The St. Clairs of Cobalt
Cobalt Boats, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, began on a family vacation to Six Flags, where Pack St. Clair noticed kids lining up and paying a quarter each to zip down fiberglass “super slides.” He decided right there to enter the fiberglass business so he could build them, but insurance companies soured on the slides when kids used wax paper to go faster and wound up breaking bones.
“Dad said, ‘I’ve got these fiberglass equipment contractors, I’ve grown up with boats on Lake Michigan, so let’s start building boats,’ ” recalls Paxson St. Clair, president of Cobalt Boats.
Pack had no engineering background. He bought old tooling and built a couple of boats, but not very well. His first appearance at the International Marine Trades Exhibition and Conference in 1969 was a disaster, but he noticed that nobody was building yacht-quality runabouts. So Pack took out an $80,000 loan and started over.
It was a rough time in southeastern Kansas. Pack had been operating in a town called Chanute, and the oil boon in nearby Neodesha had dried up. “In 1970, they closed the refinery and gave all buildings to the city” to recruit new industry, Paxson says. “Dad knew a few of the community leaders, and they said, ‘If you bring the company and employees to Neodesha, we will give you the buildings.’ Obviously, that fit the budget extremely well.”
The operation moved to the town of 2,000 in 1970, building boats in “less than desirable” refinery buildings. Today the company employs 730 people, and the facilities are 700,000 square feet. The company has built hundreds of models over the years, during good times and bad: President Jimmy Carter’s proposed ban on weekend boating, the fuel crisis and the “big daddy of them all,” Paxson says, the 2008 Great Recession.
“Those things were painful,” Paxson says, “but we are fortunate enough to have a high-quality dealer network that’s more conservative. Another thing Pack really focused on was strong dealer relationships.”
Paxson, whose first job was cutting the lawn at the boat plant, held numerous other positions before taking the helm in 2006. “My dad has always been the most generous guy in the world, including giving me a hell of a lot more responsibility than I deserved or was ready for,” Paxson says. “He gave me some positions and let me learn the hard way. I look back at times and think, Oh my God, what was he thinking?”
Malibu Boats bought Cobalt in 2017, but that hasn’t changed the core business, he says. “It is somewhat inconvenient to be in a small town, two hours away from the nearest airport,” he says. “Our facilities today are nothing fancy; our world headquarters are little old cinderblock buildings. When people come to visit, they leave not impressed with our facilities but our people — that’s what sets Cobalt apart.” — Reagan Haynes
First Family of Speed: The Porters
Decatur, Ind., businessman Victor “Vic” B. Porter had been building boats for 18 years by the time he purchased Thunderbird/Formula in 1976. But that acquisition, which included the Formula brand that Don Aronow launched in 1962, put Porter and his family in the fast lane.
The Porters developed the Formula brand into a series of deep-vee performance yachts that were equally suited to racing, poker runs and family adventures. Innovations included the use of integrated, continuous cockpit liners in 1980, and factory-built curved, tempered glass windshields in 1984. In 1997, Formula’s FAS³TECH stepped-vee hull delivered increased speed over traditional vee-hull boats with equivalent length, weight and power.
Over the years, the company’s offerings have expanded to include Bowrider, Crossover, Super Sport, Sun Sport, FX, Performance Cruiser and Yacht series. Porter, now chairman emeritus, has presided over the launch of more than 250 models. Today, the fleet ranges from 24 to 45 feet, the manufacturing facility’s footprint is 600,000 square feet, and the company employs 360 people.
Porter’s wife, Kris, has been a guiding force for Formula over the decades, and five of their six children have taken active roles in the company. (The sixth is a doctor.) They include president Scott Porter, executive vice president Grant Porter, chairman and vice president of sales Wayne Porter, vice president of marketing Jean Porter Brune, and vice president of human resources Ted Porter. Scott’s wife, Shelley, works in the IT department and helps with promotions.
Third-generation Porters involved in the business include Wayne’s children Jeremy and Sarah; Jean’s son, Jason Brune; Grant’s son, Kyle; and Ted’s three: Danny, Chris and Josh. The fourth generation is starting to work after school and during the summer.
The best part of being a family business, Wayne says, is that “it allows family members, each having different skill sets, to work in concert to meet business goals. Seeing other families succeed and building relationships with them, as well, fills our bucket.”
During times of economic downturn, however, being a family business has posed inherent challenges. “When the economy is challenging, family members are asked to sacrifice to maintain our viability,” Porter says.
Forty-three years since Vic Porter acquired Formula, the company is going strong. “Measuring the best year ever can be done in units/revenues/profits/awards,” Wayne says. “Our best years are based on the positive relationships we have with customers, meeting and exceeding their expectations.”
In this, he sounds like his father, who summed up his philosophy this way: “to be successful in business and generous in worthwhile programs that build people up to their full potential so they, too, will be successful, generous and serve their community.” — Louisa Beckett
Living the Vision
As much as any other success story, Grady-White’s may be the result of one individual’s vision and ideals. Glenn Grady and Don White founded the company in 1959 in Greensboro, N.C., and sold it to Eddie Smith nine years later. As owner and CEO, Smith followed a simple principle that has guided the company ever since: He didn’t want to be the biggest; he wanted to be the best.
By the early ’70s, Smith had discontinued the last of Grady-White’s lapstrake mahogany models and gone all fiberglass. He moved Grady-White from the old tobacco warehouse where it was born to a 150,000-square-foot production facility across town he had designed and built to be a state-of-the-art boatbuilding factory. Along the way, he created walkarounds, dual consoles and center consoles that could perform offshore and serve as versatile family boats.
In the late ’80s, Grady-White teamed with naval architect C. Raymond Hunt to develop the SeaV hull, a design hailed for its smooth, dry ride and deft handling. The hull became Grady-White’s performance signature, helping propel the company to employ 350 people and expand its facility to 500,000 square feet. The lineup has grown to include the first-of-its-kind 37-foot dual console and a 45-foot center console.
A corollary of Smith’s “best not biggest” theorem was that Grady-White achieved all of its growth without any debt spending, a strategy that allowed for sustainable expansion and enough flexibility to endure economic downturns. “Being privately held means we have been able to invest in the long term even in the down times and has always given us an advantage, rather than reacting to market fluctuations and stockholder demands,” says Shelley Tubaugh, vice president of marketing, who has worked at Grady-White since 1988. She adds that Smith’s ideals also include honesty, integrity and customer focus, and they have played a role in driving the company’s success.
Another factor has been a progressive approach to employee development. Led by president Kris Carroll, who started at Grady-White in the ’70s and took the top job in ’93, Grady-White supports a lifelong learning series that focuses on developing the whole person. There’s a reading program in which employees are required to read a selection of personal development books and then receive paid bonuses for reading others and writing reviews. At weekly meetings, employees discuss and develop their “eight domains of life.”
That is where Smith’s and Carroll’s personal ideals meet Grady-White’s official vision: “Together, delivering the ultimate boating experience, while enjoying coming to work.” — J. George Gorant
The Family that Boats Together …
Who better to help Soundings Trade Only celebrate its 40th anniversary than Regal Marine? It’s scratching a 50th notch in its own masthead this year.
Paul and Carol Kuck started the company in 1969. Their son Duane remembers when they came up with the name, sitting around the dinner table in the family kitchen. “They had a lot of options, but they were leaning toward Royal,” he recalls. “Then my mom suggested Regal, and that was it.”
Only 14 at the time, Duane didn’t know much about building boats, but he went to work full time at Regal two years later. Today, he’s the president and CEO. His brother Tim, younger by three years, is executive vice president and chief operating officer, and the company is full of family. While the founders have died, Duane and Tim’s sister, Pam Kuck Biddle, is on the board. Duane’s wife, Cindy, works there part time, and of his five kids, two of the three adults are among the 760 employees at Regal’s 650,000-square-foot headquarters in Orlando, Fla. So is his niece.
The turning point in Regal’s history came in 1973, when the gas crisis had a choke-hold on recreational boating. The company went from 22 employees to eight, and Paul realized he needed to shut it down. “I was loading boats outside when he came and told me,” Duane says. “I busted out crying.”
Paul sacrificed the family’s original investment, but he kept the doors open while “surrendering Regal to the Lord,” in Duane’s words. In later years, Paul joked that it wasn’t much of a gift, but the divine intervention worked. A few orders trickled in, and then a few more. Regal squeezed through to 1975, and “through God’s grace we’ve continued to grow,” Duane says.
Duane also attributes the success to Regal keeping pace with industry standards as boats have “gotten more technically sophisticated and of higher quality.” He and Tim share a passion for the sport and the work. “Mom and Dad more enjoyed the business side,” Duane says. “The second generation has both, a love for business and boating.”
His and Cindy’s greatest memories involve family and boats. Of the more than 200 models Regal has launched, he recalls many trips on the company’s 46 Sport Coupe, everywhere from the Bahamas to the Great Lakes. He’s currently enamored with the 42 Fly, which he plans to take on an excursion this summer.
“We have no interest in selling,” he says. “We’re planning for the next 50 years.” — J. George Gorant
Regulator Marine: Born of Rebellion
Owen Maxwell is the boat guru at Regulator Marine, and Joan Maxwell will be the first to tell you she’s a “process person.” The husband and wife began building boats in North Carolina more than 30 years ago in what Joan calls a “tiny” facility that they shared with a builder of small speedboats.
Originally an A&P supermarket, the building had been purchased by a local snack food manufacturer, and the smell of cheese puffs was ever present. “The first time we turned on the heat, the whole place smelled like Cheetos,” she says. “Sure beat the smell of styrene.”
The building had 12-foot ceilings. “We could not even pull the plug out of the mold in there because we couldn’t raise the plug high enough to get it out,” Owen says. “That’s how naive we were. We didn’t even know what we needed to build boats.”
The couple started Regulator in September 1988 with a rough five-page business plan, Owen says. “I was 30, and Joan was 28, and we didn’t know what we didn’t know,” he says.
Owen connected with naval architect Lou Codega, and, armed with about a dozen pages torn out of magazines, he pointed to each one, saying, “I like this,” or, “I sort of like that,” and, “I like that concept.” From that mishmash, the Regulator 26 was born.
Joan, a history buff, came up with the company’s name. The Regulators of North Carolina were colonists who wanted a more equal political process and better economic conditions that favored everyone, not just colonial officials, she says. “We felt that people weren’t getting what they paid for in the center console market,” she says. “We were going to stand up and give them a better product for their money. We were rebelling to a certain extent. We were young and cocky and confident.”
Now they have decades of experience and one of the most respected names in the industry. Separating work and home life takes effort, especially because they are active in the industry. Joan lobbies on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., and became the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s first female board chair.
The company hired dozens of workers during its most recent, 55,000-square-foot expansion, which unfolded in two phases. “Now it’s about getting everybody on the same page,” Joan says. “We’ve had an engineering department, but we’ve never had a head of engineering. When you operate as a small company, everybody wears a lot of different hats. As the company grows, you can no longer run a company effectively that way.”
Getting people “to run down their lanes” can be a challenge, she adds. “That includes me. I’m used to having direct contact with every employee every day, but now I’ve turned the employees over to Keith Stevens, vice president of operations. I’m excited because it really allows people to develop and hone their skills.”
Today, the facility is 121,000 square feet, and Regulator employs 238 people. The company has introduced 16 models during the 30-plus years it has been in business. “We’re not a big national company with a huge product line,” Owen says. “We’re a small, focused, regional company with a small product line of all center consoles.” — Reagan Haynes
The Real Deal
It’s a good thing that Scott Deal owns four boat companies. His favorite boat, he says, “depends on what I’m doing. Boats are like golf clubs: You need to have a full complement of them.”
Deal, who is 58, grew up fishing and diving in South Florida with his older brother, Troy. He graduated from Princeton University in 1982 and became a sales rep for Xerox Corp., covering a Florida territory from Homestead to Key West. In 1985, the brothers bought the molds for a Maverick. Scott lived in Islamorada and owned a Maverick flats boat, on which he spent countless hours. “That’s one of the reasons I bought the molds, because I fished the boat so hard,” he says.
To go with the dream job, Deal had the dream woman, Susan, whom he married. She was in law school and met him on the weekends to explore the Everglades. She went on to become Maverick’s legal counsel.
“I was making boats but wasn’t making enough money to raise a family,” Scott says. He and Susan had Matt, who is 29, and daughter Elliott, who is 28. Maverick was a factory-direct business model, so in 1989, to broaden the company’s reach, Deal purchased Hewes Boats, which had an established dealer network. With the two lines growing, in 1997 Deal started the Pathfinder boat brand. “Pathfinder took us from a small regional player to more of a Southeastern-based player,” he says.
To get into the offshore market, in 2005, Deal purchased Cobia Boats. “It was the mother of all retooling projects,” he says. “The designs were dated.”
He introduced the first new-generation Cobia in 2007. Things got off to a good start, but when the economy crashed in 2008, Deal had to shut down the North Carolina facility and move the Cobia tooling to Maverick Boat Group headquarters in Fort Pierce, Fla.
Deal says the company’s best year is the current one, with sales up 45 percent over 2018. MBG recently opened a second facility in Fort Pierce, with 132,000 square feet of buildings on a 38-acre parcel. Combined with the company’s main location, the two facilities have 450 employees. “Now we have the capacity to grow,” he says. Among the new products expected are a 35-foot Cobia center console.
Matt and Elliott work in various capacities for MBG, and son Clay, 22, is a college student who works at the family business during the summer. The family enjoys fishing, free diving and playing guitar.
Scott and Susan also made sure their kids grew up understanding the importance of advocating for the activity that has put a roof over their heads. “If you make a living from people’s enjoyment of a resource,” Scott says, “it’s not a long walk to recognizing that the absence of that resource means you can’t make a living.” — Eric Colby
From Generation to Generation
Brothers Bill and Bob Healey opened Viking Yacht Co. in New Jersey in 1964, building wooden sportfishing and cruising boats in a 26,000-square-foot building with dirt floors and no heat. They built their first fiberglass model, the Viking 33 Convertible, in 1971.
“Me, I’m a businessman,” Bob says. “On the other hand, my brother is madly in love with the yachts. He will be a yacht builder until the day he dies.”
The Healeys are still active in daily operations, though Bill’s son Pat Healey now runs the company and continues the tradition of personally thanking each employee as they head home at night.
The company has had its ups and downs. A nationwide recession hit in 1990, followed by the introduction of a federal luxury tax in 1991. It slapped a 10 percent levy on the portion of a boat’s price over $100,000 — virtually everything Viking builds. The company went from 1,500 employees in two plants to 80 employees in one plant. The Healeys borrowed working capital and invested their own money to stay afloat.
Bob was instrumental in launching a national grassroots campaign to fight the tax, organizing busloads of out-of-work boatbuilders who converged on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The effort took more than two years, but the luxury tax was eliminated.
Those lessons proved useful in the Great Recession, Pat says. “We didn’t have the debt we had in 1991,” he says. “From 1988 to 1991, we bought a company, Gulfstar, a luxury motoryacht builder, and we wanted to provide our dealers with both sportfishing [yachts] and motoryachts. It was successful, but it took capital.”
During the recent downturn, Viking kept its original plant in New Gretna, N.J., and another in Florida, but it went from about 1,300 employees to about 550, Pat says. “It was nowhere near as severe as the luxury tax, but it was just as scary, meaning that when you were watching Lehman Brothers and Wall Street crumbling — and heck, a lot of our customers work there — it got your attention.”
Pat began working at Viking when he was 13, sweeping floors and driving the trash truck. After graduating from high school, he worked for three years in the service and fiberglass departments, then earned a business degree from St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.
He returned to Viking to work six years on the production line, three in service, six as plant manager and four as vice president of sales before becoming executive vice president in 1999.
Today, the New Gretna plant consists of five buildings with 810,000 square feet of space. Pat’s sons Sean and Joseph are involved, as well. “They’re going to become boatbuilders too,” he says. “We keep it going from generation to generation.” — Reagan Haynes
From a Single 15-foot Trihull to a Boatbuilding Powerhouse
For William “Buck” Pegg, the boatbuilding business has always been about family, and not just his own. The founder of Chaparral Boats also remains dedicated to the extended family he has created in Nashville, Ga.
Chaparral’s origins actually lie in Florida, where Pegg’s father started Fiberglass Fabricators. The younger Pegg joined the Fort Lauderdale-based company as a college student in summer of 1963, then came aboard full time in ’64. “We built all sorts of odds and ends — products like pools, fountains and fish-cleaning tables,” Pegg says. “We did coatings, as well.”
In late 1964, Fiberglass Fabricators made parts for a 15-foot trihull for another company. A year later, the company built one of its own and went on to sell 25,000 of them. “We sold them locally, and it spread out from there,” Pegg says. “Pete Chadwick, who went to high school with me, would load up his trailer with five boats each time. He never came back with one. He set up Chaparral Boats dealers all over the country.”
The company’s next strategic move came in 1976. At the time, Nashville, Ga.-based Larson Boats was in bankruptcy, with a 35,000-square-foot facility and a trained workforce, waiting for a buyer. Pegg looked at the operation and purchased it the next day. “It was a roll of the dice, but it was better for us than South Florida,” he says. “It was the best move we could’ve made.”
RPC Energy Services bought Chaparral in 1986, and it became Marine Products Corp. Its sister brand, Robalo, was acquired in 2001. Over the years, Chaparral has produced hundreds of models. Pegg has favorites, including the 244 Cuddy, the Sunesta deckboats, the 256 SSI, the high-performance Villain III and IV, and entry-level H2O series.
More than 1,000 people work at Chaparral’s 1.2 million-square-foot boatbuilding facility, including Pegg’s son Bill and nephew Joe. Marine Products Corp. is Nashville’s largest employer. “I’ve always enjoyed the people,” Pegg says. “You get what you put in, and that’s the secret to what’s made us successful. The job of any good coach is to help people succeed.”
He also has made it his job to give back. In the past 15 years, Chaparral has provided more than $500,000 in scholarships to employees’ children, and it offers paid summer internships.
Senior vice president Ann Baldree, who has been with Chaparral for 39 years, says Pegg feels a strong sense of responsibility to those who work at the company. “Buck is not a figurehead,” she says. “He’s nearly 77 years old, and he works every day, sometimes 12 hours a day. His door is always open.” — Heather Steinberger
Faith has been a cornerstone for Correct Craft since Walter C. Meloon founded the company in central Florida nearly 95 years ago. Four generations of the Meloon family have led the company, which transitioned in ownership to a non-family member in 2008. A recent period of explosive growth has included the acquisition of nine brands, which were added to Correct Craft’s longstanding Nautique boat line.
“We have a very strong culture shared by all of our companies across the country,” says Bill Yeargin, Correct Craft president and CEO. Referring to the “culture pyramid” the company uses to identify its core values, he says: “The top of the pyramid, Building Boats to the Glory of God, was the mission of our founder in 1925, and faith is important to our team today, too.”
Other values in the company’s pyramid include Making Life Better, and People, Performance and Philanthropy. The late Ralph C. Meloon Sr., Walter’s son, embodied those values. After the company emerged from bankruptcy in 1965, for example, he tracked down all of the creditors and made them whole.
In its early days, Correct Craft built a variety of vessels, from utility boats to cabin cruisers. In 1945, it built storm boats (light assault craft) for the U.S. military, producing 400 in 15 days. Following its acquisition of Ski Nautique in 1961, the company focus shifted to towboat brands. “We pioneered the use of inboard power versus the outboard power prevalent at the time,” says Nautique president Greg Meloon, a fourth-generation family member.
Ski Nautique became well known among competitive water skiers, and when wakeboarding emerged in the 1990s, the company designed V-drive towboats that could create the wakes that boarders wanted. Nautique is still Correct Craft’s dominant brand, accounting for about half of its $600 million in annual sales, Yeargin says. The stable of brands also includes Aktion Parks, Bass Cat Boats, Bryant Boats, Centurion Boats, Parker Boats, Pleasurecraft Engine Group, SeaArk Boats, Supreme Boats and Yar-Craft Boats.
“The post-Meloon owner has not needed to inject any capital into the company,” Yeargin says. “However, he has been generous with allowing us to keep earnings in the company, which has driven significant investment, including the acquisitions we have done. We’ve also made significant investments in facilities and across all our Correct Craft companies in product development.”
Today, Correct Craft employs 1,600 people across all brands and operates 13 manufacturing facilities. — Louisa Beckett
Azimut-Benetti: Italian Empire
In 1969, when Paolo Vitelli was attending college in Italy, he started a yacht charter business called Azimut. In the 1970s, he began importing yachts from other countries, including the Amerglass Bali, a 43-footer that became a big seller. Then he started building his own Azimuts. In 1977, the 32 Targa made its debut. Vitelli called it the Model T of value-priced yachts. Five years later, Vitelli’s 105-foot Failaka — at the time, the largest production yacht built in fiberglass — was launched.
Today, with Vitelli having acquired Benetti Yachts in 1985, the Azimut-Benetti Group calls itself the world’s largest yacht builder in terms of linear feet. Benetti recently launched three “gigayachts” over 328 feet, and Azimut-Benetti reportedly has 96 yachts over 78 feet under construction, representing 9,685 linear feet — approaching 2 miles of hull length. The production value is reportedly $953 million, 24 percent higher for 2018 than 2017.
And the boats are sold well beyond Italy these days. While constantly competing in that nation against the Ferretti Group, Vitelli went after the export market, first focusing on Europe and then the United States. Azimut created a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., office in 2003, then partnered with MarineMax, making Azimut Yachts the top U.S. seller in the 45-plus-foot yacht category. Azimut now builds six lines of boats from 34 to 115 feet.
Vitelli’s daughter, Giovanna Vitelli, has long been active in the Azimut-Benetti empire. She oversees day-to-day operations, which span six shipyards and about 1,200 employees. At 71, Paolo remains closely involved with the business, mapping out strategic decisions with Giovanna. Based on its order book, the company forecasts continued growth in 2019.
— Michael Verdon
The Beneteau Dynasty
The idea that a boatbuilding empire could be family run for more than 135 years sounds implausible, but the moral and executive backbone behind Groupe Beneteau has always been the Bénéteau family.
It began with Benjamin Bénéteau, who started building sailing trawlers for fishermen in 1884. Benjamin passed the business to his son, André, who was just 21 when he inherited it. In 1928, André empowered his son André and daughter Annette Bénéteau Roux to take over.
Success was defined differently back then. In the post-World War II period, Beneteau was a small yard building wooden fishing trawlers. Annette recalls a happy, modest childhood, with family life surrounding the boatbuilding business. “Everything began for us with choosing oak trees in the forest on Sunday,” she says. “This got us outdoors, but choosing trees was an almost religious moment.”
Annette and brother André were in charge when the business transitioned away from fishing boats and into recreational sailboats. The company introduced its first sailboat series, appropriately called First, at the Paris show in 1965. “No other boat looked like ours, and, not used to the capital, we felt like we did not belong,” Annette says. “Yet only a few hours after the show’s opening, three businessmen introduced themselves, claiming that our boats were what their customers were looking for and that no other builder wanted to build them.”
Over the decades, Annette and André managed Beneteau’s growth, opening its first production facility in 1972, launching the Antares and Flyer powerboat lines, and building ever-larger and faster sailboats. In 1984, celebrating its 100th anniversary, the company went public.
In 1985, Beneteau opened its first U.S. facility, in Marion, S.C. For the first five years, Roux says, “we suffered” in Marion. “The cultural differences, language difficulties and training staff in a region surrounded by cotton fields and tobacco made it quite an adventure.”
The investment, however, not only gave Beneteau and, eventually, sister company Jeanneau a U.S. beachhead (and a dominant market share in sailboats), but also added to the bottom line for 35 years. In the past two decades, Groupe Beneteau has become the world’s largest production boatbuilder, with factories in France, Poland, Brazil and the United States. Its 2014 acquisition of the Wellcraft, Four Winns, Scarab and Glastron brands gave it instant market share in the powerboat segment, along with facilities where it can build its European powerboat brands.
Roux has given up day-to-day control of the operations to other executives but still sits on the board of directors. “All through our lives, the love of the family business was the best shield against the endless selfish fights that often set a family at loggerheads,” she says.
She is living proof of how a family business can become a dynasty. — Michael Verdon
Steve Potts worked as a plant manager at American Sail and pulled a night job repairing fiberglass bathtubs during the 1980s. Having been in the industry since he was 14, he knew he wanted to start his own operation and apply all the lessons he’d learned.
“I made up my mind in the mid-’80s to start working hard — besides raising a family and coaching soccer and doing all the other things dads do — to start working toward saving money and starting my own business,” Potts says. “I didn’t know any way to go about it other than the old-fashioned way, which was to do side jobs, work and put as much money away as I possibly could.”
After saving $50,000, he and his wife, Dianne, began building 14- and 15-foot boats derived from a model called the Scout, which Potts remembered from a dealership where he worked as a kid during the 1960s. The dealership was sold, and the model disappeared, but Potts always had fond memories of it. Thus, Scout Boats was born.
The concept was to build a high-end, finely finished fishing boat that could run offshore. The couple built boats during the week and on weekends; Steve would load them onto his tandem trailer and deliver them in his pickup truck to a handful of local dealers.
“I was living my dream and paying bills and making ends meet and doing little things when I had time to develop different and bigger models,” he says. “And then Hurricane Hugo hit, on the 22nd of September 1989.”
The facility, which had a galvanized roof, was leveled. Potts’ wife, son Steve — then 12 (and now a critical part of the design team) — and 9-year-old daughter helped put the pieces together brick by brick.
The Great Recession threw another curveball, but Scout kept its commitment to research and development, introducing 12 models between 2008 and 2010. It’s a strategy that Potts says gave his company an edge.
Scout now produces about 850 boats a year in its 350,000-square-foot facility on nearly 40 acres. The newest 120,000-square-foot addition allows for tours, the way semicustom builders operate. Potts says his son is now the product development “brainchild,” and the goal is always to create something that doesn’t exist. “Steve Potts’ son, that guy is just remarkable with his ideas and concepts,” says longtime Scout owner Jerry Wardlaw.
Potts says the boating industry is special because it allows families like his to succeed. “I think what makes our industry so unique is that a small company can compete toe to toe with a company that’s 10 to 20 times larger,” he says. — Reagan Haynes
Boats are ‘In our Blood’
David Marlow’s passion for boatbuilding took root early. As a child, he would accompany his boatbuilder father into the swamps of Apalachicola and west Florida to find just the right oak for construction. And although he admits he often was a reluctant participant in these expeditions, he learned.
Marlow learned so well, in fact, that he built his own boat at age 12 using roofing tin that had blown off chicken coops during a tropical storm. He bent and hammered the sheets around pieces of swamp wood, and mixed bamboo fiber with southern yellow pine sap for caulking. He gathered sap the old-fashioned way, scarring the tree and nailing a tin cup to it. “Though simple, I knew the strengths and weaknesses of my materials and how they interacted,” Marlow says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has been building boats ever since. Marlow founded Palmetto, Fla.-based Marlow Marine Sales in 1965. He added custom yacht building to the mix when Marlow Yachts joined the full-service retail yards in 1997. (Marlow also builds Hunter and Marlow Pilots in Alachua, Fla., and owns the Norseman Shipyard in Chi Hu, China.)
On 25 acres of waterfront land with 200,000 square feet of manufacturing space in Palmetto, Marlow Yachts has an environmentally “green” boatbuilding facility that is capable of producing yachts up to 100 feet and 300 tons. It has introduced 15 models since it opened its doors 22 years ago.
“We began business with seven retail orders and have maintained a minimum backlog in orders of at least 18 months,” Marlow says. “There have been no hard times. We are blessed with what we believe is the finest team in the world with virtually zero turnover, as most employees have been with us since the beginning.”
The builder is able to handle virtually all aspects of manufacturing in-house, including electrical work, plumbing, metal fabrication, furniture and upholstery. Today, it employs more than 350 people. One of those people is Marlow’s grandson, adding a second generation to the family business. “It’s in our blood,” Marlow says. “We know boats.” — Heather Steinberg
Anything worth doing once is worth doing again and again and again. That could be the motto of the Marshall brothers, Charles and Jeff, who have essentially relaunched their boating company, Seabring Marine, three times.
The first launch was in 1985, when they founded Monterey Boats in Williston, Fla. They started with one brand and two 19-foot models: a cuddy and a bowrider. They had two dealers — one in Long Island, N.Y., and one in South Florida — and five employees. The brothers, who had a family background in the business, did a little bit of everything. “We made the boats, dried the boats, sent out invoices,” Charles says.
More daunting than the work was the growth. They quickly hit 30 employees, then 40. “When we got to 50, I put my foot down and said, ‘No more,’ ” Charles recalls. “But in this business, you gotta bail hay when you have the chance.”
The Marshalls continued to bail and grow until 1999, when a fire burned their main plant to the ground. “We lost everything,” says Charles, who remembers having a statistic quoted to him at the time: Only one in 10 businesses returns after a catastrophic fire. Determined to beat the odds, the Marshalls shifted as much production as they could to a smaller building that was also part of Monterey. The company operated at about 20 percent of its previous capacity while the brothers launched Monterey for the second time.
When the rebuilt plant came online about a year later, the boom of the early 2000s had begun, and Monterey not only got back to full production, but it also built another factory. Things were going well enough that in 2002, they bought Blackfin. The brand, around since 1973 and known for its sturdy, versatile offshore fishing boats, was a perfect strategic fit with the sporty Monterey line, but the acquisition required the equivalent of a third start. They bailed hay twice as fast — until everything came crashing down in 2008.
Today, the recovery is complete, and Monterey and Blackfin offer models from 20 to 39 feet. Analytics that identify trends, and more technically advanced production methods, allow the company to adjust offerings to meet demand. It used to take a year or more to go from idea to boat on the production floor; now, Seabring can turn a paper napkin drawing into a bowrider in seven or eight months.
The company employs 500 people in 300,000 square feet of space spread over three buildings. It has 150 dealers, two strong brands and more than 40,000 boats built. What might be most impressive is the company’s unique structure. “Every decision requires two signatures,” Charles says, since he and Jeff are co-chairmen. Charles handles sales, and Jeff takes care of research and development. President Bob Pita runs day-to-day operations.
Charles and Jeff are 18 months apart. “I’m older,” Charles says, “but I’m taller and better looking. I’ll go on record with that, which gives you an idea of the competitiveness.” — Heather Steinberg
From a ‘Mile of Oars’ to Pontoons
The Smoker Craft story is the tale of two families: the Schocks and the Smokers. And while both have been integral to the company’s success, neither started out in the boat business.
When Arthur Schock went to work in 1903, he was building agricultural products and water storage tanks for Star Tank. He purchased the Goshen, Ind.-based company in 1926, then shifted gears to start building boats as Star Tank and Boat Co. It later became Starcraft.
His son, Harold, devised a distribution strategy and sought to make Starcraft synonymous with affordability. The strategy worked so well that the business grew to encompass agricultural items and RVs. “He felt the business was moving away from its core competencies, so he left,” says Peter Barrett, Harold Schock’s grandson and senior vice president at Smoker Craft. “He went across town and purchased Smoker Craft.”
At the helm were the Smokers, who started a lumber company in 1921, tried their hand at wooden boatbuilding during the Great Depression, and later focused on oars and paddles. “At one point, we were building a mile of oars a day,” says Phil Smoker, Smoker Craft vice president of sales. “Then, in 1964, we bought a discontinued aluminum boat company in Elkhart, Ind.”
When the Schocks bought the controlling interest in Smoker Craft in 1976, Phil Smoker’s grandfather and father stayed on. “My dad, Doug, has the longest tenure,” Smoker says. “He’s been here for nearly five decades and is our president.”
Also in the mid-’70s, Smoker Craft bought Sylvan, a pontoon company founded in 1948. Barrett says many Starcraft workers followed the Schocks to this new venture. “There was a large migration,” he says. “In fact, our early Sylvan models resembled Starcraft because so many workers came over with my grandfather.”
The Schock family and Starcraft would be reunited in 1996, when Smoker Craft bought the company. The two brands consolidated 10 years later in New Paris, Ind., where Smoker Craft now employs 630 people and produces 12,000 boats per year. “There have been a lot of twists and turns,” Smoker says. “It’s been interesting to see how the products have become more intricate and customized, more specific to the consumer.”
Barrett says the changes in materials have also been interesting. “In my grandfather’s day, the big deal was when we switched from steel to magnesium. It was so light. When Starcrafts were introduced, they were the fastest boats on the lake. That was a huge evolutionary milestone.”
He also notes the significance of increased consumer interest in pontoon boats. “Seeing pontoons blossom has been amazing,” he says. “In my family, we love the versatility, taking the kids tubing, cruising comfortably with friends — it’s an interesting segment. But I love deckboats, too. Our dock looks like a marina.
“I was so blessed to be born into an industry I love,” Barrett adds. “We’re all boaters. We all love the lifestyle. I feel an immense sense of pride.” — Heather Steinberg
Boatbuilding Made Easy
In 1979, Al Fink was two years removed from working for Marquis Boats in Hartsville, S.C. The company had tried to expand into the Midwest a couple of years earlier, and it didn’t work out. Some of the vendors he had done business with persuaded Fink to start his own company.
Stingray Boats was named after a popular sports car, which gave it instant brand recognition, and Fink was able to hire former Marquis employees. “They all knew their jobs,” he says. The company started in a 25,000-square-foot shop and made money in its first year.
Today, Stingray Boats occupies 265,000 square feet in Hartsville and has 175 employees. During the company’s peak years, from 2006 to 2008, it produced about 3,000 boats annually.
For more than 30 years, Fink had a silent investor, Bobby Avent, who became a good friend. “We had meetings from time to time, but I was allowed to run the company as if it were my own,” Fink says.
When Fink retired in July 2017, Bobby’s son Barry Avent took over as president. Fink’s son Todd worked with Stingray for about 30 years as the vice president of manufacturing, a job that included engineering and product design. Fink’s son Chad went to the RV industry before returning to Stingray about six years ago to work in sales, and Fink’s wife, Debbie, was the treasurer/secretary who managed the business office in the early years.
“It can be interesting at times,” Fink says of working with family, “but I would not have traded it for anything. The most challenging thing for me was trying to keep business and family time separate.”
On the water, Stingray is best known for the performance of the Z-plane hull that Fink developed and patented in the 1990s. The design has strakes cut into the bottom instead of built up on it. The bottom was more efficient than the competition’s and didn’t catch or trip in turns. “Our boats would usually run as well as the competition with one less motor,” Fink says. “Our boats are efficient, stable, corner great, and they’re real safe.”
One key to Stingray’s success was the formation of the American Boatbuilders Association in the early ’90s. Fink was a founding member, joining a group of independent boatbuilders to create a buying group that could compete with the purchasing power of Brunswick Corp., Outboard Marine Corp. and Genmar. “ABA helped Stingray maintain a competitive position in the marketplace,” Fink says.
Like many boatbuilders, Fink had to learn to adapt. After 2009, when the sterndrive business fell off a cliff, he converted his product line and designed models for outboard power. Today, the company is experiencing a resurgence in outboard boats, including sportboats, deckboats and center consoles.
“For 38 years, the boat business for me was not a job,” says Fink, who is retired. “I got up wanting to go to work, and I enjoyed it.” — Eric Colby
In 1992, Minnesota entrepreneur Bob Menne had concluded his run as a Smoker Craft distributor and his partnership in Forester Boats. He was looking for a new venture.
After overhearing his teenage kids argue about who would get to take the family pontoon boat out on the lake near their house, he had an inspiration: He would build a pontoon with a uniquely premium level of design, engineering and amenities. “I felt there was a market for an upscale product that would be very innovative,” he says. “I wanted to take everything one step further.”
Menne named his company, Premier, and went on to introduce many pontoon industry firsts. “We developed the first rotationally molded furniture framework that would not rot or mold,” he says. Premier also offered the first full-size cuddy in a pontoon boat, launched the J-Clip boat-cover fastener system, engineered the seagrass flooring that is still an industry standard, and pioneered the triple-tube PTX hull design that delivered better performance with the same horsepower.
PTX allowed Premier to move beyond freshwater markets to waters where pontoon boats hadn’t typically run. Menne’s wife, Betty, ran the company’s administrative and marketing side, then moved into sales. Eventually, three generations of the Menne family were involved in the business.
Menne’s daughter, Lori Melbostad, who served as president of Premier, says her father was “relentless” with innovations and options, and with sharing what he’d learned. “Bob’s true legacy in the industry comes through his willingness to pass his knowledge on to his family,” Melbostad says.
The acquisition of another pontoon builder in 2011 ultimately led Premier to declare bankruptcy in 2018, resulting in a change of ownership to a private company. Today, Premier’s CEO is Rick Gallagher, and the builder offers more than 20 models.
Melbostad says the lessons her father imparted will last a lifetime. “Bob proudly acknowledges his kids, grandkids, nephews, sister and brothers-in-law for their participation in Premier, and their ability to learn from his guidance,” she says. “All of these family members will tell you that his view on doing honest work for an honest day’s pay is critical.” — Louisa Beckett
Whether they were building a new class of 24-foot sailboat or a better-performing Down East-inspired powerboat, Bob and Rod Johnstone and their progeny have always taken the same approach. “Selling boats is basically problem solving,” says Bob, who founded J/Boats with his yacht-designer brother Rod and, later, MJM Yachts. “People wouldn’t be coming to us to buy our boats if they didn’t have a problem with the boat they have now.”
The first problem Bob and Rod solved was developing a small sailboat that people wouldn’t get soaked aboard. In the early 1970s, Bob had left an executive position with Quaker Oats to become vice president of marketing at AMF’s marine division. AMF was selling about 100,000 Sunfish sailboats a year. People got wet sailing them.
“The problem was that you could freeze to death on Lake Michigan and Long Island Sound, even in the summer,” he says. “I walked in there with a plan for a boat that was between 20 and 30 feet that people could sail in their street clothes. I had consumer research that showed people wanted one of these boats. They said, ‘No, no, no.’ ”
In 1977, the Johnstone brothers founded J/Boats and went to Everett Pearson to build the J/24. “By the end of the first year, we sold 750 boats,” Bob says.
After that, the Johnstones and Bob’s sons — Stuart, now 62, Drake, 61, and Peter, 53 — plus assorted nephews grew J/Boats by listening. “We’d get a clue from potential customers what type of boat they’re looking for, and we would try to come up with a boat we would like to sail and create it,” says Bob, who is 85. Rod is three years younger.
In 2012, Bob and Rod sold J/Boats to the next generation of Johnstones, and Bob focused on an idea that had started in 1996, when he and his wife, Mary, for their 40th wedding anniversary, bought a Dyer 29. He and Rod had talked about introducing a J/Boat powerboat; instead, in 2002, Bob decided to start a powerboat company. Doug Zurn designed the 34z (the z is for Zurn), and MJM Yachts was formed.
“The acronym came about as I was trying to figure out how to keep the J in the cove stripe,” Bob says. He liked the way the letter M on each side of the J looked in the stripe, hence the name MJM.
“Mary was the inspiration to come up with a lighter, stronger boat that she could push off the fuel dock and drive herself,” Bob says. The nickname “Mary Johnstone’s Motorboat” became the explanation for the company name.
Because the boat had to outperform other designs, Bob and Rod built the 34z light and strong. They found Mark Lindsay at Boston BoatWorks; he had 30 years’ experience building high-tech, lightweight America’s Cup sailboats. The line has grown to five models, including the 53z, the company’s third outboard express, which launches this year.
“Our overall strategy for both companies was that we were the best-performing brand,” Bob says. “The best-performing brand is the product that people, when they gain knowledge, will gravitate toward.” — Eric Colby
Lumps, Bumps and Lots of Boats
Dave Livingston has designed boats for more than 50 years. He has created or modified boats for some of the best-known brands in the business, including Bayliner, Reinell, Wellcraft and Regal. It’s believed that more people are on the water in boats he designed than in vessels that came from the drafting board of anyone else.
“When he was handling design and product development for Bayliner, they were producing up to 57,000 boats in one year,” says son John Livingston, now the president of Kent, Wash.-based Fluid Motion, the builder for Ranger Tugs and Cutwater Boats. “They had 26 factories. After that, he tried to retire, but he still had too much energy.”
Boats have always been in the younger Livingston’s life, starting with his father’s Livingston Boats venture in the 1960s. The Seattle family always had a boat and cruised Puget Sound, the San Juan Islands and the Queen Charlotte Strait. As Livingston finished college, recreation turned into business. “My brother and I started selling boat parts for UFlex right out of school,” John says. “In six or seven years, I must have visited every single boat company in the country.”
Then, as with the father, the boatbuilding bug bit. In the mid-1990s, John built a 21-foot runabout in his basement with his dad. At IMTEC, they spoke with Regal founder Paul Kuck, who expressed interest in the design. “The next thing I knew, I moved to Orlando, and Dad traveled back and forth,” John says. “In three years, we designed a fleet of 17- to 40-foot boats for Regal.”
Then it was back to Seattle and another runabout project, which they put aside when they purchased Ranger Boats from Howard “Smitty” Smithson. Founded in 1958, Ranger was building sailboats and a 21-foot tug at the time. “When we introduced the 25 in 2006, it just took off,” John says. “That boat really launched us down the path of Ranger Tugs.” With a laugh, he adds, “Up until then, we’d done everything but trawlers.”
The company grew by double digits every year, even through the Great Recession. Its niche remained small, trailerable, diesel cruisers. Fluid Motion opened Cutwater Boats in 2011. That brand now offers 10 models, and Ranger Tugs has nine, including a 41-footer. The business employs nearly 300 people from the Pacific Northwest.
“Between Dad and me, we’ve probably built more production boats than anyone ever … and probably have made more mistakes than anyone,” John says. “In this business, you live through all the lumps and bumps. No matter what happens, boats will sell. You just might have to change tacks from time to time.”— Heather Steinberger
Bertram: From the U.S. to Italy and Back
In 1960, Bertram Yachts helped pioneer C. Raymond Hunt’s deep-vee hull design. Founder Richard Bertram had tried Hunt’s 23-foot tender and was stunned by the smooth ride.
“I commissioned Ray to design a 31-footer for me on the spot,” Bertram wrote. That boat was Moppie — a no-frills raceboat named after Bertram’s wife. (Her grandfather had given her the nickname.)
The company has been through several incarnations. In 1992, Bertram-Trojan Inc. filed for bankruptcy. Aqua Buoy acquired the Trojan assets, and the Italian investment firm Gruppo Varasi purchased Bertram, injecting $25 million into the company, which was down to 30 employees from 1,200 just three years prior. Other corporate moves followed, and by the late 1990s, Bertram was part of the Ferretti Group.
Richard Bertram died at age 84 in 2000, and the Ferretti Group began incorporating more Italian design into the boats, which wasn’t well received by many of the brand’s followers. James Henderson, the former Ferretti Group USA CEO, says Bertram wasn’t a major focus of the group as it worked to build the presence of brands such as Ferretti and Riva in the United States.
In 2015, Beniamino Gavio and his company, Gruppo Gavio, bought Bertram Yachts. Gavio, who owned a Bertram, pledged to rebuild the brand in America. Richard Bertram’s son Morgan returned to the company shortly before the purchase. When the Bertram 31 was reimagined as a 35-footer and introduced at the Newport International Boat Show in 2017, Morgan showed enthusiasts around, seeking opinions about features and styling. He was excited that the company was finally returning to the DNA his father had imagined more than 65 years earlier.
“The best thing about this is that I’m involved in a lot of the product development,” Morgan says. “I’ve always, in the past, been selling other people’s vision of Bertram, and this is the first time I’ve been involved in the product.”
He says his father was a discerning taskmaster and believes he would be happy with the brand’s return to its roots. “Building really cool, quality boats is fun,” Morgan says. “But reinvigorating a world full of Bertram fans with the brand and yachts they recognize and love has been by far the most rewarding.” — Reagan Haynes
Stamas: A Heritage of Wooden Boats
Like so many great American stories, the Stamas Yacht tale begins at Ellis Island in New York, where George Nicholas Stamatopoulas stepped off a ship from Greece and Immigration officials promptly changed his name to Stamas. “My papou [grandfather in Greek] … got a job as a cook at a New York hospital and, once established, had his wife, Anna, my yiayia [grandmother], follow him to the U.S.,” says Stamas Yacht president John Stamas.
The couple ultimately moved to Tarpon Springs, on Florida’s Gulf Coast, which at that time was the epicenter of the Greek sponge-diving industry in the United States. They opened a hotel and restaurant. Their sons, Peter and Nicholas, grew up on the water, learning boatbuilding from the local Greek tradesmen who built wooden vessels for the sponging and fishing industries. In 1938, when they were still in high school, Pete and Nick entered a 22-foot wooden cruiser in the Florida State Fair and won first prize, setting their course for the future. They began building commercial and charter fishing boats, putting away their tools only when it came time to serve in World War II.
In 1952, the brothers founded Stamas Yacht in Tarpon Springs, building fishing boats and runabouts. Over the years, the brothers always looked to other industries for emerging technologies. “My father saw a car built of fiberglass,” Stamas recalls. “He said, ‘Why can’t we build boats from it?’ ”
By 1959, the brothers had switched from wood to fiberglass construction, and in the 1960s, they began encapsulating stringer systems in fiberglass. They also pioneered fiberglass inner liners and self-bailing cockpits, and Stamas Yacht became the first boatbuilder to enclose a head in a center console. “We did a lot in the ’50s and ’60s that most people didn’t start doing until the ’80s and ’90s,” Stamas says.
Today, the company employs 30 people, including four members of the Stamas family’s second generation and one third-generation member, “with two more starting soon,” he says. Stamas Yacht has launched approximately 125 boats up to 44 feet from its 100,000-square-foot facility on the Anclote River. A 48-footer is in the works. The company prides itself on being a semicustom shop. “That’s why we have so many repeat customers,” Stamas says.
Being a multigenerational, family-run company, says Stamas, has the advantages of providing stability along with continuity with customers. “They might be on their third or fourth or even fifth Stamas,” he says, “and they are still talking to the same people they were talking to when they had their first one built.” — Louisa Beckett
S2 Yachts: The Evolution Continues
S2’s boatbuilding dynasty started in 1946, when 18-year-old Leon Slikkers got a job at the cabinet shop at the Chris-Craft factory in Holland, Mich. Seventy-two years later, Leon has one the most successful legacies in boatbuilding, launching Slickcraft in 1955 and selling it to AMF 14 years later; starting S2 Yachts with his sons David and Bob in 1973, with a series of sailboats, and three years later, Tiara motoryachts; and finally, creating the Pursuit brand of offshore boats. Leon, 91, remains fully active in the business as head of product development, while Bob oversees manufacturing and David advocacy efforts. His third son, Tom, has been CEO since 2012.
Rather than being an historical footnote, the family has stayed on the forefront of boatbuilding by anticipating boating trends. Leon has reinvented his companies at least a half-dozen times. The latest adaptation happened three years ago with the launch of the Tiara Sport line.
Evolving the Tiara brand and then creating the Tiara Sport were not easy processes. “Back in 2012, we were at the point where we needed to make a decision,” Tom says. “We were trying to develop a 50-ish-footer at that point but were really down to brass knuckles about what it was going to look like.”
Before the recession, Tiara had sold just about any boat it built. When easy access to financing, or the “monopoly money syndrome,” as Tom puts it, dried up, regular buyers opted to hold on to their boats for six years rather than buy a new one every few years. “Before the recession, we thought that as long as it had the Tiara logo, we were golden,” he says. “But then the rules changed economically.”
The Slikkers realized the brand had to change, but it would have to be a delicate balancing act. The new boat had to look modern, but without abandoning Tiara’s brand DNA. Leon and his team did full-scale renderings of a new 50-footer with traditional Tiara design cues. From customer feedback, it was clear owners wanted an even more contemporary look.
The 50 Coupe concept that Leon created placed the galley up in the cockpit, a design feature that Tiara had never used and which seemed almost antithetical to the brand. Owners loved it.
The Slikkers also realized there was another potential market for Tiara buyers. “We’ve seen the aging demographic of buyers, so we wanted to find a little fountain of youth,” Tom says. “Most of the people we spoke with loved growing up on their parents’ Tiaras, but they said: We don’t want our father’s Oldsmobile. They wanted their own style.”
As the owner of Pursuit, the Slikkers team was aware of the proliferation of outboard power. They also knew that the lowest sales for Tiara Yachts were models under 40 feet. “We saw an opportunity in a sportier, premium segment under 40 feet that was not being served,” Tom says. “We decided to go after the 30- to 40-foot space by using our expertise in outboards and shaping the boats so they came across as a different product line than our Tiara yachts.”
Sales of the Tiara Sport line, which launched three years ago, have grown so fast that more than half of S2’s facility is devoted to outboard boats. “We’ve been able to penetrate that under-40-foot market,” Tom says. “The two brands are complementary. We’re using some of the Tiara jewelry pieces on both the Yacht and Sport lines. We feel good in the direction that we’re going.” — Michael Verdon
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.