Carving a Niche

Aftermarket marine equipment suppliers have learned to identify segments where they can succeed
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Indmar Marine supplies inboards to several builders of towboats, a segment the company says has “compressed.”

Indmar Marine supplies inboards to several builders of towboats, a segment the company says has “compressed.”

Since 1987, Konrad Marine has manufactured sterndrives for recreational, commercial and other applications. Indmar Marine has been supplying inboard engines for almost 50 years. Solas is a Taiwanese company that has been providing stainless-steel and aluminum propellers and impellers for 35 years. Latham Marine’s Bob Latham invented hydraulic steering for performance boats in 1980, capturing world and national championships in offshore powerboat racing.

It would be easy to assume that none of these businesses has anything in common, but each has succeeded by carving its own niche in the recreational boating industry by supplying equipment where it was and is required. Solas brings out new propellers almost on demand. Konrad continues to expand its lineup of sterndrives to meet the demands to move larger, heavier boats. Indmar develops more powerful engines to propel wake-sports boats that are getting bigger and bigger. Latham Marine has built a reputation for being able to develop products that provide solutions for its customers.

“A lot of what we do is, when there’s a need, we’ll supply a product to take care of that need,” says president Bob Latham. “You need to be able to adapt quickly.”

The Drive to Succeed

In 1988, Ken Konrad’s company was making replacements for the MerCruiser Alpha One sterndrive called the Omega. “We quickly noticed we were replacing units that had significant issues,” says Fred Sparling, business development manager for Konrad Marine, which is based in Hudson, Wis.

Within a few years, the company started making its own transom assemblies and getting into coupling diesel engines with sterndrives. By 1998, Konrad was making complete sterndrives. “These were difficult applications we were being put into, so we decided to start it the way we wanted to,” Sparling says.

When MerCruiser came out with the Bravo One, its TRS became obsolete almost instantly. The TRS had to be paired with a Velvet Drive transmission. Konrad made the 520, a direct replacement for the TRS that the company still gets calls for to this day. Konrad also made replacements for Stern Powr’s marine drive systems.

The 520 is one of 12 models the company offers. They’re all built with oversized bearings, thicker wall castings, a one-piece propeller shaft, continuous oil circulation and precision-machined super alloy gears. The Konrad 540 is intended for high-performance applications. The 560 is one of the company’s three dual-prop drives and is designed for military, commercial, medium-duty and recreational performance boats.

While the 500 series is designed to work with engines that produce 380 hp or less, the 600 model line is for more powerful engines in bigger boats. For example, the 620 is a single-prop drive targeted for similar applications to the 560, but in heavier weight and higher output. The 660 is a twin-prop drive developed for faster performance applications, such as patrol and military intercept vessels that run up to 70 mph. For heavier carrying capacities (up to 18,500 pounds) per drive, the twin-prop 680 is designed for loaded boats that top out around 45 mph. “That’s our hottest thing because we don’t have competition,” Sparling says of the 660 and 680. “There’s nothing as far as drives that compete with them.”

Indmar Products teamed with Roush Engineering, which builds NASCAR engines, for its high-output motors based on Ford 6.2-liter blocks.

Indmar Products teamed with Roush Engineering, which builds NASCAR engines, for its high-output motors based on Ford 6.2-liter blocks.

To keep up with the current trend in the industry, Konrad partnered with accessories maker Glendinning for joystick controls for its drives. Sparling says Konrad sells primarily to distributors and to servicing dealers. Konrad has been working on establishing relationships with original equipment engine manufacturers, supplying drives for new boats and retrofits. The company partners with Cummins, Yanmar and Fiat Powertrain Technologies. Konrad has also worked with Marinediesel Sweden, which marinized GM Duramax diesels and was sold to Bukh, a Danish engine builder.

About 75 percent of Konrad’s business is commercial sales, according to Sparling, and the company doesn’t divulge annual sales or units produced. One area where Konrad is making inroads is with superyacht tenders. “We’ve done tenders for Feadship that put two 41-footers in the garage,” he says. “They end up turning quite a few hours following around the big ship.”

Konrad also has supplied drives to Tenderworks, which builds custom vessels in Holland. “The more successful applications we do, the more word of mouth there is, and the business grows,” Sparling says.

He says the biggest challenge in providing drives for custom vessels is getting accurate information on the application engineering.

Konrad is headquartered in two buildings that, combined, occupy about 30,000 square feet and employ about 55 people. Konrad technicians are able to travel to some pretty remote areas to service products. “No matter how good a piece of equipment is, you need to have someone the customer can call and be helped and be on their way,” Sparling says. The company has many employees like Sparling, who started with Konrad 20 years ago and worked his way up through the ranks. Konrad also has an apprenticeship program.

From the Bottom Up

Nearly 50 years ago, Dick Rowe started building inboards for jetboats. At first, he was using automotive engines, but he was underwhelmed by the quality of the components he was bolting on, so Rowe started making his own subcomponents. Word began to spread, and eventually Rowe and his team at Indmar decided to focus on inboard marine engines. Among the company’s firsts were the introduction of fuel injection and catalyzed marine inboards.

3_Indmar-Factory_24-copy

Today, Indmar offers engines based on the Ford 6.2-liter V-8 truck block, including two versions of a supercharged 575-hp engine that utilizes Roush engineering technology. At the 2019 Miami International Boat Show, the company introduced one of the 2.3L EcoBoost (also from Ford), a turbocharged pocket rocket that makes 310 hp with four cylinders.

Natalie Carrera, Indmar’s director of marketing, says the company primarily sells through OEM chains and that the Millington, Tenn.-based manufacturer has 912 engine dealers and 1,600 service centers worldwide. At the 2020 Miami show, Indmar earned its 18th consecutive Customer Satisfaction Index award.

“When we get a new dealer, we train and certify them,” Carrera says. “If a customer has a 2020 model or a 1986 MasterCraft with an Indmar, they can service and repair it.

Among the boatbuilders that Indmar supplies are Moomba, Supra, Tige, Pavati, MB Sports, Sanger and Helix. With the 2.3L EcoBoost, Indmar returns to its jetboat roots, and Carrera says the company is providing engines to Rogue, Thunder Jet, Jetboat Works and others.

Because the company has been around for so long, Indmar still needs to be able to provide dealers with parts needed to maintain its legacy General Motors and Ford inboards. The company relies on its dealer network for aftermarket sales, and some of that is repowers. During the economic downturn, Carrera says, Indmar’s dealers picked up repower projects and serviced boats.

Konrad developed its new 620 drive to power larger, heavier boats

Konrad developed its new 620 drive to power larger, heavier boats

Looking at the current conditions in the boating industry, Carrera says Indmar is facing the same challenges as other companies when it comes to expanding its business. “It’s not only that the towboat segment has compressed,” she says. “We’re fighting for the same piece of the pie, and we’re recirculating customers and not bringing in new ones.”

For the aftermarket side of its business, Indmar acquired Barr Marine in 2001. In business since 1933, Barr manufactures and supplies exhaust manifolds and related parts for the aftermarket and some OEM applications. Carrera says 90 percent of Barr Marine’s business is the aftermarket, and the company has manifolds and risers for virtually every gas engine maker, including Chrysler, Crusader, Flagship and OMC, as well as MerCruiser and Volvo Penta.

Props for Everyone

In 1985, Solas Y.J. Lin founded his own propeller company in Taiwan. Today, Solas supplies aftermarket and OEM propellers, and personal watercraft and jetboat impellers, to customers around the world. “We supply virtually 100 percent of the OEM impellers in the world,” says Rick Norgart, sales manager for Solas. He’s spent 21 years with the company, which has more than 400 employees in Taiwan. The headquarters does its own tooling and design engineering, and has aluminum and stainless-steel foundries.

Solas follows a three-step distribution program, selling to distributors or OEM engine manufacturers and boatbuilders. The company also works with master distributors in the United States and Canada. The product line is extensive, with four models of impellers, hundreds of SKUs, and numerous aluminum and stainless-steel propellers. The company also offers propeller nuts, intake grates and jet pumps.

 Latham Marine’s stainless-steel hydraulic steering rams remain its most popular product.

 Latham Marine’s stainless-steel hydraulic steering rams remain its most popular product.

Norgart estimates that 50 percent of Solas’ annual business is aftermarket, with product sold through dealers. The Solas website has a prop finder to narrow customer choices, but the purchase must still be made through a dealer. There are many online retailers, including Overton’s and Gander Outdoors. There’s also a dealer locator on the website.

He adds that Solas also provides propellers to engine companies that make their own propellers. “Mercury and Yamaha use us because nobody makes everything,” Norgart says.

The most popular propeller from Solas is the 19-inch pitch model for a 200-hp outboard. The company is always developing new products. “We develop new propellers for the bass guys and the pontoon guys so they have an option,” says Dan Holmes, media specialist for Solas. “Our competitors may not be there.”

The Innovator

Bob Latham was the throttleman for the Magic Gems offshore racing team. The team owner, Ed Mero, drove the 30-foot Sutphen, and when the team was running in a mild chop, the boat’s steering failed, nearly tossing out the duo. Mero told Latham to come up with a better steering system. Latham developed the first high-performance marine hydraulic steering, revolutionizing the safety of performance boating.

Solas supplies the aftermarket and OEM market with props and impellers

Solas supplies the aftermarket and OEM market with props and impellers

Since then, with his wife and business partner Kathy, Latham has introduced numerous accessories to improve the safety of performance boats. Latham Marine also has solved countless problems for boat and engine manufacturers. Today, the Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based company makes 5-inch spacer kits for all the major outboard brands, power lifts for swim platforms, sea strainers, steering systems and accessories.

“We take steering very seriously,” Latham says. Most of the company’s business is still on the high-performance side, with nearly every world-championship-winning team at last year’s events in Key West and Englewood, Fla., running Latham equipment.

He says his business is about a 50-50 split between OEM and aftermarket, and that his company has had to remain flexible to succeed. Latham Marine has provided OEM equipment to Seven Marine since the company started. Marine Technologies Inc. and Douglas Marine, which builds Skater catamarans, use Latham Marine tie bars and other performance accessories. When HCB Center Console Yachts needed a billet stainless-steel hinge, the company turned to Latham Marine. The same went for a door hinge for Intrepid, and another for Cigarette Racing Team. Iconic Marine Group recently had Latham Marine fabricate custom brackets.

“Since we have a full in-house engineering staff, we can do that,” says Latham. The company has a full machine shop, including four-axis CNC equipment and 3-D CAD-CAM machinery. A high-definition plasma cutter can slice 1-inch-thick stainless steel.

Konrad supplies sterndrives to the 
recreational and commercial segments.

Konrad supplies sterndrives to the recreational and commercial segments.

For the ultimate real-world test of durability, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has been running 15-year-old boats daily with 2-stroke outboards and Latham Marine hardware on them — and they’re still going strong. “A typical steering system you’ll find on a stock boat, in two or three years you need to replace the cylinder,” Latham says. “We get back cylinders that have been in the field for more than 30 years.

The ability to adapt is what Latham says makes his company a valuable partner to any boatbuilder, engine manufacturer or custom rigger. “That makes it more challenging for us because we constantly have to adapt,” he says.

Indeed, that ability to adapt is why companies such as Konrad Marine, Indmar, Solas and Latham have been around for decades. They give engine and boat manufacturers, and service providers, what they need to put and keep boats on the water. 

This article originally appeared in the April 2020 issue.

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