in every region," Hartmann says.

Hornet currently has seven employees, but the company is looking to add personnel in information technology, marketing and rigging. And while the 17-footer is currently the only model available, the company may add a 21-footer down the road.

A new business model

While most boatbuilders insist that their dealers stock a number of boats, Hornet will provide its dealers with a single boat, which they don't have to pay for upfront. Hartmann expects to allow dealers to pay for the boat 60 days after they take ownership, assuming it's not sold by that time.

Customers can either buy the model boat or work with the dealer, using a Web tool to configure their own vessel. The vendor-managed inventory system allows Hornet to offer a large assortment of electronics, performance, safety and style options.

Once an order is placed, it will be about three weeks until delivery, Hartmann says. "The quickness is what's going to be so attractive," he says.

There are no plans to require dealers to sell his line exclusively. "It is OK to sell our boat along with Sea Rays and Cobalts because we're not competing with them," he says. "They don't make a performance-style runabout."

Other incentives to dealers include an annuity program in which they will receive a percentage of all direct sales made to a customer as long as the dealer carries the Hornet brand. This also includes any accessories sold directly to the consumer.

"The idea there is we know you really have to support the dealers. I think these are things that the dealers just don't see, so that's what's exciting about it," Hartmann says.

In terms of customer service, Hornet plans to offer localized owners' manuals, boating safety course reimbursement, and owners association support.

Every owner, Hartmann says, will be assigned someone in the company who is responsible for calling that person a few times a year to see how things are going and offer any support and assistance they may need.

"Everything we're going to do is about adding value to the customer and helping them use their boat more and more," he says. "It's not hard with the technologies that are available."

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.

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