Weathering the Storm

South Florida boatbuilders report customer interest staying strong as production resumes
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In late March, Chris-Craft parent Winnebago Industries suspended production across all of its brands.Operations resumed April 13.  

In late March, Chris-Craft parent Winnebago Industries suspended production across all of its brands.Operations resumed April 13.  

When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared marine industry businesses to be essential services in the covid-19 pandemic, quite a lot of boatbuilders in South Florida had tough choices to make. They all wanted to put safety first, and they all wanted to continue fulfilling orders.

In Opa-Locka, in Miami-Dade County, there were Cigarette Racing Team, Invincible Boats and Reef Runner Boats. Nearby were Fort Lauderdale’s Roscioli Yachting Center and its Roscioli Donzi factory in Bradenton. Chris-Craft has its headquarters in Sarasota, while SeaVee Boats is in Medley, also in Miami-Dade County. Each approached the pandemic a differently — and each seems poised to remain in business as the nation begins to reopen.

Cigarette closed March 23. “There was no plan,” says CEO Skip Braver, “so we closed for two weeks to create a plan to get people back to work safely.”

Braver and president Erik Christiansen spoke to each employee, giving them the options to stay home and take care of family members. Everyone was paid in full. On April 6, supervisors began implementing the plan to restart production, staggering the staff’s return over two weeks. “We figured after two weeks of closure, with no one in the factory, it was the safest place to be,” Braver says.

Cigarette Racing formulated a plan to resume building boats, including the new 41 Nighthawk, while it was closed for two weeks. 

Cigarette Racing formulated a plan to resume building boats, including the new 41 Nighthawk, while it was closed for two weeks. 

Precautions included social distancing and wearing masks. The shop is disinfected and deep cleaned each day. Staff bring their own lunches so food trucks can be kept off the premises. A key concern was supply-chain issues, which Braver partly addressed by stocking up on some items early in the pandemic. Now he’s thinking ahead to the fall, when he says the Cannes and Fort Lauderdale shows may be canceled. In the meantime, clients want their boats.

“Marketing as a whole will need to change,” he says. “We’ll see how things progress, but we need to hire more people. No one is canceling orders, and they are understanding of the delays. It’s not business as usual, but it’s business.”

Invincible Boats also shut down the bulk of production until the second week of April. The company had reported record sales in March with a virtual boat show and nine hulls sold. A sanitized boat at a commercial dock was used for private showings, and the company took a demo boat to Lake Okeechobee, which remained open. “It was pretty funny to see an Invincible among all those bass boats,” says Invincible CEO John Dorton. “Everybody was fishing.”

Invincible Boats had record sales in March before shutting down the bulk of its boatbuilding operations in April.

Invincible Boats had record sales in March before shutting down the bulk of its boatbuilding operations in April.

Invincible furloughed 90 percent of its workforce but paid all staff 75 percent of the hourly rate through April; a small percentage who worked overtime were paid 150 percent. The company did not qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program that was part of the federal CARES Act signed into law in late March and, like most other businesses, had to source its own personal protective equipment.

“Employees need to feel safe, so we secured more face masks, do temperature scans every shift, and clean bathrooms and public areas three times per day,” Dorton says. “We’ve had no employee cases, so we feel we’ve been successful.”

Dorton says it’s been easier to practice social distancing since the company moved into a much larger facility. Invincible delivered all of its March and April orders with some delays, and Dorton says customers were understanding. Going into May, he says, the company may achieve about 70 percent of on-time deliveries, with the rest of the hulls being finished in July and August.

Having been the CEO of Mastercraft and with Hydra-Sports in prior years, Dorton recognizes the difference in heading a smaller, semicustom company. “Building a specialty boat brings us closer to our customers and helps us get through this. It’s a different world now,” he says.

SeaVee Boats had an 18-month backlog before closing for the month of April. The company had just moved into a 220,000-square-foot building and kept its 305 full- and part-time employees on full pay during the shutdown. “Employees are the heart of our business. We make an investment in them, and everyone is excited to be coming back to work,” says Ariel Pared, SeaVee partner. As of this writing, the company had not received Paycheck Protection Program funding. It is adding a production line and plans to hire at least 50 more people.

SeaVee sells its boats factory-direct with a 20 percent refundable deposit. The normal cancellation rate is about 5 percent. It doubled after the shutdown, but all other orders are reportedly holding, and at least 15 more boats have been sold since. “The preowned market blew up,” Pared says, noting that there has been similar resiliency in the RV market. “Instead of spending … on a vacation, that money will go into boats and RVs — a good way to socially distance.”

Roscioli Yachting Center in Fort Lauderdale and the Roscioli Donzi plant in Bradenton, where the R-73 (shown) is built, never closed. “We’re blessed,”  owner Bob Roscioli says.

Roscioli Yachting Center in Fort Lauderdale and the Roscioli Donzi plant in Bradenton, where the R-73 (shown) is built, never closed. “We’re blessed,” owner Bob Roscioli says.

Reef Runner Boats has kept five full-time workers in its 10,000-square-foot complex. There have been slow days, owner and CEO Donna Milo says, but the staff has built six boats, including a commercial crab boat. Invincible had to “remind” law enforcement that hers was a legally operating essential business, and she cited problems with parts and accessory supply lines, as well as with tech support. Tyvek suits and face masks, in particular, have been in tight supply.

But customer demand remains strong. After using social media to announce a new 28-foot center console, the builder had 40 inquiries. The staff has met with customers while wearing facial protection.

“My people have been doing this for 30 years or more. They are older, and they are worried about maintaining their jobs and taking care of their families,” she says, adding that she expects normal events such as boat shows to return. “I do not think the industry will be [all] virtual. If we don’t do boat shows, the industry as a whole will suffer greatly.”

Roscioli Yachting Center and Roscioli Donzi never closed. “The boat industry is resilient — it’s something you can’t kill,” Bob Roscioli says. The company had no layoffs, is emphasizing social distancing, and has its cafeteria open so workers stay on the premises. “We’re blessed. We have so much work it’s incredible,” he says. “We need trade help in every category — plumbers, carpenters, electricians, everything.”

He also says many yachts that are stuck in the islands or cannot get fuel are calling ahead for work to be done this summer. He’s hoping to be back at in-person boat shows this fall, instead of using virtual sales tools. “Shows are very expensive, but I’d rather meet someone personally. It’s more productive,” he says.

Chris-Craft temporarily suspended production in March and resumed April 13. The company paid all employees for two of the four weeks of the shutdown, then brought people back gradually. “We couldn’t just suddenly bring everyone back, but we wanted to finish boats that were almost done,” president and CEO Steve Heese says. “Everything was sold. No customers walked away, and people expected their boats.”

Reef Runner, which builds boats in Opa-Locka, says customer demand remains strong. The company used social media to announce a new 28-footer and had more than 40 inquiries. 

Reef Runner, which builds boats in Opa-Locka, says customer demand remains strong. The company used social media to announce a new 28-footer and had more than 40 inquiries. 

The builder, like others, has experienced supply-chain problems, especially with imported parts and New York vendors that were closed. Figuring out staffing took some time. “We didn’t want to start and have to stop again,” Heese says. “There was no telling how long the government [mandates] would go on. We had to figure out what we can get and what we can do with it. We think we can improve on the operations as we go along, but safety is job number one.”

Chris-Craft is taking employees’ temperatures at entry and requiring face masks and other personal protective equipment. As of early May, about half the staff was back at work, with 100 percent scheduled to return within eight weeks. “In general, people want to get back — they want to get up and do something — even though unemployment is paying them. We haven’t lost anybody,” he says, adding, “customers are very understanding. We’re all in the same storm.” 

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.

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