The boating industry is at a crossroads. Technology has allowed businesses to deliver true connectivity, along with the kinds of comforts we expect in our automobiles and homes.
Today’s boater has a wealth of options to monitor a wealth of diagnostics from afar, and to kick on the air conditioning or spool up the gyrostabilizer ahead of an evening cruise. Powerful, app-based programs can schedule a service appointment or dinner and mooring reservations. Inventive solutions continue to roll out for on-water safety and to ease the stress of close-quarters maneuvering.
The Soundings Trade Only Most Innovative Marine Companies Awards program, now in its fourth year, honors forward-thinking companies from small startups to global conglomerates. These companies operate across a variety of categories that are transforming the future of the marine industry through new initiatives, processes, technologies, directions and more.
This year’s judging panel included Soundings Trade Only editor-in-chief Jeff Moser and staff editor Joe Healy; publisher Michele Goldsmith; Active Interest Media Marine Group vice president and editorial director Bill Sisson; AIM Marine Group president Gary DeSanctis; Volvo Penta of the Americas past president and CEO Ron Huibers; and former Groupe Beneteau CEO of the Americas George Armendariz.
We had a lively debate about which companies would make our Top 10 and honorable mentions, all of which you will read about here. Several additional companies presented well but were edged out. Judges were intrigued with Aero Sustainable Material Technology and its high-performance, environmentally friendly coatings derived from the aerospace industry, and we continue to be impressed with FarSounder’s Argo line of 3-D forward-looking sonar, as well as with Priority One’s plan to help finance the future boater.
In the end, these 10 companies earned top honors this year. We are excited to see what the future brings and how new and established players will be competitive.
This year there was a tie for the top spot, with Brunswick Corp. sharing the honor with its engine segment, Mercury Marine. It has been yet another banner year for Brunswick. Strong global demand in all its business segments led the Mettawa, Ill.-based company to post consecutive record quarters in 2021. It completed a $1.05 billion purchase of Navico, bolstering its suite of brands in power management, digital control, monitoring and networked devices.
Capitalizing on the popularity in boat-share programs stateside and abroad, Brunswick’s Freedom Boat Club now has approximately 70,000 members, 45,000 memberships, 4,000 boats and 300 locations. Brunswick also expanded production at facilities in the United States and Europe to meet the continued demand.
The company has an unblinking eye focused on disruptive technology, as well. It announced a major expansion of its i-Jet Lab that will triple the lab’s footprint, allowing more students on-site and providing a base for the growing enterprise technology team. Brunswick also formed a partnership with the future-state, autonomous technology experts at Carnegie Robotics. And utilizing its Advanced Systems Group Fathom e-Power lithium-ion system, Brunswick says it plans to install 15,000 advanced battery systems that will replace engine-powered generators in the next two years.
The company’s ability to empower its workforce comes from the top. CEO David Foulkes has overseen a massive transformation at Brunswick, embracing the ethos that the company is a leading-edge technology firm that goes well beyond boating. In addition to releasing headline-grabbing new products, the company has been repeatedly recognized for its efforts in workplace inclusion. For instance, Brunswick has been on the Forbes annual lists of best Illinois employers for diversity and women.
“We have four divisions,” Foulkes told Soundings Trade Only last summer. “Two of the presidents are women. Two of the chief financial officers are women. Both of our chief marketing officers are women. The head of Sea Ray design is a woman. You cannot expect that you’re going to attract women into the industry if you don’t have women in leading roles in your company.”
Forbes also recognized Brunswick as one of America’s best large employers in its annual ranking of companies. Brunswick ranked 10th overall and No. 1 in the manufacturing category. The company remains committed to encouraging more diverse boating participation, and continues to empower its workforce by taking a shared, forward-looking approach to the marine business. In short, Brunswick continues to get more people on the water.
It’s hard to argue with raw power. In February, Mercury Marine unveiled its 600-hp, V-12 Verado outboard, energizing parent company Brunswick Corp., the marine industry at large and the boat-buying public. Builders immediately offered the Verado as optional power on existing models, and described the engine as ideal for newer, heavier and larger boats. Beyond its torque and horsepower rating, the V-12’s steerable gearcase and automatic, two-speed transmission were both industry firsts.
Mercury also continued to focus on green practices and a work culture where 50 percent of its manufacturing assembly employees are women. “A lot of times, people think it’s all about the product,” Mercury Marine president Chris Drees told Soundings Trade Only, but “it’s about the company as well.” He specifically cited the company’s work with sustainability and diversity, equity and inclusion.
The engine manufacturer pledged, by the end of 2025, to reduce water consumption by 25 percent, reduce global energy consumption by 25 percent, and convert 50 percent of global warehouse operations to landfill-free facilities. And by the end of the decade, the company aims to derive half its energy consumption from renewable sources.
In the past year, Mercury — the world’s largest producer of propellers — brought a new prop-finishing process online that the company estimates will eliminate as much as 1.5 million pounds of landfill waste and 4.5 million gallons of wastewater annually. It also plans to debut at least five electric outboards by the end of 2023.
We were also impressed with the company’s vertical integration, which has allowed it to avoid a good deal of the supply-chain woes that have dogged many manufacturers. Mercury Marine says its engine production increased by 65 percent in 2021.
Few chief executives have more of an impact on their organization than Bill Yeargin. When he’s not writing books or speaking and writing about technology and innovation, he’s leading his team to give back and serve others in local and international communities. “Our strong emphasis on service stands out when compared to other entities and is one of the most unique segments of the Correct Craft culture,” Yeargin says.
Correct Craft’s “Making Life Better” mantra is woven throughout its business practices. The builder, which has 15 U.S. locations, is doing more than most. It has a plan to turbocharge its green initiatives, setting the goal of becoming carbon neutral in the next four years. “While the benefits of being outdoors and near the water are enormous, an unclean environment severely diminishes them,” Yeargin wrote in Soundings Trade Only. “Our Correct Craft team understands the importance of doing the best we can to be a good steward of our natural resources. We feel a responsibility to continue looking for ways to do better, and that’s why we’ve set a goal of being carbon neutral by 2025.”
During the past year, Correct Craft developed and launched a lake-cleanup boat that vacuums waste from waterways, and volunteered to help clean up waters near its facilities, as well as make the boat available to others at a minimal cost. In addition, Correct Craft’s Watershed Innovation subsidiary worked with Restore Our Shores, a program of the Brevard Zoo in Florida, on a reef-restoration program in the Indian River Lagoon.
At the same time, the company is embracing disruptive technologies across its business holdings through Watershed Innovation and Ingenity. In mid-May, Ingenity oversaw the installation of the first electric boat-charging station on California’s Lake Tahoe, utilizing CCS, or combined charging system, technology. The builder believes this technology can emerge as the baseline for e-boat manufacturers and marina charging stations in the future.
Correct Craft has also made several moves to increase production capacity and give its model lines more room for growth, including the purchase of a 300,000-square-foot facility adjacent to its Orlando, Fla., Nautique headquarters. The company says Watershed Innovation will utilize the space to continue to develop disruptive technology. On disruptive technology, Yeargin says: “You can’t look at where it is today. You have to look at where it’s going to be five years from now.”
And Correct Craft continues to give back to the boating community, hosting its annual Marine Industry Culture Summit and Innovation Summit this year.
Judges recognized the Swedish conglomerate for its continued commitment to sustainability and its focus on the Easy Boating concept. Following the lead of its parent company, Volvo Penta announced last fall that it was significantly accelerating its own sustainability projects to reach zero emissions via fossil-free, renewable fuels, and electric and hybrid technology. To meet these goals, the company made the decision to halt and phase out production of its Seven Marine high-horsepower outboards to focus on exploring new technology and developing its core business, such as its IPS and sterndrives.
The company has continued to explore new technology through its parent company’s work on a fuel-cell venture, matching it with on-road electric drivetrains. Volvo Penta also acquired Norwegian marine battery and electric driveline solutions supplier ZEM AS, and continues to test hybrid and full electric power in a variety of vessels near its Gothenburg, Sweden, headquarters.
For the Easy Boating concept, Volvo Penta used the Consumer Electronics Show to debut its Assisted Docking. The system integrates with the company’s joystick technology and adds automated compensation for tide, wind and current when approaching a dock. Originally, the company had planned to deliver a fully automated self-docking experience (which requires land-based sensors) but scaled back that concept to an assisted docking experience that allows for much wider use, meeting the needs of veteran and less-experienced boaters alike.
“It demonstrates that Volvo Penta is much more than an engine supplier or a power supplier, but an integrator,” Volvo Penta of the Americas president Martin Bjuve says.
The company also reached a significant milestone this year: the installation of 30,000 IPS units, which debuted in 2005. Volvo Penta says an IPS boat uses 30 percent less fuel and emits 30 percent less carbon monoxide than a traditional prop-and-shaft inboard — vital metrics in achieving sustainability targets.
Founded 32 years ago, Garmin now has more than 17,000 employees in 33-plus countries. “At Garmin, we think every day is an opportunity to innovate, and a chance to beat yesterday. It’s our company mantra, and it’s how we do business every day,” the Olathe, Kan.-based company stated in its application. “Even in the most challenging circumstances, our commitment to innovation, to creating great products and to serving without ceasing is stronger than ever.”
Garmin is coming off several consecutive strong quarters. It saw net sales surge 53 percent to $1.33 billion, with its marine segment posting a 66 percent gain from 2020 for the second quarter. For the six-month period that ended in late June, marine net sales were up 47 percent to $471 million.
A great deal of those sales have been driven by the company’s chart plotters, primarily through OEM partnerships with a host of boatbuilders. Garmin also released multiple new and improved products, including transducers, Fusion Marine upgrades and the LiveScope ice-fishing bundle to OnDeck, Garmin’s in-house vessel-monitoring and management tool. The company was also recognized for its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, with seven employee resource groups that aim to foster a collaborative workplace.
For more than two decades, MarineMax has worked to change people’s lives through boating. In 2019, the company developed the MarineMax app, which connects boat owners with their local MarineMax location for routine maintenance or repairs. Recent enhancements allow MarineMax customers to spend fewer hours taking care of their boats and more time on the water.
In response to the pandemic’s high demand for boats, as well as supply-chain disruptions, MarineMax also launched an online immersive experience so customers can virtually tour yachts with 360-degree views, walkthroughs, still images, videos and more.
This year, MarineMax saw three consecutive quarters of record growth. In May, the company acquired Cruisers Yachts. Headquartered in Oconto, Wis., Cruisers produces models from 33 to 60 feet. The builder is more than doubling its production capacity in a 216,000-square-foot plant in Pulaski, Wis. MarineMax is also the nation’s largest recreational marine retailer, led by Brett McGill, the son of founder and executive chairman Bill McGill.
Siren Marine continues to embrace the Internet of Things movement. The company’s latest iteration of its Connected Boat system — the Pro 3 — received NMEA certification earlier this year, with the open architecture allowing for even more communication and sharing of data.
Siren is one of the smallest companies in our Top 10, but its continued improvement of its part-hardware, part-software telematic systems has gotten the attention of some big industry players. In March, Yamaha Motor Corp. announced a strategic alliance and an undisclosed financial stake in the Newport, R.I.-based company. Yamaha says the alliance will bolster CommandBlue, its business philosophy that aims to shift engineering and development, as a way to enhance ease of use, satisfaction and confidence on the water.
“These guys understand boats and what we’re trying to accomplish,” Ben Speciale, president of the Yamaha U.S. Marine Business Unit, told Soundings Trade Only in April. “It’s easy to throw technology at something, but it’s hard to make something easy to operate.”
Using the Siren app, an owner can see the location of his boat and set a geofence, as well as monitor a variety of systems, such as the batteries, bilge pump and lights, and anything in alert mode. The app can also be used to control on-board devices connected to the system. “The end result will be boats with integrated Yamaha systems that can be monitored and managed by a handheld device,” Speciale said.
Siren also announced a partnership with Hinckley Yachts. The Maine builder will offer Siren’s telematics as standard equipment, with existing owners able to upgrade to OnWatch Powered by Siren Marine. “We’re known to utilize the best and most advanced technology — extending to our on-board telematics platform — which is why we’ve chosen to partner with Siren Marine,” says Hinckley sales and marketing vice president Scott Bryant.
Suzuki Marine USA
Suzuki Marine introduced an industry-first microplastics filter for outboards, addressing one of the greatest challenges to the health of marine environments and ecosystems. The filter system collects plastic debris when the engine is operated. The filter element can be cleaned and reused, and a built-in bypass prevents a clogged filter from causing performance or overheating issues.
Suzuki plans to make the microplastics filter available as an option for outboards of 40 hp and up, and eventually to make it standard equipment. Suzuki is also reducing its use of plastics, so far eliminating about 2.3 tons annually.
In a global commitment to protect the environment, Suzuki’s Clean Oceans Project organizes employees around the world to clean and restore beaches, coastlines, parks and other areas. After opening its Panama City, Fla., Technical Center, the company went to area beaches to remove trash and debris.
Headquartered in Norway and with offices in the United States, Fell Marine develops and manufactures electronics, specializing in wireless safety technology. The company’s 1st Mate safety and security system was developed in collaboration with Mercury Marine.
The 1st Mate system has theft-deterrent functionality, man-overboard monitoring and distress-message capability. It won two awards at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. This product, as well as the precursor Fell MOB+ wireless man overboard, are market leaders available from mass-market retailers such as West Marine and Bass Pro Shops, and from independent dealers. The system is shaping how boaters and boatbuilders comply with the federal engine cutoff requirement implemented April 1.
1st Mate uses wearable fobs for the skipper and as many as seven passengers. The wearables connect to the vessel hub and a smartphone. If the skipper falls overboard, the engine will stop, an alarm will sound, and alerts will be sent via the 1st Mate mobile app, based on direct integration with the vessel’s propulsion system.
If a helmsman (or a driver wearing the skipper’s fob) falls overboard and can’t get back on board, or if passengers can’t return the boat to the MOB, 1st Mate will send a distress message to the preloaded emergency contacts. The distress message is sent after a countdown timer expires, or if a request for help is made. The message includes location, heading, date and time of the man-overboard event.
The 1st Mate system also provides security, with a theft deterrent function that locks the boat’s engines while the owner is away. The captain’s fob or the 1st Mate mobile app unlocks the engines. Additional theft-deterrence functions are available for the 1st Mate system for Mercury SmartCraft engines.
Navico’s vision is to combine best-in-class performance with exceptional consumer experiences for every boating activity. The company began rolling out its sustainable packaging in 2021, making it one of the first marine electronics companies to do so. All Navico products are expected to have sustainable packaging by year’s end.
Navico has also demonstrated care for its employees during the pandemic. The company moved workers across the world to a remote setup, and implemented a system to report infection rates in keeping with government rules. Navico also protected factory workers in Ensenada, Mexico, who were unable to work from home. A crisis-management team was in daily contact with the factory manager, and developed a cloud-based “Covid tracker” to monitor the number of people sent home daily from the factory, the number of positive tests and more.
The company is also stressing sustainability messaging and awareness on its packaging, an initiative that helps boaters understand the importance of caring for our waters. And Navico removed more than 200,000 Instapaks from its packaging, eliminated nearly a half-million plastic bags, and removed almost 5,000 pounds of plastic from its product packaging.
Pettit Marine Paint
Pettit launched 12 products this year and opened five new product categories. The company also launched two triple-biocide antifouling bottom paints, significantly reducing copper load and being more environmentally friendly.
The company touts its AnchorTech marine-grade sealants and adhesives as more technologically advanced, easier to use and more cartridge-stable than competing products — to help keep boaters on the water longer. “We are passionate about this industry and strive to make superior marine-grade finishing products that serve our customers well on the water and are easy to use,” the company told Soundings Trade Only.
Pettit grew more than 43 percent from June 2020 to June 2021 and trained more than 3,000 individuals in its new studio space. Pettit also hosted more than 100 vendor meetings and produced several livestreams on social media since the studio was built in September 2020. No employees were let go or furloughed during the pandemic, and the company paid more than $1 million in wages at times when the workforce was not at the Pettit office. The company also relocated its warehousing and shipping facility, tripling storage capacity and enabling one-day shipping on the East Coast.
Icom is based in Kirkland, Wash., and produces communications equipment, from amateur radios to mobile, marine and aviation radios, and LTE, WLAN and satellite radios. Since its founding in the 1960s, the company has been at the forefront of wireless communication technologies.
Icom in the past year introduced the M510 panel mount radio and the M94D handheld (with an AIS receiver). It also released the IC-SAT100M mobile satellite radio, which provides one-to-many communications via a network of 66 LEO satellites.
Dometic’s marine division provides the global marine industry with technologies and products that enhance the boating experience. The company’s Xtreme Power Assist Steering helps to create a more enjoyable driving experience aboard mechanically steered boats with single outboards from 90 to 200 hp. Pontoons, runabouts, RIBs, aluminum fishing boats and small center consoles can all have this power-steering feature. Dometic’s Optimus 5000 electronic power steering is designed for inboard boats from 40 to 100-plus feet.
In April, U.K.-based Cox Powertrain announced that it had made Dometic’s Optimus Electric Steering and SeaStar Electronic Controls standard equipment for its 300-hp diesel outboard. Dometic worked with Cox to co-develop the steering and shift/throttle controls for use with the diesel outboard, to deliver precision control and smooth, seamless steering.
Also in the past year, Dometic Fuel Systems in Sparta, Tenn., implanted new contactless thermal detector technology to help get its employees back to work safely during the Covid-19 pandemic. Dometic’s Pompano Beach, Fla., facility held Kaizen Week events to increase efficiency, improve production output and provide a more satisfying and safe workplace. And the Dometic Vancouver Social Committee created activities and events to build teamwork and cooperation, provide opportunities to build personal friendships beyond work, and encourage participation in altruistic activities that benefit the community.
Based in British Columbia with a regional office in Edgewater, Fla., Allsalt Maritime manufacturers suspension seating with shock monitoring. The company’s products are based on the science of wave impacts and shock mitigation, with options for seating layouts, ergonomics, customization, seat-mounted electronics, control consoles and testing.
Nearly half the company’s staff has a technical background in science, math or engineering, with two Ph.D.-level shock-and-vibration specialists. Allsalt Marine often partners on projects with government and maritime agencies, and participates in ISO working groups and industry associations dedicated to advancing global whole-body-vibration standards.
In 2001, Roswell was the first company to build a swivel board rack for wake and ski boats. The company has continued on a path of innovation ever since. Standard racks were basic 10 to 15 years ago, usually plate aluminum with grooves and a backing plate. A bungee strap was the standard for holding wake-sports equipment. Roswell’s Triton racks changed that. The company made waves this year by introducing the award-winning R1 Pro Tower Speakers and the world’s first telescoping wakeboard tower, used on the Nautique Paragon series.
Roswell says revenue increased 61 percent in 2021. The company’s average revenue growth during the past four years is 34 percent. “Over 22 years, Roswell has sold over $200 million in racks, towers, accessories, audio, and I would credit all of our sales to innovation,” says company founder and CEO Robert Oswell.
This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.