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Q&A with Tom Slikkers

President and CEO, Tiara Yachts
1_Tom-Slikkers

Tiara Yachts and its former parent company, S2 Yachts, were founded by Leon Slikkers in the 1970s. Now 93, the family patriarch recently retired. His son Tom Slikkers continues to run the company, as he has since 2012, with other family members in key positions. The builder of inboard- and outboard-powered models from 34 to 53 feet (with a 55-footer set to debut next year) employs 600 people in Holland, Mich., at its 800,000-square-foot manufacturing plant.

“This company, its rich history and all that it has accomplished wouldn’t have been possible if not for the vision, passion and unyielding entrepreneurial drive that our father has demonstrated for a lot of decades,” Tom Slikkers says, also referring to the Pursuit sportfishing boats that S2 Yachts built until 2018. “His dedication to excellence and the translation of his passion for boatbuilding across three generations will be a lasting legacy as we continue to provide exceptional customer service and highly specialized products.”

Soundings Trade Only spoke with Tom and his brother David Slikkers, director of government relations, about Tiara’s past, present and future.

What do you think made your father so successful in the marine industry?

Tom: Leon learned a lot when he worked at Chris-Craft. He’s always been respectful of the education that he got there — his understanding of boatbuilding and his boatbuilding skills. He says that he was fortunate to grow up on a farm as well as benefit from working in a manufacturing facility that taught him many fundamental ground rules of boatbuilding. But I think he took that fundamental understanding and he built on it in a way that probably wasn’t the easiest path. It wasn’t the norm, and it wasn’t always what people expected.

An example would be when he started Slickcraft, first making wooden boats, but he migrated shortly after that to fiberglass. There was no rule book for fiberglass at that time. That transition from wood to fiberglass is actually a pretty big chapter because at that particular time, Leon was only in business a couple of years on his own. He made a big decision to transition from what was the widely accepted industry norm and started moving toward fiberglass quite quickly. Many people thought he was crazy for doing that. When he got out of the Slickcraft adventure and started S2 Yachts as a sailboat company, we didn’t have anybody in our family who was a sailor. I don’t believe we had ever even been on a sailboat.

Tiara launched its largest outboard model, the 
48 LS, earlier this year.

Tiara launched its largest outboard model, the 48 LS, earlier this year.

That’s some seriously flexibile thinking.

Tom: Normally, people don’t diverge and switch gears that radically. But Leon looked at what was going on in the industry. He looked at sailboats and felt, Hey, I can do that better. So we embarked on sailboat-building. Later on, as we learned our craft, we brought in industry experts to help us. But I guess the point is that Leon charged headfirst over some pretty tough obstacles and, I think, was very successful at it.

What were the company’s earliest, most formative developments?

Tom: When the company started the Tiara product line, we determined that we wanted to build a larger Tiara. So we built a 31-footer, after we were only building 25- and 20-footers. That’s a pretty big leap, to do a 31-footer, but conventional wisdom in the industry would say that a 31-footer was probably going to be about a 9-foot beam. Leon decided, “Well, I want that boat to have a 12-foot beam.” The 31 Tiara today, looking back, that’s kind of revered as a hall-of-fame 31-footer in the industry. People love that boat, and it almost has a cult following. It was very, very unusual for a company to build a boat that’s 31 feet with that kind of beam. But Leon was convinced that that was going to work.

I think if you could sum up Leon’s career, it’s that he didn’t take the easy path. I think even some of the things that we have done as a family and as a company have come from doing the hard work. What’s easy, what’s normal, what’s expected — I don’t know that our company has ever done that. I think we try to take a path that is going to be more rewarding, for the customer’s experience, too.

The Slikkers family: (back row, from left) Alex, Tom, Tim, Bob; (front row, from left) Kelly, Leon, David.

The Slikkers family: (back row, from left) Alex, Tom, Tim, Bob; (front row, from left) Kelly, Leon, David.

The 31 was an inboard boat. Did Tiara move to outboards because of 4-stroke technology?

Tom: No, it was actually driven more by industry data showing outboard power has continued to grow. We could see within our own company how Pursuit was growing in size and capability based on outboards, and we watched the inboard segment of Tiara kind of slowly lose ground. If you look at that on a chart, you’ll see outboards growing over time and you’ll see inboards, as a segment, declining over time. For the smaller inboards, I think, that decline happened sooner. It was kind of eroding from the bottom, if you know what I’m saying. We felt that Tiara had to have a presence in the marketplace and smaller products, smaller than what we had been successful with in the market.

We felt that outboard power was a way to do that. We also saw that lifestyles were shifting. The shift was more to day boating and being out for the day or a couple of days, compared to what had been the normal Tiara inboard experience in the past. Outboards were the natural way for us to go, but we knew it had to be a Tiara luxury experience that was going to make the difference.

David: I think some of the other things that we incorporated with the outboard series were the same type of quality and finishes that the yachts had. When you got on a Tiara outboard, you didn’t think that you were really on an outboard. You obviously knew that, but I’m saying there wasn’t a change in the experience that we executed from a hardware standpoint, from a quality standpoint, from interior and exterior upholstery. It was a Tiara yacht, through and through.

The 48 LS is an impressive boat, and now a 55 is planned.

David: A lot of past experience is being packed into the 55. To me, the 55, for our company, while it’s a big adventure and provides a lot of innovation, we’re also kind of creating a best-of. There are many elements of our past series of inboard products included. Some of the best attributes of those products we are incorporating, in a modern way, into the 55.

For instance, the flexibility in the cockpit, giving the customer the opportunity to choose between fishing or cruising or a little bit of both, and arranging, configuring their cockpit whichever way they want to best suit their boating needs. That was a hallmark for the Open Series for many, many decades. That flexibility of architecture in the cockpit, particularly, is something that we felt was going to be a great thing for the 55. People looking at a 55-footer today in the marketplace, you either love it or you don’t. But we wanted to have the essentials be who we are as Tiara, and to have some of that flexibility of architecture and the cockpit furniture arrangement to allow people really to set that up to best suit how they choose to boat.

We’ve got some pretty unique furniture schematics and modules that we’ll be able to convey a little bit later on when we get closer to introducing the boat. What we’re working on, it’ll be an industry first, for sure. We’re pretty excited about that.

Some other elements of the Sovran series that cater to cruising, you’ll see in the DNA of this boat, though in a modern, updated way. There are some attributes of the Coupe that we definitely want to retain and bring into this product. And some other products that we’ve experienced along the way, most recently the success with the outboard products.

The workmanship at Tiara was born of the Slikkers family’s passion for boatbuilding. 

The workmanship at Tiara was born of the Slikkers family’s passion for boatbuilding. 

What are the propulsion specs for the newest boats?

Tom: The 48 is a triple outboard application only — the Mercury 600 hp. The 55 is an inboard that has twin Volvo Penta IPS engines. We feel there’s still a space and place for us to execute the inboard product.

What else is coming from Tiara Yachts in the future?

We’re trying to stay true to what the customer expects from us: a certain level of execution, a certain level of quality and a certain level of amenities. The amenities list continues to get bigger. How we do that has really continued to be something that we’re focused on. The technology and some aspects of our production environment can probably help us better ensure that quality is deliverable to the customer. There are areas in our facility where today we’ve had to rely on human effort, and while the human effort has served us well for a number of years, it’s probably not enough going into the future.

Headquartered in Holland, Mich., Tiara builds boats in an 800,000-square-foot plant and employs about 600 people. A 55-footer, the company’s largest model, is expected to debut next year.

Headquartered in Holland, Mich., Tiara builds boats in an 800,000-square-foot plant and employs about 600 people. A 55-footer, the company’s largest model, is expected to debut next year.

Do you mean robotics or artificial intelligence are coming?

Tom: Yes. Robotics is probably an area that for sure we will deploy more of, and we’ve got automation in terms of some machinery — CNC cutters, table size, things like that — that we’ve deployed for quite a number of years. We continue to add on to that robustness of capacity and capability with machinery. We have automatic varnishing, and we have all kinds of machinery that takes some of that variable nature out of the production process. We won’t be able to be an automotive-type company in that regard, but we’re looking for areas and ways that we can actually provide some of that automation that can really help us do a better job.

What do you see for the future of boating in general?

Tom: My brother David and I have enjoyed doing this for a long time — not as long as Dad, but we’ve done it for a long time. We’ve seen a lot of upticks, and we’ve seen downturns. I think that’s the nature of our business. Our business has never been status quo. I think that’s good. All the businesses that you consider to be good or great companies, you anticipate at some point that that’s going to turn, and you never know to what degree it’s going to turn.

For our company, I think we just want to continue, to the best degree possible, delivering that quality experience, a premium experience on the water. We know that sometimes there are fewer people than we’ve had in the past. We just try to figure out how to do the best we can. We’re not focused right now on anything else other than trying to deliver that great experience.

Tom Slikkers says the company will grow,  “but you’ve got to do that carefully.”

Tom Slikkers says the company will grow, “but you’ve got to do that carefully.”

With the increased interest in boating, have you expanded your dealer network?

Tom: No, we’ve not. We have a super-strong backlog, probably bigger than we’ve ever had. We’ve had great pull-through in our current dealers in most marketplaces. We’ve got dealerships set up in Europe, which are for the most part idle right now because of the tariffs. We feel like once the tariffs get resolved, we’ve got a natural opportunity to kind of pick up some traction there. We’ve had several domestic dealers that have contacted us and wanted to take on our line. We’re not sure how we would successfully pull that off, knowing that we would probably disappoint a lot of potential customers that are in the queue. So it’s a little bit of a dilemma. Do we want to grow? Yes, we do. And we will. But you’ve got to do that carefully. 

This article was originally published in the November 2021 issue.

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