It all began in 1903, when Arthur E. Schrock started working at the Star Tank Co. in Middlebury, Ind. It specialized in manufacturing galvanized steel tanks. Schrock bought the company when the owner died in 1926, changed the name to Starcraft, and started building aluminum boats.
During the same decade, in New Paris, Ind., John Smoker founded the Smoker Lumber Co., a lumberyard that eventually pivoted to making wooden paddles and oars. It ultimately became the largest company of its type in the world, and supplied the manual propulsion implements for Schrock’s Starcraft boats.
Smoker’s grandson joined the lumber company in the mid-’50s and fired up a parallel production line to build aluminum mobile homes and campers. The company began building the first Smoker Craft boats in 1963.
The last piece of the puzzle fell in place in Wolcottville, Ind., where the Sylvan Boat Co. was developing and building aluminum houseboats and pontoons. Schrock’s son Harold bought Sylvan in 1969.
A number of corporate owners managed Smoker Craft, Starcraft and Sylvan during the following decades, but today, the Smoker Craft, Starcraft, Sylvan, SunChaser and Starweld brands are run in one way or another by four Schrock descendants and two Smoker family members.
These days, fourth-generation Schrock descendant Peter Barrett is vice president of marketing and corporate development at the company. Soundings Trade Only sat down with him to find out not only what it takes to keep a manufacturing business humming along for nearly 120 years, but also to learn how family can be the glue that holds it all together.
There are four Schrock descendants and two Smoker family members working at Smoker Craft, correct?
Yes, that’s right. On the Schrock side, I’ve got two aunts and my mother who sit on the board of directors. They are not involved with day-to-day operations. Their great-grandfather was Arthur Schrock, who started at the Star Tank Co. in 1903. They are third-generation Schrock family members, and I am the fourth generation.
Doug and Phil Smoker make up the Smoker side of the family. Doug is president of Smoker Craft, and Phil is vice president of sales. Phil is a fifth-generation Smoker.
Has boating always been in your family?
I was always a boater and was a competitive skier as a young lad. I was always building little boats and drawing them in school, so it is in my blood. In summer camp, I would go up to the woodshop and make these little
outboard boats that I would eventually run and then tinker with to try to make the perfect wake behind the boat.
What roles have you held at Smoker Craft since you joined in 1996?
After training in Indiana, I worked at one of our four satellite plants. This one was in LaGrange, Ga., where I oversaw quality control. At that time, we were building pontoon, jonboats and bass boats. Being on the inspection side, I got to know how pontoon boats were built, inside and out. We were a real slim operation, so I did everything. That’s certainly where I learned everything I know about the manufacturing. I was on the line every day, all day long.
That was my first three years at Smoker Craft. In 1999, I moved up to the main plant in New Paris and took on the role of managing sales for Sylvan and Smoker Craft on the East Coast and in Canada. That was very rewarding, getting to know the dealer network. In 2005, I went to Starcraft and became the vice president of sales.
In 2007, I entered my current role as vice president of marketing and corporate development. There are two good things about my position. First, I don’t have the Smoker last name, and second, I’m very happy that I’m not the president [chuckles]. Doug Smoker is the president, and Phil Smoker is the vice president of sales.
How does the fact that you’re all family affect decision-making at the company?
We’re lucky that Susie, Sarah and my mother are hands-off, and they trust the Smoker family and myself to make those decisions. And we’re really lucky to have partnered with the Smokers. The Smokers have been building products since 1921. What’s amazing is that you have these two families that have worked together and made it work for five generations.
As a family, we really share the same values. Our No. 1 concern is our employees. We realize that our employees are our biggest asset, and we also care dearly about our dealer network. We know that between our 900 employees and our dealer network, we can do nothing without them.
Tell us a little bit about your manufacturing facilities.
We’re on one campus in New Paris, which has 144 acres and 32 buildings with a total of close to 900,000 square feet of space. It’s a big complex. Our most recent building is a 200,000-square-foot transportation and storage facility. The original building is still here. It’s brick and mortar, and has the Smoker Lumber Co. name on it. That’s where John Smoker made paddles and oars in the 1920s.
Of all the brands — Smoker Craft, Starweld, Sylvan and SunChaser — which is the largest in sales volume?
Starcraft is, as [it contains] three segments. Naturally, that would be the largest of the brands. But our Sylvan Pontoons, if you separated by segment, that brand would be our strongest product, especially given the popularity of pontoons that has just exploded in the last decade.
The evolution of the pontoon boat over the years has been amazing. The crude pontoons that we used to build versus today — it’s almost a completely different [boat]. With the new floor plans, lounges that swing back and forward, making better use of the back of the boat, the force of engines that are quiet and fuel efficient … it all just adds up to an extremely comfortable boating experience.
And if you add the performance aspect with the third tube and lifting strakes, you have a pontoon that performs like your traditional runabout. You can put higher-horsepower engines on them so you can ski, entertain and take 17 people on them. You can do everything on these boats.
Given Covid-19, supply-chain issues, inflation and labor shortages, what are the company’s biggest challenges?
Exactly what you said. Labor has loosened up a little bit, so that’s better. Supply chain still is difficult. It’s all so unpredictable. One day it could be cleats, the next day it could be windshields, the next day it could be engines. So it’s all over the place. It’s gotten better, and we have a very strong purchasing team, but it’s been a very difficult environment in which to manufacture.
Before that, aluminum tariffs probably made it challenging for you. Is that fair to say?
Yes, the tariff on aluminum was a big concern. The European tariffs against U.S.-made boats were a real blow. So we were seeing multiple areas where tariffs were affecting our business and costs. I’m glad that’s behind us now.
Another hurdle right now is workforce development. Do you recruit local students out of high schools or trade schools?
We’re very involved in workforce development. Actually, I was lucky enough to speak before the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee in 2017 on this topic in our area. There is a need for skilled workers in this area. And it all starts, we believe, in the shop classes in the high schools.
Traditionally, we’ve been in strong communities where we would hire generations of hardworking kids who grew up on farms, who are mechanically inclined and could figure things out. I’m not saying that’s not there anymore, but we’re seeing less and less of it. And that’s a concern for us. So we are working with local high schools.
We also have an internship program, and to prepare for the next generation of manufacturing, we are working with the University of Notre Dame and Ivy Tech, a local community college, to prepare our employees for the transformation to automation. Notre Dame has been helpful coming up with some ideas to help with workforce development. They have what’s called their innovation labs. That’s helping us bring in some different perspectives on different challenges within the organization.
The folks from the program are working on an inventory-tracking program; they’re working on some automation with us and from other, different projects. But yes, hourly workers are very difficult to come by right now because they are in high demand. That’s come down a little bit because the RV industry has loosened up in our area.
We’re seeing more employees, but getting the next generation of boatbuilder here is something we’re constantly working on. And we need to do that. We need people interested in this business to keep, I want to say, a sixth generation here at Smoker Craft.
Considering everything that’s been going on the past two years, is your company working on a backlog?
Yes, we have a backlog. We were very fortunate — we were able to build up at an accelerated pace — but we still couldn’t keep up with our dealer demand. So we have many dealers out there that are still fulfilling retail orders, and we have many dealers out there that don’t have the amount of inventory that they’re comfortable with and need a lot more boats. So the backlog is only as good as the order. If [the order] sits too long, you have to question if that order is good.
You’ve been with this company a long time. What have been the biggest challenges of your career?
In a family company, we get to go through all different types of challenges and adventures. When I joined the business, my uncle turned to me and said, “The boat business isn’t the glitz and glamor you think it is.” I quickly learned that he was right. One of the more defining moments was a slight recession in 2000, just after I joined. That’s when we consolidated Smoker Craft and Starcraft. We also lived through 2008 and 2009 and the Great Recession, where we watched the collapse of credit on every level.
Forming a team that we still have today helped us navigate through that recession, and still having those people here in the businesses is a great advantage. These are employees that have been true partners of ours.
Does the family aspect of your business offer some additional resolve to push through tough times?
Absolutely, but it wasn’t so much family members that dug in during those hard times — it was our employees who stepped up to the plate. I quickly realized that our employees are everything, and we’re nothing without them. We own this company, but they are what pulled us through. They were there for us. We’re lucky enough to have many of those employees still working for us today.
We consider ourselves a family company, but the family doesn’t stop with us. We try to treat our employees like family. We try to treat our vendors like family, and we try and treat our dealers as family. We try to make people feel welcome, and it’s [from the] top down.
Who are some of the longer-serving employees at Smoker Craft?
We have Doug Smoker, who has been here for 50 years, and a gentleman who just retired who was with us for 55 years. LeRoy Schrock has been with us for 62 years, David Frey for 45 years, and Jim Ellis for 47 years. Jan Whitehead, who retired in March, worked for my grandfather and great-grandfather and was with us for 68 years. He started at the company when he was 17.
The company was run by a handful of corporations in the past, but is the Smoker-Schrock glue what keeps the company together?
That is fair to say. I do have to mention that in 2007, we had some other family members involved in the business. One of them, who was running the business, abruptly quit. That forced my grandfather, who was the controlling shareholder at the time, to come back out of retirement at age 93.
He sat me down and asked me what I wanted to do. Our choices were to go forward and risk the family inheritance or liquidate the company, because he felt that the company had done so poorly, that by liquidating, at least he could give whatever he got from the liquidation to the relatives, and we’d be fine.
I begged him to stay in the business and actually offered to buy his stock. Of course, at many times during 2008 and 2009, he came back at me and told me how wrong I was and that he should have liquidated the company. But today, with 900 employees and our success, I think he’d be pretty happy that we stayed in.
This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue.