Yellowfin knows its niche

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The Florida builder has found success by offering high-end fishing boats to a targeted clientele

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Recession? What recession?

Yellowfin Yachts is succeeding, even during these tough times, by focusing on a specific market: high-end, outboard-powered sportfishing boats for well-heeled, hard-core anglers.

“The fishboat market is a little more stable,” says Wylie Nagler, founder and owner of the Sarasota, Fla.-based company. “The guys who are hard-core fishermen are always going to fish, and the guys with money who hard-core fish are always going to buy boats, regardless of what the economy is doing.”

With a background in offshore performance powerboat racing and tournament fishing, Nagler in 1998 set out to build a fast, wave-piercing center console that was also a top-of-the-line offshore fishing boat. His first Yellowfin was a 31-footer introduced in 2000. He has since added eight boats to a center console lineup that ranges from 23 to 42 feet. The company also builds three smaller boats — a 17-foot skiff, a 21-foot hybrid (a combination bay and flats boat), and a 24-foot bay boat.

Nagler launched his company with just nine employees. Today, Yellowfin employs about 85 and builds roughly 140 boats a year at its 96,000-square-foot, six-building headquarters in Sarasota, according to Nagler.

The 36 center console and the 24 Bay, introduced in 2002 and 2006, respectively, are the company’s bestsellers, Nagler says. Yellowfin builds about 45 of each of these models annually. “We can’t build them fast enough,” Nagler says of the 24 Bay. “We’re nine months backlogged.”

Yellowfin has been able to sustain its 140-vessel-a-year production by not only building high-quality, market-specific boats, but also by pilfering market share from other manufacturers, Nagler says. “We’re building the same amount of boats this year as we were five years ago,” says Nagler, who formed Yellowfin after owning and then selling a flats boat company, Back Country Powerboats, to Champion Boats. “We’ve taken away a lot of the hard-core fishermen that were buying some of [our competitors’] boats by building a better mousetrap. At the same time, we had the economy go the other way. Attrition has helped us stay at that level, as well as we’re building one of the best boats out there.”

Yellowfin introduced one boat each year during the height of the recession from 2008 to 2010 (the 32, 29 and 21). The builder debuted its 39-foot center console at the 2010 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show (www.showmanagement.com).

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Since the company’s inception, Nagler has adhered to one business model. “Our philosophy is to build the best boat and use the best materials, the best hardware and the best systems,” he says. “If we find something on the market that’s better than what we’re using, we automatically put it in the boat and raise the price. We don’t care how much a cleat or a rod holder costs. We’re striving to build the best boat, not as many boats as we can for as little money as we can.”

Nagler spares no expense, and it shows on the price tags of his boats. The 36 with triple Yamaha F300s retails for $246,720. The 24 Bay with a single Mercury Verado 300 carries an MSRP of $74,256. But that’s OK, he says, because price is no worry for most of his buyers. “Ninety percent of our customers pay cash,” he says.

The Yellowfin’s head-turning profile, with its ample freeboard forward, bow flare and graceful sheer, helps capture market share, too, Nagler says. “You can build the fastest car, but if it’s not pretty, then it’s not going to sell,” he says. “It has to capture the person’s eye as he’s walking by. He has to say, ‘Wow, that’s cool. Let me go check it out.’ If it’s shaped like a box or a framing carpenter designed it, you may sell a few but not nearly as many as those that are appealing to the eye.”

At the factory

The boats are impressive while blasting through the water, sitting on a lift, at anchor, even rolling down the highway on a trailer. Living in Sarasota, I’ve seen them in all of these scenarios. But I had not seen the factory until this summer. After an hour-long sit-down with Nagler, production manager Heath Daughtry took me on a tour, showing and describing the “processes,” or stages of production.

The boats are built using composite cores sandwiched between fiberglass. The smaller boats are built using resin infusion; those more than 24 feet are hand-laid. The builder uses 100 percent vinylester in all of its boats, and just about every part and component is built in-house. “The only parts of our boats that we don’t build ourselves are the windshield and upholstery,” says Daughtry, who has worked at the company for four years. “Everything from our fishboxes to the toekicks to the T-tops and aluminum is done right here.”

Production crews consist of multitalented, cross-trained employees who can work in different areas proficiently, Daughtry says. “We don’t have a guy that just does the port forward cleat,” he says. “You might do a job for four weeks, but on the fifth week we might need you somewhere else.”

As we walked through the different areas, such as lamination, assembly and rigging, Daughtry pointed out that the company builds one boat at a time. For instance, the assembly crew carries out its job — from putting together the hull, deck and deck cap to installing through-hulls — on one boat until it’s done before work begins on the next boat, Daughtry says. “The customer comes out ahead this way because we focus on the needs of that owner, building and rigging the vessel accordingly,” he says.

“Smaller builders like us are not worried about how many boats are shoveled out the door as much as the quality of the product,” Nagler adds. “In the last three years there has been a lot of data about the [lack of] success of the business models of some of the production companies. Between customer service, warranty and floorplan of that business model, it has crushed them.”

So it’s a given that Yellowfin will remain a factory-direct builder, Nagler says. “I like to be able to deal with the customer one on one,” he says. “That white-glove service will keep them coming back year after year. We have developed a distributor and service center network out west and in the Northeast. We felt a need to make potential customers feel like they can get quality Yellowfin service no matter where they live.”

Service from the owner

Brad Berk lives in Westport, Conn., and runs a 2006 Yellowfin 24 Bay with a 275-hp Mercury Verado. He also owned a Yellowfin 36 with triple 275-hp Verados for about five years. A few years ago, while fishing 80 miles off Montauk, N.Y., Berk had severe electrical problems. “I had rewired the batteries incorrectly,” the 39-year-old stockbroker says. “The whole battery compartment was full of smoke. It was a disaster.”

Using a satellite phone, Berk called Nagler. It was a Sunday afternoon, but Nagler answered. “He spent an hour and a half with me, guiding me through rewiring the batteries. I was so happy. He saved us. I don’t know what I would have done.”

Needless to say, the company’s customer service has been top-notch, Berk says. “It’s a good feeling … having a company behind you that you know if the s- - - hits the fan they’ll take care of the problem,” he says.

Berk says he wants to buy another big Yellowfin like the 36 but is waiting to see what Nagler may be introducing, such as an express with pod drives. Nagler says Yellowfin expects to eventually build a pod-driven boat, but he was tight-lipped about the plans. “It’s on our horizon to tinker with one,” he says. “We have some other projects we want to finish first.”

Nagler has total confidence in his boats and how they stack up against the competition. “We want people to try all the different brands because the majority of the time, if they do, we know they’ll end up in our shop,” he says.

But he also knows his customers have kept his business cranking through the years by succeeding on the tournament circuit. “Their success has made Yellowfin the choice of all the top professionals, and we’re able to gather information from them to make Yellowfin a better brand,” he says.

Nagler fishes in the tournaments, as well, using a 36 Yellowfin. He has passed on his passion for the water to his children. “My boys are 11 and 8, and my daughter is 10,” he says. “My 8-year-old just got his first sailfish in an owner’s tournament — 75-pounder, fully grown. It was a phenomenal catch for him.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2011 issue.

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