In many ways, Scott Porter, president of Formula Boats, is the quintessential marine executive. He grew up in his father’s company, starting off sweeping floors and working his way up. His first job was to take his wagon around Decatur, Ind., where Formula is located, to service stations and dig through the 55-gallon trash barrels looking for used 4- and 5-quart oil cans.
“We would take them back to the factory, cut the tops out of them, drain any excess oil out of the cans, wipe out the residue with rags, and the employees used those for pot liners for putting gelcoat into for painting the molds,” Porter says. “The gelcoat with catalyst in it would get hot, and if it sat in there, they didn’t want it to ignite. It worked out pretty well, and we got a whole 10 cents per can, and we thought we were pretty rich back then.”
While Vic Porter remains as chairman of Formula Boats, Scott, 65, has been president since 1988 and he and his three brothers and one sister run the Decatur, Ind.-based company that employs 370 people including multiple generations of Porters and other families.
When many people think of Formula boats, they envision the company’s offshore-performance models, but today, Crossover Bowriders and All Sport Crossovers are the company’s cornerstones.
Q: How are things going at Formula?
A: Things are going well. They’ve been steady. It’s been softer than a year ago, starting last fall, but it’s been steady. It hasn’t been what I expected it to be, but things are good here. We’ve got a lot of great new development going on.
Q: So many companies in the marine industry have multiple generations of families employed. How many generations of Porters are at Formula?
A: Including part time, we have a fourth-generation member, who has been working in the summers. My wife Shelly works here and we’re the only ones in the family that didn’t have kids. I get to help teach and supervise (his nieces and nephews) and watch them grow up into leadership positions.
My mom and dad are semi-retired. Dad still serves as chairman, and, mom sits on the board. Then there are five siblings out of six in my generation who are involved, and we have six of what we call the G3s here, and a seventh one who is about to graduate and come on board, and a fourth-generation who works during the summers.
Q: Are there any Porters who don’t work for Formula?
A: My brother John is the only sibling who isn’t involved in the business. I worked with him a lot of summers, and we knew he wasn’t going to be a boatbuilder. He’s a doctor today. We call him the smart one in the family. Whenever we had to go through a downturn in the industry, he’s the one with the financial stability.
Q: When and how did your dad get started in the boat business?
A: He got started in 1957 or ’58. His parents had a cottage up on Lake Webster in northern Indiana, and he grew up around boats. He had a frozen-food locker facility in Decatur, and home freezers put that out of business. So, he went to work as a salesman at a boat company, and this was very early on in the days of fiberglass and resin, and the quality was just pretty bad, I guess. So, he didn’t make it through his first boat show and decided he could do better. He came back to Decatur and went to his local bank and borrowed $3,000 and decided to build boats.
Q: What was the name of the first company?
A: The first company was called Duo, which was Latin for two, and the boat was a catamaran. We have the first boat. He had kept it in a field and several years ago, we drug it out and refurbed it for his 50th anniversary in the industry while he was away in Florida over the winter. We presented it to him, and he was pretty surprised. It has twin Mercury Mark 78 engines.
Q: Do other families have multiple generations working at Formula?
A: We’re at least into some third-generation family members, and it’s been interesting to watch that happen in the factory.
Q: Your father is a legendary figure in this industry. How long did it take you to realize the opportunity that you had to work with him?
A: When we were growing up, being around the boats was pretty cool, and I got to go to the lake for test rides and work in the factory in the summertime. As I got a little older, I decided I’d like to go to work for my dad.
Q: Did you and your siblings start at the bottom?
A: We might have all done a few different things like pushing brooms and cleaning up, and as we got older, we were allowed to do other things as long as they didn’t involve power equipment. Once I got to college in the summer, I worked second shift spraying gelcoat, and for everyone in the family, it was like an apprenticeship.
Q: What specialties did your siblings enjoy?
A: Grant is into manufacturing and product development, and today, he heads that up. Wayne is now in an administrative role. Jean heads up marketing, and Ted heads up human resources — as the company grows, that’s an area that grows too, with training and trying to stay on top of everything.
Q: Would it be safe to say that John Adams, Formula’s exclusive designer, has become an extended family member?
A: That’s pretty safe to say. John and I go way back, and John was down at our Miami location when we bought the company. We started working with John even before we had the company. I’ve known him since 1973, and it’s been a long, great relationship together. He lives in Colorado and comes back once a month.
Q: You’re the example of the boatbuilder who is also a boater. You even raced offshore powerboats. What was that like?
A: That seems like a lifetime ago. I had the great, fun opportunity back in the early 1980s to know Betty Cook, who was a multi-time champion. She was selling us her engines and Kaama drives, and we knew from that relationship that Betty wanted a new raceboat, and we had the opportunity to build her new K5 catamaran, but unfortunately, she developed cancer and wasn’t able to race the boat often. My first offshore race was in the K5 out in California, and I won with the boat. It was a dream of mine to race offshore. From there, I raced in a Formula 302 with outboards, and it was sponsored by Continental Trailers. A good friend of mine, Bob Johnson, owned that boat and raced, and it was so much fun to do that. Then I raced another 302 with Kaama drives and just had a lot of fun with that and quit that in 1986. I didn’t race again until the Factory class came out, and ended up running a race in that class to get that going, and kind of retired after that.
Q: Did you also race on land?
A: I married into a carting family, and my father-in-law and brother-in-law were national champions. I raced go-karts and raced Sprint Cars and some lay-down carts.
Q: You also ran your FASTech models at poker runs in the heyday of those events. I understand that you have a racy story involving our new editor-in-chief, Michael Verdon.
A: Yes, I gave him quite a ride one time. My wife, Shelly, wasn’t really happy with me. We were in a poker run in 1000 Islands, Canada, and somebody had a relatively fast Fountain, but we had a faster boat, and I just had to show Michael. And she said, “You weren’t going to go fast,” and I said, “It’s a poker run.”
Q: Are the FASTechs still an important part of your business?
AFrom a historical aspect, we think it’s important, but to be honest we build a dozen boats a year, so it’s a small part of what we do. I think that segment of the market has probably shifted a bit. It’s a fair amount of custom catamarans, but I think that type of boating has moved on.
I would probably be sad about it, except we’ve invented some really awesome day boats. Sunsports came along and just really did well, and then Super Sports, and we’ve evolved into Crossover bowriders. I think we’re building a really sporty product there, and we offer the opportunity for people to import FASTech treatments through our Flex program. We call those FX details. We’ll do carbon fiber dashes, Livorsi monster gauges and controls, all kinds of trick things. We still have that heritage into our new product of today.
Q: What is the Formula Flex program?
A: When things slowed down in the last recession, in model year 2010, we came up with the FX line, but we had people who just wanted parts of it. They would ask, “What if I just want the carbon-fiber dash or the shifter?” From there, it carried on to people asking to change fabrics, and things were slow then, so we thought, Why not? let’s do that.
Now it’s grown up to be a very important part of our boatbuilding process. I would say there aren’t two boats that look alike that go through the factory. We have 70 to 80 base colors of Imron that we do. We allow them to change striping on the exterior and in the cockpit and cabin. You can pick and choose from different offerings. It’s been a neat part of our business. Often, clients will fly in to the factory and spec out all the details of the boat with our sales coordinator.
Q: Paint has always been a Formula signature. Why did you switch to Imron?
A: It went clear back to when I was running our Miami factory and people were asking for certain colors. You could only do so much in gelcoat in a 40-foot mold for a 402 or a 382. One thing that drove it, too, is that we were really disappointed with gelcoat fading out in the sun. We wanted to come up with something that was not going to fade and give us a fair amount of flexibility.
We started working with Imron in 1980s, and we’re thrilled that we did it. You see a Formula that’s 10-plus years old, and it still just looks spectacular. Along the way, we shifted to metallics, and when those metallics are on the water, the sun is bouncing off the ripples on the water, it’s a light show.
Q: Do you have a favorite Formula model through the years?
A: I truly did enjoy growing up with the performance boats. However, when I lived in Miami, I had the opportunity to go over to the Abacos in the Bahamas and cruise and stay on board and have everything you need. And for today and going out for the day like so many people do, I love our bowriders. Sometimes I joke and say, “Whichever one I can borrow is my favorite.”
Q: Do you own a boat?
A: It goes zero right now because it has no engines. I own a 1981 Formula 233 center console without power. It was our photo boat and was built with a single outboard on a bracket and a tower. I took off the bracket and refurbed the boat and Awlgripped it, and it has a T-top. One day, I hope to get some nice new 4-stroke engines on it and go and enjoy it. We didn’t build many of them, and if you see an outboard, it’s a retrofit.
Q: Outboards were everywhere at the Miami International Boat Show. How many outboard-powered models does Formula have and will that be expanding?
A: We have our 310 with twin outboards. Our 330 is triple-outboard powered, our 350 is triple outboard, our 430 is quad, and we have another boat in our development shop that will be at fall boat shows, and it will be a quad-outboard powered model.
Q: Do you see the outboard trend continuing?
A: I don’t think it’s for all markets. Outboards give people a different sense of comfort in a saltwater area, and yet for the aft end use of the boat, you do trade-off and give up some access. Much of our outboard business we do is coastal and inland: It’s still sterndrives. I think everything in our day boat line from 31 feet on up will have outboard capability.
Q: What was the impetus behind the 430 ASC? Formula hadn’t built an outboard-powered boat since 1988.
A: Just a demand in the saltwater area. We had more and more requests for it. There was a movement to it, being able to tilt up the motor to get it out of the salt water. I think it’s excellent, so we were working on the 350 at the same time as the 430 and had both of them at Fort Lauderdale two years ago and went on with our effort there with other models.
Q: Why do you think demand for sterndrives dropped?
A: The availability of the outboard, primarily. Manifolds on sterndrive engines are problematic. Catalyst systems and the heat created back there has caused problems, and people don’t want the downtime of getting their manifolds replaced. Ilmor has not had that problem because they have a closed cooling system that incorporates the manifolds.
Q: Tell us about your experience with the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
A: I’ve had the pleasure of serving on two boards with NMMA. One is the boatbuilder board. It’s the largest division. I took a brief stint off, and I’ve been back on for many years, and I serve on the board of directors, which is made up of many segment board members.
NMMA started with the purpose of building better boats, that they were built according to standards to be safe. One of the biggest expense areas is the advocacy areas, and we’ve been going to the American Boating Congress every year. Grant has been going for many years. From time to time different things come up with the EPA and that is something that has been very important.
Q: What other boards or associations have you joined?
A: I serve at Miller College of business at Ball State University on an executive advisory board. I graduated from the Miller College at Ball State, and they have several different groups that come together, and I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting some Ball State grads that serve at several different corporations around the nation.
I also serve on a nonprofit board in Denver called Forge. It’s a nonprofit ministry group, and they have speakers that go around and speak at different events and do summer camps for families and individuals in the Colorado Rockies. I have also served and been active in my church for quite some time.
Q: Does faith create a common ground for you with fellow marine manufacturers? For example, do you attend the annual luncheon that the Kuck family at Regal hosts at the Miami show?
A: It’s interesting as you go to shows. It is common ground. The Kuck family are great friends, and they’ve done a tremendous job promoting the event every year at the Miami boat show. They’ve brought in one great speaker after another.
Q: There’s also the buyers’ group that Formula is part of, the ABA buying group. How important is that?
A: We came together to purchase different materials for boats so we can be competitive with the really large builders, and that has been common ground as well. It’s been really good for us.
Q: What are your thoughts on the import and export tariffs on aluminum and steel?
A: We don’t use a lot of aluminum. Our tanks are aluminum, and some other parts are aluminum. I think the biggest impact will be the pontoon builders and fishing boat builders. Some of that is a move to try to get people to a negotiating table, but I think potentially there could be some real damage to people that are real users of aluminum.
Q: How important of an issue is ethanol and alternative fuels?
A: The NMMA is lobbying very heavily to try to keep E15 out of the marketplace. It has been proven by our association members to be very destructive for marine engines, and we’re working hard to have it just not come into the marketplace. It’s not efficient fuel anyway. They’re really serving the corn growers. There really is no reason to do it.
Q: In Elkhart County, Ind., RV and pontoon manufacturers are having problems finding good help. Does Formula face the same challenge in Decatur?
A: Even though we have 2 percent unemployment because we’re a premium employer in the neighborhood, I think we’ve done fairly well. We’ve tried to attract the best we can, and we’ve had a good retention rate.
Q: How does Formula retain employees?
A: It has a lot to do with the quality of the work environment. We have a clean facility and are a premium employer in the wage and benefits perspective, and it’s a fun product to build, and the people who work crafting the boats, most of them have myriad things to do. They get to do quite a few different things, and then to see the finished product, I think, just means a lot. It’s fun to know that they’re crafting something that ends up being gorgeous and ends up going out and being used. When customers come through on a tour, our employees step up and talk with them to explain things.
Q: Formula plant tours are very popular. How often do you have them?
A: I don’t know that there’s a week that goes by that there isn’t one or two or three or more plant tours. We have a nice owners’ lounge, and we love when someone is having a boat being built and they come to town to see the process.
Q: More boaters want an “automotive experience” on the water. What is Formula doing to achieve this?
A: I think we certainly have tried to be pioneers in that area. We put in a lot of Mercury installations, and with the joystick, you could tell right from the start that people were gravitating towards that because they were uncertain about operating their boats and docking. You found some people who felt more comfortable taking them out with the joystick. About that time, electronics also started to ramp up with the features they are offering.
I think we want to try to be out there in front offering those things, and at the same time we want to make sure everything is reliable and easy to use. We put FLIR cameras in boats to help people see when they’re coming home at night from a restaurant.
Q: Has Formula worked with engine companies to develop joystick, Skyhook or other technologies?
A: We were in right at the very front with Mercury, and I could say that with Ilmor as they’ve developed their joystick, and you have joystick packages now that have autopilot built-in.
Q: Do you have exclusive agreements with any products suppliers? For example, is the 430 ASC only available with Mercury outboards?
A: We were drawn to the Mercury outboards primarily because of their steering geometry that allowed for the platform back there and still be able to trim up the motors and not hit the platform. We didn’t engineer our boats with an engine well to accommodate the steering rams with other motors, so that’s why we’re working with Mercury.
On the electronics front, we do a tremendous amount of Raymarine. We do some Garmin, and Garmin has continued to advance its products. We’d like to offer some flexibility, but we factory-install electronics, so offering a variety of products would put a lot of extra pressure on us to have our technical people be up to speed on all the different offerings.
Q: Newer boaters don’t seem to be engine-brand specific. Whatever motor is on the boat, they just want to start it and make sure it works. Do you feel the market is moving in that direction?
A: A lot of people trust us as a manufacturer that we’re installing something that that will serve them well. As we watch the Ilmor product grow, someone drawn to their engines is a discerning buyer. They’re not only liking the looks of that product; if they truly are feature-driven, they will be drawn towards that product.
Q: I’ve heard that the Ilmor One Drive’s hydraulic clutches are quite smooth. Has that been your experience?
A: It’s like you want to say, “What’s shifting?” They wound up putting lights on the dash so you know they’re in gear because it’s so smooth. It just makes for a great experience when you’re maneuvering the boat with joysticks.
Q: Is that the beauty of the marine industry — still being small enough to find a company like Ilmor?
A: I don’t know if you’ve been to their shop in Michigan. In the foyer, they have all their successful IndyCar engines wrapped around, and it’s impressive. It’s a great company, and they have a lot more resources than people realize. (Editor’s note. Ilmor Engineering is based in Plymouth, Mich., and in addition to marine engines, the company has built motors for Indy Cars in the U.S. and Formula 1 in Europe and has powered many Indianapolis 500 winners).
Q: What can we expect next from Formula?
A: We’ve had such great success in our day boats that you’re going to see more of that in the fall boat shows. You’re just going to see us filling out the product line, and you’ll see some more outboard power and sterndrive for sure.
We started out talking about the multigeneration company and that’s one thing we’re very proud of. We look forward to seeing who the first of the fourth generation is coming into the business.
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue.