When Fred Ross was a boy, he stuttered. The oldest of 12 kids, he knew that no one was going to help him fix the problem. “I joined the debate team so I could learn to speak in public and control any issues I had,” he says.
His drive to improve continues to this day. While his six brothers all went to college, in 1996, Ross started his professional life as an automotive and truck mechanic, and opened a salvage company. Today he’s the president and CEO of Custom Truck One Source in Kansas City, Mo., with 1,700 employees at seven locations in the Midwest. The business rents and sells trucks and heavy equipment. It topped $1 billion in sales in 2019, and Ross’ brothers Joe and Chris both work for him.
“When they have a good year, most guys are happy to sit back and say, ‘I had a great year,’ ” Ross says. “I say, ‘We could have done way more.’ I’ve been that way my whole life.”
Ross had a partner when he started the company. In 2003, he took over. “When I bought him out, we were at $60 million in Kansas City,” he says, “and we grew the company to $350 million by the end of 2014.”
Ross applies the same attitude to the marine industry as the owner of Iconic Marine Group, which builds Fountain, Donzi and Baja performance vee-bottoms, catamarans and center consoles. He also owns Big Thunder Marine in Lake Ozark, Mo.
His family always had a place on Lake of the Ozarks, which many people consider the high-performance boating capital of the United States. “We had a big family and a place at the 61-mile marker from 1981 to 2012,” Ross says. “It was an 1,100-square-foot cabin that we put a whole lot of family in — 40 nieces and nephews, skiing and tubing. It was the only place I went on vacation, and it’s a huge part of my life.”
Ross owned a slew of boats and had a habit of trying to race anyone who would pull alongside. “I had my brother Francis behind me skiing, and a boat came along running 65 mph,” he recalls. “I started racing him with my brother behind the boat. The whole family is competitive.”
His entrée to the business side of recreational boating came with his purchase of Big Thunder Marine. “I loved the idea of being in the industry down there, and I knew one day when I would exit Custom Truck, I would choose the boat world,” he says.
In 2015, he heard that Fountain, Baja and Donzi were looking for dealers. “I went back to the factory to see what was going on and started looking around and talking about it,” he says. “There’s nothing more iconic than a Fountain, Donzi or a Baja. I was really excited for the idea of bringing those boats back to life, so I started this crusade.”
Iconic Marine is based in the former Fountain Powerboats headquarters on the Pamlico River in Washington, N.C. It has about 250,000 square feet in various buildings, and 260 employees. Jeff Harris, a longtime Fountain employee and veteran powerboat racer, was named chief operating officer after the unexpected death of his predecessor, Joe Curran. Another veteran racer, Billy Moore, works in product development and testing. Fountain Powerboats founder Reggie Fountain II is a consultant, and his son Reggie Fountain III is a leader on the production floor.
“I’m happy to bring back Reggie as part of the plan,” Ross says of the elder Fountain. “He has a wealth of knowledge, so I’m happy to be part of reviving that brand. With the technology that we’ve invested in, we know we can build boats that are exciting to the public, and they’ll be able to get the performance they expect from a Fountain at a price that’s reasonable.”
Comparing the truck and boating industries, Ross says the biggest difference is that his company doesn’t build trucks from scratch. “In the truck world, you don’t take a barrel of resin and a pile of fiberglass and make something, so that’s where it’s harder,” he says. “Taking aluminum or steel and bending and welding it is much easier, but efficiencies, purchasing, the engineering side, the way you manage your company — it’s very similar.”
Going forward, Ross is open to looking at other segments of the marine industry. “Being an entrepreneur, I want to do things that make sense, and if they make sense, they’ll make money,” he says. “I don’t have anything I’m looking at right now, but I’m open to anything that makes sense as long as it fits into our iconic brands.”
Ross says Fountain is Iconic Marine’s most diverse brand, with its performance boats and center consoles. “We have fantastic offerings that we will continue to grow,” he says. “We have the best bottoms. They’re faster, safer, smoother, drier, and I just think we’ll continue to bring out new products.”
On the Donzi side, he sees potential but realizes the need for more investment and R&D. “We didn’t get every mold that Donzi had,” he says. “I don’t want to bring back Donzi center consoles. I don’t want the brands to compete with each other. I truly believe Fountain has a superior center console, so I don’t want to bring out anything other than superior product.”
Baja reminds Ross of Camaro and Mustang automobiles. “The buyer for that boat wants something that looks sporty and sounds good and runs good,” he says. “It’s not a Ferrari or a Corvette. It’s a nice boat, and it allows guys to have a good-looking, great-running, great-sounding boat.”
Adds Ross: “Because of that sound, you’re not going to see us putting outboards on a Baja. It’s a sterndrive boat. We’re not going to put a stepped hull on a Baja. It’s going to stay true to form. If you look at a Ford Mustang, it doesn’t look that different than when they started. A Baja needs to look good and run good.”
Among the previous models Ross plans to bring back are Fountain’s 35-, 42- and 47-foot Lightning. Iconic Marine has already reintroduced the Donzi 38 ZRC and a new GTC 41 with outboard power. There are also the Donzi 44 Icon catamaran and the Fountain 34 Thunder Cat, an entry into the twin-outboard cat market.
In the offshore go-fast market, Ross says, many owners have older boats and are looking for new ones that are aggressively priced. A 35 Lightning that can run at nearly 75 knots will have a retail price of about $265,000. If a customer wants to hit triple digits, the boat will cost about $300,000. “We’re not looking for a huge explosion on the performance side,” he says, “but I believe we can lead that segment.”
Demand for outboard boats will continue to grow, he says, adding that he still believes there will be demand for sterndrive boats with unobstructed sun lounges and swim platforms, especially on lakes. “People want access to the back of the boat, and the benefit of swimming and playing off the back of the boat,” Ross says. “I think some manufacturers have it wrong with the way they tried to really drop sterndrives in the recent years.”
Ross sees more assisted operation for boats in the future. “There’s nothing more embarrassing than trying to dock a boat when there’s a crowd of people watching you try to do it,” he says.
He also says speed will continue to sell. The fastest he’s gone is about 130 knots in a boat Fountain built a couple of years ago to try and regain the world speed record for vee-bottoms. Ross says that when the company came up short in its efforts, the blame fell on him. “I didn’t understand what it took,” he says. “It’s my fault that we didn’t achieve it the first time. With the team we have in place, it’s something that will happen again in due time. I’m not going to rush it.”
Ross recently moved to the main channel of Lake of the Ozarks, near the 15-mile marker. He put a Fountain 39-foot center console on his dock. Six hours later, it was sold. “It seems like whatever I want to drive, someone else wants to buy it,” he says.
“I can’t think of anything more fun than to be tired, worn out and in the victory circle. I want to be number one, and people around me need to be that same personality.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.