For most teenage boys in Canada, activities in the garage are usually confined to either making their cars and/or snowmobiles faster or annoying neighbors while trying to become the next big rock band not named Rush. But for Robert Oswell, it was where he took the first steps toward creating a multinational marine accessory business that would eventually lead him to become the founder and CEO of Roswell Global.
“My first garage project was a kitchen appliance invention that never made it to market, Oswell says. “But I did learn a lot about how to file a patent, which has served me well.”
The First Watersports Invention
Growing up as an avid wakeboarder, Oswell noticed that while the new generation of no-stretch tow ropes in the 1990s was favored by expert riders, they were not average skier-friendly, and their lack of give could even contribute to injuries, such as dislocated shoulders. So his first boating invention was a shock-absorbing wakeboard pylon, which he designed when he was 19 years old, that provided the necessary cushion to help wakeboarders enjoy the sport in greater comfort and safety.
To support himself and fund the project, Oswell did whatever it took, including blowing snow with a Cub Cadet, to earn money. To cut expenses, he rented out his house and moved into his garage workshop. Having grown up on a cattle and grain farm 500 miles north of Montana in Alberta, Canada, he developed a strong work ethic that would serve him well throughout his career.
Although Oswell does not have any formal training as an engineer, his primary talent lies in his ability to visualize solutions to problems, and to complement his skill set, he has surrounded himself with talented engineers. “Most of my inventions come from using the boat and observing people’s interactions with it. I try to envision ways to make their boating experience better.”
Roswell’s First Offshore Foray
Fast forward to 2022, and his still-private company is continually expanding both its manufacturing footprint and scope of innovative products. The latest inventions in the Roswell patent pipeline veers from fresh water to salt water with its work with Invincible Boats to create products that make the lives of offshore anglers more comfortable and safer.
“In the fall of 2020, John Dorton, the CEO of Warbird Marine Holdings, came to me and asked for my help with Invincible Boats,” Oswell says. “Like me, John is a ‘big idea’ guy, and he has been a visionary in the marine industry for decades. I told him I needed to ‘live the boat’ by spending a lot of time on it, so within a couple of months, Roswell had its first 37-foot catamaran, which we ran relentlessly, including taking trips to the Bahamas.”
One of the inventions Oswell and his team developed for Invincible was a telescoping helm station that works in concert with a helm seat that also rises to give the skipper better visibility over the bow of ever-larger center consoles. The system’s out-of-the-box design won an NMMA Innovation Award this year at the Miami International Boat Show. Its main competition was two other Roswell products: a wind deflection system that eliminates the swirling vortex that buffets the center console crew when running at high speeds, and a shock-absorbing helm seat system that does not rely on hydraulics.
Roswell’s Design Philosophy
Few companies with more than 100 unique product lines can point to a single design philosophy, but for Roswell, virtually everything it does is about making the boating lifestyle better. Many of Oswell’s innovations have had their genesis by taking something inefficient or just plain annoying and “fixing it.” While many companies have reduced R&D in the last few years due to market complications, Roswell continues to annually introduce about 30 new products to the marine market.
Many of Roswell’s inventions were industry game-changers, such as the first universal watersports tower. So instead of having to pay a premium price for a custom tower, consumers and OEMs could order a kit that would fit a variety of boat models, which brought the price down considerably. Oswell’s other inventions include the swiveling board rack, strapless board racks and speakers integrated into the watersports tower. The “weightless” tower allows anyone to singlehandedly lower it with little effort. One of Roswell’s latest watersports innovations is the Telescoping Tower, exclusively designed for Nautique in 2020, which allows owners to duck under bridges on the fly or easily garage their boats without having to manually drop the tower.
Thomas Edison, who was granted 1,093 patents during his lifetime, only shared credit on 20 occasions, despite having a legion of assistants, including a young Nikolai Tesla, who did much of the intellectual heavy lifting. Oswell, on the other hand, often adds others’ names to the 28 patents he holds or has in the pipeline. His criterion is simple. “Even if I may have conceived the initial idea,” Oswell says, “if I feel someone’s work was instrumental in making the product market-ready, their name goes on the patent.”
An example is the Telescoping Tower, which lists seven other names in addition to Oswell’s. “I think adding someone’s name to a patent is a great motivator, and I know there’s a sense of pride knowing your name is forever linked to an outstanding invention,” he says.
Roswell Migrates to Florida
Roswell’s corporate headquarters in Rockledge, Fla., near Cape Canaveral, was designed by Oswell to not just be a manufacturing plant with adjoining administrative offices and engineering labs but, rather, to be an incubator of collaborative ideas with an open plan that eschews cubicles and has numerous meeting zones for brainstorming huddles.
What is the working culture at Roswell like? “I wanted to create an environment that’s relaxed and conducive to teamwork,” Oswell says. “I empower everyone from the janitor on up, so they know they are contributing to the overall effort and feel like they are part of our team. We have competitive wages; the production staff in Florida has a four-day workweek, available fresh food, a fitness center, and a kid’s room for those times employees need to bring them to work. The goal is to make Roswell a place where you want to come to work.”
Roswell has 400 employees worldwide, with 120 of them based in Florida and plans to hire 50 more there.
Oswell is a man on the move. In addition to running a company with facilities in the United States, Canada, China and Australia, he also gives back to the marine industry and his community. This year, he was elected president of the Water Sports Industry Association and serves on the board of directors for the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s Water Sports Foundation. He also speaks at local high schools and donates time and money to Daily Bread, a local organization that helps the homeless with a variety of services. He even carves out time to have a life outside of the business world, with hobbies that include snow skiing, water sports, fishing, and playing guitar and piano.
The company’s revenue growth during the past five years has averaged 34 percent, and Oswell says revenue increased 61 percent in 2021. Since 1998, Roswell has sold more than $250 million worth of racks, towers, accessories and high-end audio equipment. “I would credit all of our sales success to innovation,” Oswell says.
Better Manufacturing Through Technology
With a catalog that includes hundreds of products, manufacturing all items in-house would seem to be an impossible task, but thanks to a blend of automation and skilled labor, Roswell pulls it off. At first, Oswell was skeptical of automation, envisioning an auto assembly line with robotic arms doing one task at a time, but after doing some research he found Mazak, a Kentucky-based company to hold the perfect solution. Mazak created a system with a wide range of equipment that can handle different tasks, but the star of the line is a two-tiered, 24-pallet Palletech automated part fabrication system.
This modular, palletized manufacturing system further boosts the productivity of many of the company’s horizontal, five-axis and multitask machines. System configurations include one-, two- or three-pallet stockers; tilting load stations; centering load stations; part wash stations; and materials storage. The scalable system can accommodate up to 16 Mazak machines, six to 240 pallets, and as many as eight loading stations that combine to allow for lights-off, unattended operation. In addition to the Mazak machines, Roswell has 3-D rapid printers, a chemical film immersion line for saltwater protection, custom three-axis bending machines, automatic saws, a waterjet, and TIG welding machines.
Since 2014, Roswell has invested more than $10 million in its Florida operation, with most of that in the last three years to support an increase in its “Made in USA” initiatives. The Florida facility produces most of Roswell’s high-end products, such as watersports towers, racks and stereo components. “Early on, we purchased speakers and amplifiers, but now we make everything in-house,” Oswell says. “What sets us apart is we tune our audio equipment for specific boat models so the sound is always as good as it can be. I am obsessed with quality sound and love music; I always have a song in my head, even when the stereo is off.”
Oswell says about 95 percent of the company’s sales are derived from business with Moomba, Nautique, Centurion, Cobalt, Bennington, Supreme, Monterey, and Invincible, and the other 5 percent from aftermarket dealers.
Navigating the Now
Moving more production to the Florida facility and making virtually everything in-house has contributed to Roswell’s success during the recent supply chain issues, although raw materials, such as aluminum, have been in short supply. To provide a cushion, Roswell’s strategy has been to plan further ahead and carry more inventory than before. “We have a fleet of Peterbilt trucks cruising around America, so we haven’t been as affected as many have been by shipping issues, other than high diesel prices,” Oswell says. “We try to take control of as many aspects of production and distribution as we can.”
In the last five years, the list of independent companies that have been bought out by mega-corporations has grown exponentially, but Roswell Global remains an independent outlier. “Others have approached me to sell,” Oswell says, “but I’m not ready to retire yet and feel I have more to contribute to the marine industry. I think when you sell your business, you need to be ready to step back and relinquish control of the business, even if you stay on after the sale. At this time, I’m not ready to take a back seat. I’m still excited about the future of Roswell.”
What will Roswell be focusing on most in the immediate future? “We are always looking for opportunities in the market,” Oswell says. “But our main focus will be on doing what we do best and staying in our lane.”
This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue.