Moby-Dick was born in New Bedford, Mass. Not the elusive white whale, but the book, sprung from the mind of Herman Melville after he set sail from New Bedford on a whaling voyage that lasted five years. As far back as when Melville was stumbling home drunk along the city’s cobblestone streets in the 1800s, what was then known as the “whaling capital of the world” has been a center of marine invention and industry.
“What’s neat about the area is that it’s a team effort,” says Adam Cove, CEO of Edson Marine, one of four New Bedford manufacturers — along with Imtra, Kirby Paints and Schaefer Marine — that hold a prominent place in the recreational boating industry. “We’re able to help each other with little stuff. We don’t do some things, like woodworking, but the companies we use for that are right down the street. We can get together and talk through our needs, and that makes a big difference.”
Edson has been around since 1859, long after Melville shipped out, but Kirby Paints opened its doors in 1846, when the author had returned from the sea. It’s possible Melville stopped by for a gallon of Kirby’s copper-based bottom paint. The company is now run by a seventh-generation Kirby, George IV, who says he has handwritten paint recipes dating to 1879. They are pretty close to the formulations the company still uses.
Kirby’s original waterfront location was seized in an eminent domain claim in the early 1970s to clear the way for Route 18, but the company remains in New Bedford. The move away from downtown hurt, but the Internet has helped, and the company still cranks out a steady flow of paint orders. “It’s the paint,” Kirby says. “It has the historic colors and a different look. We also do a lot of custom matching. People send us samples, and we replicate them.”
Edson, by comparison, is a relative newcomer to New Bedford. The company started in Boston and moved 60 miles south during World War II. “It’s been a huge part of what we do,” Cove says of New Bedford. “It’s always been a town full of people who are talented with their hands and passionate about the water.”
Edson, which has its own foundry, and machine and welding shops, has employed some of those people for 40 years. The emphasis is on passing down not only skills and knowledge, but also culture.
A connection to the water is ingrained in Edson’s DNA. Company founder Jacob Edson used relationships with captains and boatbuilders to understand their needs. He invented the diaphragm pump, then moved to steering systems before expanding into other components. The company still takes that approach. Today, Edson uses diaphragm pumps in its pumpout systems, and still makes steering components. It also produces everything from cup holders to engine controls to radar-mounting systems.
Imtra also emigrated from Boston, landing in New Bedford in 1987 — in the same industrial park as Edson. “New Bedford has been great for us because it’s close to our business and to our hearts,” says CEO Eric Braitmayer. In particular, he says, Imtra has thrived by tapping into the “blue economy,” the global marketplace of marine products.
“From a practical standpoint, New Bedford has been great because it keeps us near the water and near Boston, which helps facilitate importing — a big part of our business,” he says.
Imtra makes products that include lighting systems, windlasses, anchoring components and bow thrusters. “We always look for things that make us say, ‘Oh, that’s new and different,’ ” Braitmayer says. He compares the approach to looking for power windows, which automobile drivers at first thought were cool, then became standard equipment in every car inside of a decade. According to Braitmayer, the marine industry equivalent during the past 10 years has been bow thrusters.
In that same industrial park sits Schaefer Marine, best known for windlasses, blocks, sail furlers and other hardware. It has been in New Bedford since 1966. The company did not respond to interview requests, but representatives of Edson and Imtra mentioned Schaefer as a reliable local partner and part of the New Bedford boating network.
And while New Bedford maintains many of its historical charms, all of the manufacturers see the path forward as one that requires continued adaptation. “Boats have gotten much more sophisticated,” Braitmayer says. “The systems are better, but the sheer number of them compared to 25 years ago is crazy.”
Cove says the evolution of systems has changed production methods. “Forty years ago, it was about large runs of simple products. Today, everyone likes things tailored to their needs, everything is almost semicustom, so it’s shorter runs that are a lot more hands-on. There’s more of a personal touch, better quality.”
Maybe that’s why New Bedford has been home to so many marine companies. Its history as a seafaring city and connection to the water make it a font of people who understand what it takes to thrive in a demanding environment, no matter whether getting on the water means going water skiing or whaling.
Staying the Course
It may not be in New Bedford, but there is another Massachusetts marine manufacturer with a long history of success. Ritchie Navigation in Pembroke, about 35 minutes from New Bedford, has been around since 1850. The company has thrived by doing one thing: compasses. Exceedingly well.
Ritchie’s mission has become more difficult in the age of electronic navigation. “In magnetic compasses, there hasn’t been a ton of innovation,” CEO Jon Sherman says. “So it’s about making the best product possible out of the materials available.”
That approach creates a piece of equipment that will last for decades, unlike some newer offerings. “Electronics are great, and they’ve made the sport more accessible,” Sherman says, “but it creates reliance on technology that can be dangerous. As anyone with a phone knows, things go wrong with technology.”
Sherman says too many new boats stick the smallest possible compass on the dash, where new boaters overlook them. Like his fellow component manufacturers up the road, he sees the solution in educating boaters and builders. Ritchie recently launched a “Ready to Boat” program, a commonsense approach that aims to teach newer boaters the essentials of navigation.
“People don’t think about their compass until that fog rolls in,” he says. “Then it gets real. GPS is great, but boaters still need to know how to use a chart and compass." — J.G.
Davis Instruments: 50 Years of Disrupting the Industry
In 1969, two students in Stanford University’s business school put their meager savings together and bought a business. “We didn’t have much capital, maybe enough to last three months,” says Bob Selig, CEO of Davis Instruments. “We looked around to buy an existing business, something with filing cabinets and a few typewriters.”
Selig and his partner, Jim Acquistapace, chose a small company in Hayward, Calif., just outside of San Francisco, called Davis Instruments. “It was started by a tool maker, Bill Davis, and had a handful of employees and products,” Selig says. “The main product was a plastic sextant.”
Things didn’t go so well at first. “We quickly found out that we didn’t know how to run a business,” Selig says. “We spent that first year down in the trenches, learning and working hard. We did everything.”
A half-century later, Davis Instruments has about 110 employees and sells marine, weather monitoring and other products. Eleven workers recently celebrated their 25th anniversaries, according to Selig. Some work in production, and the majority of employees are software engineers.
The company is an unusual hybrid that designs most of its products and manufactures some in-house, while sourcing hundreds of other products from Europe and Asia. Davis Instruments has made 30 acquisitions just on its marine side.
In 1988, Selig and Acquistapace added a handheld anemometer to the Davis Instruments line by acquiring Digitar Corp. That opened the door to weather instrumentation, which in turn opened the doors to the automotive and agriculture industries. “We took that company and began to develop new weather instruments,” Selig says. “We’ve since become a major player in weather instrumentation and software.”
Davis Instruments also made fleet- management tools and became a major name in automotive tracking, until Verizon came to dominate the business.
Selig says it was critical for the company to expand into other sectors. “Boating wasn’t growing that fast, so we needed to spread out,” he says. “We’re trying to change the business to relate to changing markets and technology. If you’re not being a disruptor, you’re being disrupted.”
After 50 years, Selig and Acquistapace remain active with the business, coming into work each day. “It’s not totally dependent on us like the early days,” Selig says. “We have a strong team in place. We may retire at some point, but not just yet.” — Michael Verdon
Perko: 6,000 Products and Counting
A company that’s been in business for more than 100 years has seen and done it all. Likely more than once. Such is the case with Miami-based Perko, a fifth-generation, family-owned manufacturer of boat hardware, and fuel and lighting systems.
Its first products in 1907 were handcrafted ventilators, chart cases and navigation lights — oil lamps, to be specific. Today, Perko makes LED lighting systems among its more than 6,000 products. “We’ve been in and out of numerous product categories,” says George Bellwoar, vice president of marketing. “We went from fully integrated manufacturing to a fair amount of outsourced products, and now back to being fully integrated because it best fits our current strategic approach.”
Under its 450,000-square-foot roof, Perko has an automated foundry pouring aluminum, bronze and stainless steel. The company does chrome- and gold-plating; in-house tool and die design and production; casting and plastic-injection molding; and CNC machining and grinding. The 350 employees create just about everything but light bulbs, wire and fasteners.
“By making products in-house, we have far more control over the quality and availability of our parts,” Bellwoar says. “It also allows us to easily make special or custom versions quickly, something that can’t be matched with lengthy supply chains.”
During the past decade, the product line has focused less on cleats and handles, and more on technically advanced categories, such as LED lighting and fuel-system components. Perko also has seen a resurgence in support for “Made in the USA” and “Buy American” sentiments domestically, in addition to its international sales.
With availability on six of the seven continents and OEM customers ranging from rowboats to oceangoing freighters, Perko splits its business evenly between OEM and retail. Recent headlines about trade wars and tariffs have had a minimal impact on the business.
“A few customers that were lost to imports have indicated that they came back to domestic sources because of rising import costs,” Bellwoar says. “We take that as primarily a tariff issue. For us, the real impact will be if the result of tariffs is better protection of the intellectual property of American manufacturers.” — Dick Gibson
An Old Dog that Learned New Tricks
Most traveling salesmen pack their wares into their cars and hit the road. Not Hans Sneve. In 1925, this Silvana, Wash.-based entrepreneur decided the best way to showcase his marine hardware would be to outfit the 55-foot cruiser Sea-Dog and visit West Coast dealers by water. His idea proved successful, and the H.A.B. Sneve Co. was born.
His nephew Eldon Nysether took the helm when Sneve retired. Renaming the company Sneve-Nysether Inc. in the 1960s, he continued to focus on the Sea-Dog Line while teaching his sons, Mark and Brad, about the marine wholesale business. Now 93, Nysether remains the patriarch of Sea Dog Corp. The nearly 100-year-old family enterprise now spans four generations.
“Eldon still comes into the office and climbs the stairs, two days a week,” says Greg Duncan, Sea-Dog’s marketing and product development manager. “And the Sea-Dog boat is still motoring around Washington waters. [She] is featured in each harbor painting that’s commissioned for our catalog covers.”
Sea-Dog’s product line has evolved from a small number of hardware and accessory items to more than 3,400 items in packaged and bulk forms, and hundreds more custom and proprietary items. The company stocks more than 9 million parts in its 100,000-square-foot warehouse in Everett, Wash., and it has earned the National Marine Distributors Association Platinum Supplier of the Year Award 14 times in 17 years.
It also started its own 20,000-square-foot plastic molding facility in 1996. Sea-Lect Plastics provides roughly 35 percent of the Sea-Dog product line, as well as kayak accessories for sister company Sea-Lect Designs and products for partners that include Boeing.
From Brad Nysether’s perspective, operating a longtime family business has its advantages and challenges. “The best part is being able to assemble a good team that works together well and is able to accomplish our goals of providing customers with high-quality products at a fair price as easily as possible,” Nysether says. “The most challenging would be knowing that Sea-Dog supports the livelihood of many, and trying to manage a successful business that will continue to provide that support.
“In addition, we’re a small company going up against a lot of big guys,” he adds. “The challenges simply make you work harder.” — Heather Steinberg
A Surprise Success Story
Barry Berhoff moved to Florida hoping to become an entrepreneur with enough money to own a boat. He never fantasized about being in the marine industry; when he purchased Shurhold Industries in 1998, the appeal was manufacturing.
“The idea of having a warehouse and machines and forklifts — that, to me, was way more interesting than what I had been doing,” Berhoff says.
William Peach had founded Shurhold in 1973 in his Florida garage. He built a multipurpose, extendable handle-and-brush system as a gift for friends, then for paying customers as boaters saw the quality and versatility of the product. When Berhoff took over the enterprise, there was no modern machinery, no inventory controls, not a single computer. “We were typing each UPS label on a typewriter,” he says.
Berhoff set about modernizing and expanding the business. He added a set of cleaning products and attachments for the handle — gaff hooks, paddles, camera mounts. He then expanded the company’s markets to include recreational vehicles and automotive. Distribution through dealers and distributors became global.
Then he had to take a gamble. “I realized our machine wasn’t going to keep up with making brushes if I was going to grow the company,” he says. “But at the same time, I hadn’t grown the company and couldn’t really afford a new machine.”
He faced a 12- to 18-month lead time for installation of a new machine, which he ordered, knowing he couldn’t afford it — but banking on the time allowing for marketing. The bet paid off, and today, Berhoff says Shurhold’s business is less volatile than what other marine businesses see.
“We don’t really deal with a lot of obsolescence, like an electronics manufacturer,” he says. “We’re not like a boatbuilder that has its own set of issues. And even if the economy goes bad, the number of boats out there doesn’t really change. If you can’t sell your boat and you can’t buy a new boat, you still have to take care of the one you’ve got.”
Berhoff says he’s never had to lay off any of his 20 workers, but Shurhold is feeling some impact from the tariffs on imported steel and aluminum. Overall, though, Berhoff says he is living a dream come true.
“I love the industry. I love the people in the industry,” he says. “I just got back from four days of fishing with my buddies. I am very blessed. I just didn’t realize this was going to become more of a lifestyle than a business.” — Dick Gibson
One Family Business to Another
Taylor Made is one of those brands that seemed as if it would be passed from one generation to the next, until Lippert Components acquired it in 2018. The company was a good catch for Lippert, which was in extreme acquisition mode.
In 1908, Nelson A. Taylor started his business as a canvas manufacturer, but it touched multiple segments during its family ownership. Taylor also had a penchant for product development, with Taylor Made currently holding more than 100 patents for marine products.
When Nelson’s son Willard took over in 1946, the company began to focus on the budding recreational boating market, introducing the first wraparound acrylic windshields for boats in 1951. It later launched Marine Air Systems for air-conditioning, which expanded through acquisitions of Cruisair in Virginia and Condaria in Italy. In 1984, it started SeaLand Technology for marine sanitation. Taylor Made Glass Systems also expanded with the acquisitions of Trend Marine Products and WaterBonnet. It also developed an aftermarket accessories business with its Taylor Made Products division.
When Lippert acquired Taylor Made, it had divested its sanitation and air-conditioning businesses, but its other divisions continue to be active. The new parent has wisely allowed Taylor Made to keep its own brand name and former managerial staff as it grows with the decade-long expansion in boat sales.
What has it been like for Taylor Made since the 2018 acquisition? “When we were acquired, we were at the strongest point we’d been at in a decade, since the downturn, and our business has only gotten stronger since the acquisition,” says Jason Pajonk-Taylor, Taylor Made president.
Pajonk-Taylor, a member of the founding family, says the partnership has been positive for his company and its parent. “We brought our history and brand recognition to the table,” he says. “The biggest thing Lippert Components has brought to the table, for me, is the company culture. No question about it. They’re definitive about it. They’re intentional about it. They really bring the resources behind it, the focus behind it.”
Lippert’s “Everyone Matters” was a radical cultural shift for the Elkhart, Ind.-based manufacturer, with roots in the recreational vehicle industry but with businesses in the United States and Europe. “A few years ago, we were expanding through acquisitions from a 2,000-person company to a company with 5,000 workers,” CEO Jason Lippert says. “Attrition was weighing heavily on our business. Our employee turnover was similar to other businesses in Elkhart, at about 100 percent. People were moving from one company to the next in a matter of months. We’d have to hire 5,000 workers per year.”
Since the program has been adopted, turnover at Lippert has dropped to 30 percent. “When you fix that problem, the quality, efficiency and safety go up,” Lippert says. “Those are your profit indicators. After all, someone who has worked with the company for five years will be much more efficient than someone who is there 90 days.”
Pajonk-Taylor says that the culture has become part of Taylor Made’s mandate going forward. “What most excites me about the future is our capability to not only work with our customers but the people,” he says. “We’re going to impact people’s lives for years. We’re going to show them what great leadership looks like as part of the company we are building.” — Michael Verdon
Westerbeke Weathered 80 Years by Being Small and Innovative
Succeeding as a family business for 80 years isn’t easy, but Westerbeke Corp. has done just that, by being large enough to innovate and small enough to pay close attention to customers.
John H. Westerbeke Sr. founded the company in 1937 to develop diesel engines and generators. By the following year, he had pioneered use of the Detroit Diesel block for marine applications. In 1959, the company started customizing Perkins engine blocks for marine use, creating a market for small marine diesels as auxiliary power on sailboats. Westerbeke used the same engines for marine diesel generators.
During the ’80s, the company led the marine diesel market by introducing a line of quiet, compact, lightweight generators that were the smallest available, and brought the first low-carbon-monoxide gasoline generator to the marine market in 2005.
Through it all, Westerbeke has survived the economic ups and downs while serving only the marine and fire-service markets. Today, the company has 60 employees operating in a 110,000-square-foot facility in Taunton, Mass.
“Our competition is larger than us and have other products and markets that can subsidize what they do in the marine part of their business,” says sales and marketing director Tom Sutherland. “We’ve had some unique and innovative products in recent years, in terms of size and application, and that helps.”
The company also has a worldwide network of distributors and dealers for sales and service that helps equalize any size inequities. “For a small company, we have a really impressive infrastructure,” he adds. “Our engineering department is pretty diverse, with a lot of good equipment, including 3-D modeling tools. We also have, which to my knowledge is unique to anyone else in our position, a full emissions lab, so we can perform our own emissions testing.”
Westerbeke’s most recent Innovation Award from the National Marine Manufacturers Association is for its 3.5 kW, low-carbon-monoxide compact gasoline generator, the newest in a line that extends to 22.5 kW for use primarily on houseboats.
“We have a strong organization that’s been around a long time, and there’s a lot of experience in the company,” Sutherland says. “We have the people to cross-work, if you will, and do whatever it takes to maintain, and that’s helped us a lot. That longstanding internal knowledge gives us the ability to batten down the hatches and get really thin, while maintaining quality.” — Dick Gibson
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.