At 91, Leon Slikkers has been building boats for 73 years. He started in the Chris-Craft joinery shop in 1946 and now is chairman and head of product development of S2 Yachts in Holland, Mich. He’s had a full, exciting journey since 1955, when his wife told him it was OK to sell their family home for seed money to start his Slickcraft brand. He sold that to AMF 15 years later, then launched the S2 sailboat line, Tiara Yachts, Pursuit Boats and, most recently, the Tiara Sport outboard line.
It’s not a stretch to say that during the last seven decades Slikkers is responsible for building more quality boats than anyone in the industry, but the real difference has been his ability to adapt and innovate as the market shifted, rather than trying to modify the same style of boat over extended periods. That hasn’t changed. He is always looking at new concepts and technologies that might become the next industry trend.
His favorite models over the years: the Slickcraft SS235, S2 7.9 Grand Slam sailboat and 3100 Tiara Open, with 1,000 hulls built during a 12-year production run. His company was among the first U.S. builders to adopt Volvo Penta IPS propulsion, and at the Miami International Boat Show in February, the Tiara Sport 38 LS boasted 527-hp Seven Marine outboards with joystick control.
I met Slikkers in his office at S2 headquarters in Holland, a comfortable space, the walls filled with family photos and plaques, along with a small half-cut model of one of his first S2 sailboats. He’s a tall, soft-spoken man who thinks about questions before answering them. He has a deep connection to the area. I grew up in Holland, so I know the outsized impact Tiara has had on the community.
He and his sons, David, Bob and Tom, have employed many families over the decades, with the company profiled along the way in business publications such as Forbes. Slikkers was named to the National Marine Manufacturers Association Hall of Fame in 1999.
An avid bicyclist, he trains three times a week, even in winter, riding the roads around Holland. “I won’t ride on icy roads and only go out above 30 degrees,” he says. Last summer, he hoisted his bike above his head after completing the Dalmac, a 400-mile ride from Lansing to the Mackinac Bridge.
How did you start in the industry?
My two brothers worked at the Chris-Craft factory in Holland, and I kept bugging them about a job, but the company wouldn’t hire me because I was 16. After I turned 18 in 1946, they hired me in the joinery department. They were wooden boats then, so most of the boat was built in our department. We did the cabinetry, roofs and floors. I had a good mentor, Harry Bussker, who taught me a lot. By the time I left 10 years later, I was responsible for 60 people. It was quite a journey.
Why did you branch out on your own?
Every few years, whenever the labor contract was up, Chris-Craft went on strike. I had a good friend, Jay, and one year we figured we’d build some boats during the strike. We bought some scrap lumber and had plans all drawn. The strike came, so we started. We were selling them as fast as we could build them. On the fourth boat, they called us back to work, and Jay said, “I’m not going back.” I was married with two kids and had a good job at Chris-Craft. I wasn’t ready, so I went back to work.
Did you stay long?
I gave it a lot of thought and decided I really would like to build boats on my own. I understood production very well and was a fairly good engineer in terms of knowing how things needed to be built. Jay was selling direct to the customers, but I decided to set up dealers.
What about financing?
My wife asked the same question: “What are you going to use for money?” We had two young sons, David and Bob, and had just built a new house. I said we could sell the house. She thought about it and said OK. After I paid off my bills, I had about $5,000 of equity, and so we found a place to build the boats on the highway with an apartment upstairs. Everything was coming together, but I had to tell Chris-Craft.
How did that go?
My boss made me talk to the president of the company. The look on his face, I’ll never forget it. He couldn’t believe it. He said, “Are you sure you’re OK?” We talked for a while, and he saw he couldn’t talk me out of it. “If you ever need a job,” he said. Everybody back in the shop thought I was crazy, going to make boats for a living.
What was it like starting out?
I had six employees and set up dealers in the region. You wear a lot of hats when you first start. I was familiar with building the boats, but I had to learn about buying materials, financing and selling to dealers. We developed good relationships with our dealers, and they loved our wood boats. Shortly afterward, I heard about a new material called fiberglass.
Did you transition to fiberglass quickly?
No. At the time, I didn’t know of any company building boats in fiberglass. But I felt like this would be the right material. I bought a kit from a company called Everglass in Minnesota and covered a wood boat with fiberglass. I think I got more of it on me than the boat. But I kept at it. About that time, I also got acquainted with a chemist who lived nearby in Zeeland. He was stamping chairs out of fiberglass and said it was the future. The next thing you know, I’d made a boat out of fiberglass.
Was it hard to sell it to dealers?
By that point, there were a few other builders doing it around the country. Fiberglass boats didn’t have a good name in the early years because some of the companies were not making their boats very well. The wooden boatbuilders were really fighting it. They formed a wooden boat foundation to support the industry. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I joined. Customers would come in and say they’d never buy a fiberglass boat. The more I worked with it, the more I thought this has to be the future. I kept building both.
When did you move to just fiberglass?
In 1962, we came to a fork in the road. In those days, I was building a couple hundred wooden boats and maybe 40 fiberglass boats. I couldn’t expand the business if I didn’t choose one or the other. In 1962, we introduced a 16-foot fiberglass boat that was all black with a red leather interior. It was on white carpet at the Chicago show in McCormick Place. It was the hit of the show. That’s what turned it for us.
Then what happened?
We had quite a few models at the time and kept expanding. In 1964, we had a pretty famous boat called the SS 235, a deep-vee 23-footer. Our dealer in Chicago had an SS 235 Club, and the only way you could get into the club was to buy one.
Were the ’60s a growth period for Slickcraft?
The late ’60s were very good years. We’d built a new plant on 32nd Street especially for the boat business. We’d developed a 28-foot twin-inboard cruiser, so our boats were getting big. Around that time, I noticed some big companies getting into it. I didn’t have a lot of resources, so I was worried about whether we could compete. AMF acquired us in 1969.
Was it a good move?
I’m a praying man and had prayed about whether it was the right thing to sell. Looking back, it gave me tremendous exposure to running a big business.
I worked for AMF for five years, and every other month, all the company heads would go to New York to meet with the chairman. AMF owned 25 companies, like Head Ski, AMF Golf and Harley-Davidson. They also owned Hatteras and Crestliner. I’d sit next to guys who went to Harvard or West Point, and learned a lot. I called those five years my Ivy League education. Once the non-compete was over in 1973, I told the chairman I was leaving. He was surprised and told me to let him think about it. After three months, I called him up. “I didn’t think you were serious,” he said.
That was the middle of the oil crisis. What did you do?
I decided to go into the sailboat business. I’d visited some sailboat plants. I could see the companies were building in an antiquated way and saw an opportunity. In January, I hired a naval architect to design a 23 and 26. In February, I opened a shop in downtown Holland to do the engineering and build my molds. I hired eight guys. In August, we had the first boat done — we did everything by hand — and had started on a second one. By October, we had both boats in the Chicago Boat Show. It was hard work, but fun. We picked up a few dealers in Chicago, so we got off to a good start.
Did you stay in the sailboat business long?
Yes, until 1989. We built a plant especially for sailboats, with the floors designed to take the keels. Our first boats had shallow-draft keels and wouldn’t win any races, so we designed a 30-footer. We had the plug all done, and I told the naval architect I didn’t like the look of it. “Why?” he asked. “It’ll be a good sailing boat.” But it’s got to be pleasing to the eye, I said. I cut that puppy up with a chainsaw, and we started all over. We ended up with a beautiful hull, and she sold really well.
Did you become a sailor?
I enjoyed it but never became a sailor. My sons David and Bob, and Scott Smith, who was a serious sailor here in town, used to go to the races. We built one sailboat called the S2 7.9m Grand Slam, and that got so popular that class races were designed around it. We won two national titles with it.
David and Bob were part of the business at that point?
They’d started back in the Slickcraft days. They both studied business in college and then joined me. I thought it’d be nice to have them in the business, but never pushed them. Not everybody can work with their dad.
When did Tiara start?
In 1976, two years after the sailboat business. I recognized that the sailboats wouldn’t fulfill my dreams for this very different market. We had a lot of dealers who asked when I was getting back into the powerboat business. We came out with 20- and 25-foot sterndrives. In 1978, I developed the Tiara 31. That became a famous boat. We built well over 1,000 of those during a 12-year run. Shortly after that, we came out with a 36 Open and went back to fill the line with a 33-footer. Then we went to a 43. We always had a wider beam, which was a stable platform for the Great Lakes.
The boats became much more complicated as they got bigger, right?
Absolutely. These were ocean boats. Most of our boats now are used on salt water rather than in fresh water.
You weren’t afraid to evolve.
Some people get stuck in what they’re doing, but I always like to try new things. I like coming up with fresh concepts. It gets the creative juices flowing. In designing new models, I always start with basic concepts and work toward building a full-scale model in wood. I want to be able to walk around it and sit in it, so I’ll see and feel what it’s like. You can’t do that with a drawing. Before we get to that point, though, we have lots of internal discussions with my sons and the department heads in sales, manufacturing and marketing. We’re now designing and building three new models per year.
I assume you stay aware of your competitors’ designs?
Oh yes. I enjoy going to the Miami and Fort Lauderdale boat shows to see what’s new. We’re very aware of the European imports and how they’ve grown. A lot of those builders had to come over here because they’d lost their home markets. They never would’ve survived.
Are you seeing more competition than ever before?
Yes, but the industry has grown, too. It was all mom-and-pop dealers when we started. Now almost all our dealers have multiple stores.
Was it hard to see Pursuit go after selling it to Malibu last year?
It was my baby, and they were a great bunch of people I call my Pursuit family. We miss them, but things move on. I talk to the guys down there, and they’re very busy.
Why was the Tiara Sport brand created?
We’d seen the outboard market growing. Some people around here thought it was a bit nuts. We had to figure out the DNA. The first Q44 was a fun project. We designed the Q44 like a sport utility vehicle, complete with a bike rack.
How is the Sport line doing?
The production floor has more outboards than inboards these days. We haven’t taken on many dealers who weren’t already Tiara dealers, but we wanted to keep a separate brand to create flexibility. We’ve had enough demand from our yacht dealers because they need the outboard business, too. But we’ll probably sign on more dealers as the line expands.
In your time in the industry, what is the biggest change you’ve seen?
The size of outboard engines these days is impressive. My first boat had a Johnson 12-horse engine. A few years later, I bought a boat with a 25-hp Johnson Seahorse. A few people asked, “Leon, what are you going to do with all that horsepower?” Now we have those 527-hp Seven outboards that can be supercharged up to 672 hp. I guess that’s something I never would’ve expected.
When you started, did you envision having an empire?
No, not really. The dream keeps growing, and the market will keep changing. We always have these dips, which are unfortunate because it takes the wind out of your sails a bit. But I think the market will continue to grow, though sometimes I wish I had a crystal ball.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.