Q&A with Bill Watters

CEO of Syntec
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Bill Watters, CEO of Syntec

Bill Watters, CEO of Syntec

Achieving the title of Master Cattleman might not sound like the usual educational path for a boating industry executive. If a person wants to climb the corporate ladder at Brunswick or Garmin, she or he pursues an MBA. Bill Watters, however, is not a conventional CEO.

Growing up in Rome, Ga., the second of five sons, Watters earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Georgia, following the same educational track as his wife, Judy, whom he met in college. Watters had wanted to work in the agricultural sector since he was a child. His father’s untimely death, however, put the 25-year-old in charge of part of the family business, Integrated Products.

Working with his brother Tom, Watters managed the finances, workers and production lines at Integrated, which manufactured carpet yarn. After five years running the company, Watters launched a side business called Syntec. The goal was to find new markets for Integrated’s yarn.

Thirty-four years later, Syntec has diversified and expanded while Integrated has become a family memory. Syntec sells products to the marine, RV, manufactured housing and multifamily housing industries. It even has a presence in the ATV and golf cart segments. Watters’ brothers Joe and Thad joined Syntec after the sale of Integrated Products. Over the years, Watters adapted the business to match consumer trends and opportunities. Syntec is now one of the largest employers in Rome.

Watters never lost his passion for the rural life. He and Judy bought a farmhouse, which they call Oakdale Farms, where they raised their children, Will and Landon. The couple always wanted to start a cattle herd, but a Saudi prince had bought all the land around their 1847 farmhouse. They eventually acquired 700 acres of the surrounding land and, in 1993, fulfilled their dream of having their own cattle. Bill and Judy now own and manage one of Georgia’s leading genetically enhanced Black Angus herds.

Can you explain your passion for cattle?

We used to visit my grandfather in Arkansas, who was in the mining business. Behind his farm was a herd of cattle. I was always infatuated with them and would spend hours just watching the cows. Since that day, I wanted to manage a herd of my own.

Did you grow up on a farm?

I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I’ve always loved the outdoors. My first animal was a horse, which I rode almost every day in high school. I even did a little bareback bronc rodeo riding in college. My wife, Judy, was raised on a farm that was one of the top dairy producers in Georgia. I met Judy in my last year of college and was fortunate that she loved the farm as much as I did.

How did you come to the boating industry?

It took a while. When I graduated from college, I planned to drive a tractor-trailer for a few years so I could travel the country. Can you imagine a better way to see it? I’d even started driving locally and was looking to buy a rig. But in 1979, there was a Teamsters strike, and independent truckers were getting shot. My dad wouldn’t let me drive in that environment and made me work full time at his company.

What did you do there?

My older brother, Tom, already worked at Integrated Products, a manufacturer of carpet yarns. I did different jobs around the facility. About three years after starting, my dad died, so our roles changed drastically. My brothers Joe and Thad eventually joined the family business after we sold Integrated Products.

Was Integrated part of the boating industry?

The company wasn’t involved in boating. We produced yarn for the carpet industry. I was looking for something to do with the fiber carpets that came from our extruder, and researched other markets. That’s how I found marine. I started a little side business called Syntec in 1985, working alone after hours and on weekends. About three years later, business was less than good at Integrated, and we had an inheritance tax coming due. We decided to sell the business and focus instead on Syntec. It was a smart decision.

Watters (here with son Will) was researching new markets for the family business when he found marine and launched Syntec.

Watters (here with son Will) was researching new markets for the family business when he found marine and launched Syntec.

Were you a big boater at that point?

Not really. My wife and I would drive around to look at boats to see who the manufacturers were. One time we ran into a Sea Ray rep. They were purchasing yarn to make their own carpets, so we started selling them yarn. A year later, they had a manufacturing issue at their plant in Tellico, so I went to their facility to see if we could help address the problem. They had a problem in the roll-up in their coater, and I suggested a solution.

So they ordered carpets from you?

No, but they sent me passes to Manufacturing Days at the Miami boat show. After I went, I knew this would be our market. I also knew I had a lot to learn. We attended the Miami show in 1986, with samples. Our first sale was to Wellcraft — $100,000 in one style. During the next model-year change, we found more customers and were on our way. By the mid-’90s, we produced about 65 percent of the marine carpet sold in the United States.

When did you diversify into RV?

The 1990 downturn was when we went into RV and the van-conversion industries. We also entered the upholstery vinyl business. In 2015 we developed our Sensations Program that includes materials made from Jacquard looms. In about 2000, we made our first steps into the manufactured housing market. These days, we manufacture carpet, mats, adhesive, Reflex and Sensation, not to mention steering wheels made in Italy.

Steering wheels from Italy?

Originally, I’d planned to distribute steering wheels from Gussi Italia, but they got into trouble during the downturn. The owner began to ask for us to invest in the business, and I eventually decided it would make sense. We became the majority shareholder when the market was way down. Since then, the market has rebounded nicely. With our boatbuilder connections, the company has grown beyond its founder’s wildest dreams.

How’s Syntec doing these days?

We’re doing well. We manufacture our carpets totally in-house. As mentioned, we own the steering wheel company in Italy. We also manufacture our Reflex Marine traction products and Sensations, our line of woven PVC products.

Do you manufacture almost everything?

There’s a fairly even blend of products we produce and source. When we partner with a manufacturer, we make sure they have the same standards as if they were produced by Syntec. All steering wheels, grab handles and power wings, carpet, woven PVC and Reflex are ours. Resilient flooring and LVT are sourced. We no longer sell upholstery vinyl.

Are there other categories you plan to enter?

We recently purchased a company that gives us the technology to design, digitize and install our Reflex products, so we can sell to and service the aftermarket. We just started in aftermarket but hope to have a solid footing before the next downturn arrives. We’re also looking at two new product lines that could be announced shortly. Our plan is to continue to diversify where it makes sense and grow.

How big is your international business?

It’s 10 to 15 percent of the business. Our main exports go to Europe and Australia.

How big is marine for overall sales?

It’s our second-largest category, pretty close to RV and just above manufactured housing. Since marine was our first industry, it remains closest to my heart.

Is that why you’ve been so involved with NMMA on committees, even serving as a recent chairman?

Yes, I’m the past NMMA chairperson, and I’ve also been chairman of MACD [Marine Accessory and Component Division]. I’m also treasurer of Grow Boating. I’m also a co-founder and board chairman of the Marine Leadership Alliance.

Why so much involvement?

I want to see the industry grow and be profitable. The industry’s doing very well right now, so we’ll see how it goes. The November election will tell a lot, but for now I’m excited about where we can go. My mantra has always been that Jefferson Starship song, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”

Your other great passion is cattle. Can you talk about that?

Both Judy and I love the land and animals. We’d both wanted our own herds from when we were children. In 1983, we bought an old 1847 country house on 6½ acres outside Rome. Eventually, we bought 700 acres of the connecting property that runs along the Etowah River. We call it Oakdale Farms.

Watters and his wife are passionate about farming and their Black Angus herd.

Watters and his wife are passionate about farming and their Black Angus herd.

I heard someone say that you do your deepest thinking on a tractor.

It’s the only place I can be where I won’t get interrupted by a phone. Although farming is hard work, I find it really relaxing.

Your specialty is Black Angus?

We started raising cattle about 27 years ago. In 2014, we changed from commercial cattle sales to high-genetic Black Angus cattle farming. We made the move because we were tired of producing calves for the commodity market. Instead, we’re focusing on a smaller herd of higher-genetic cattle. We did that because we believed we could breed a better, more balanced cow. We believe that the perfect cow is a highly curated Black Angus.

How did you achieve that?

We originally purchased 28 bred heifers. Many of our cows come from embryos or are the result of artificial insemination. We continue to improve our genetics by working with highly curated farms that help boost or own herd’s genetics. Ultimately, we’ve been able to gain better cattle that lift our whole herd. We sell all our bulls at 18 months and plan to start selling our females shortly and establish ourselves as one of the country’s best Black Angus cattle farms.

What’s a Master Cattleman?

The goal of the Master Cattleman program is to educate today’s producers for tomorrow’s markets. In Georgia, University of Georgia Extension agents work with industry experts to develop classes in nutrition, facilities, economics, marketing, foreign animal disease, agro-terrorism, herd health, sire selection and many other topics. The Georgia Cattlemen’s Association’s goals are to help the state’s beef producers be more profitable and sustainable.

Who does the most work on the farm?

We both put a lot of time and effort into running the farm. Judy oversees the herdsmen, operations manager and farm employees during weekday operations. She also has a program for high school students to work a few hours each day to learn more about farm operations. Judy’s also a Master Gardener and runs an organic farmer’s market in the summer. I help out in the evenings and weekends, doing whatever else needs to be done, from gathering eggs to the artificial insemination.

Are your kids involved in Syntec or the farm?

Our son, Will, who is married to Kelly, lives in Colorado. They have a 3-month-old son. They also have a business called Western Rise, which sells performance apparel made from highly technical fabrics. The business is doing very well. Our daughter, Landon, is a doctor of physical therapy. She lives in Alabama with her husband, Jacob Harper. Landon works in a physical therapy hospital, while Jacob is an attorney in the governor’s office. 

This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue.

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Quick Hits: April 1, 2020

Fairline scales back operations due to COVID-19 pandemic. NMMA Webinar: How the Stimulus Package Helps Boating Industry Businesses. Dates for 50th annual Newport International Boat Show announced. 2020 USCG Regulations for Recreational Boats Book now available.