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Q&A with David Foulkes, vice president of product development, engineering and racing at Mercury Marine and Brunswick Corp. chief technology officer

It’s not every day you hear Brunswick CEO Dustan E. McCoy calling one of his engineering execs a “near genius.” So when we heard him refer to David Foulkes, vice president of Mercury Marine product development, engineering and racing, as such we decided we should call him to chat about some of the engine company’s recent success.

It’s not every day you hear Brunswick CEO Dustan E. McCoy calling one of his engineering execs a “near genius.” So when we heard him refer to David Foulkes, vice president of Mercury Marine product development, engineering and racing, as such we decided we should call him to chat about some of the engine company’s recent success.

Foulkes, who has been with Mercury since 2007, added chief technology officer for all of Brunswick Corp. to his job description last year. He has a long history in the automotive world, having “kind of started a new generation of Ford crossovers and small SUVs,” he says. While working for Ford in Germany and the U.K., Foulkes was involved in the development of Ford’s first direct-injection diesel engines, direct-injection gasoline engines, six-speed transmissions and auto-shift manual transmissions.

The Wales native lives near Milwaukee, not too far from Mercury’s Fond du Lac headquarters, with his wife and 17-year-old daughter, who is choosing a college. Their son, 20, is a sophomore at Northwestern University in Chicago. The family has been transient, spending time around the United States and in Europe, but Foulkes says they have enjoyed getting to know Milwaukee and Chicago during their years in Wisconsin.

Q: You come from the auto industry. Can you talk about some of your time there and what it helps you bring to the marine industry? Did you have boating experience prior to coming on board at Mercury?

A: Prior to joining Mercury in late 2007, I worked with Ford Motor Co. for about 18 years. I worked for them in the U.K. and in Germany and did several tours in the U.S. before we finally settled a bit more here. I worked in a lot of different positions for them. I was head of advanced engines and transmissions in Ford Europe. I led all of Ford’s direct-injection, clean-engine program. I was the powertrain chief engineer in the U.S. and the vehicle chief engineer and the design director. So [I had] a lot of different roles during my career with Ford, and a lot of really nice engine programs. I did quite a lot of direct-inject diesel, direct-injection gasoline transmission programs. And in the U.S. I was heavily involved in some of the new car and crossover projects, like the Fusion and the Edge and the Mustang and various others that kind of started a newer generation of smaller cars and the first crossovers for sport utilities.


In terms of what I brought from that to the marine industry, I got a lot of experience managing large and complicated programs, and that really helped.

Q: Can you tell us about your background? What got you interested in engineering?

A: I grew up in Wales. My father was a pilot in the Army, and then he was a math teacher. So I guess I was kind of destined to be an engineer. I went to Imperial College in London, which is one of the biggest technology-focused colleges in the U.K., and did a bachelor’s and master’s in aeronautical engineering.

At college, I specialized mainly in computer simulation, which was a technology that was kind of in early development at the time. We did some of the early work on computer modeling of large structures, fluid flows, structural optimization, that kind of work. That served me pretty well early on.

Q: Dusty McCoy mentioned that water movement is similar on boats and RVs when he announced that Brunswick would look at some of these crossover markets for parts and accessories. Are you being tapped for some of Brunswick’s projects to branch into water movement in the RV segment?

A: Not in that level of specific application. A lot of aerodynamics is similar to hydrodynamics, which is probably more directly where I get involved with the hydrodynamics of both boats and engines. If you go into computer simulations, the applications change but the fundamentals don’t change that much. Once you’ve developed that capability you can apply it in a broad range of areas. I think computer simulation is an area in which Mercury is particularly strong. It’s really helped us in both speed to market and making sure we get the product right the first time. In order to simulate something you have to know how it works. It’s a good discipline in terms of forcing people to be familiar with the physics of whatever they’re trying to engineer. The deeper you can go, the better. It helps you with diagnosing issues and helps you find the right solutions.

Product testing and refinement is an endless process.

Product testing and refinement is an endless process.

Q: Mercury is shifting from using GM blocks to creating its own for its sterndrive engines. Has that been one of your projects?

A: Yeah, it has. As background, Mercury has about 400 engineers and technicians in product development and engineering. We cover all the global products that Mercury designs and develops and launches, including the outboard side, the MerCruiser gas engine side, all the helm and display products that we do, and also our partnerships with Volkswagen and VM on the diesel side. Certainly one of the projects that I’ve been heavily involved in is the new gasoline sterndrive platform. I cannot comment at all on VM’s strategy, so I’ll focus on our strategy. The fact that we have design control in our outboard product is really helpful. We can design things from the ground up, knowing the attributes that our consumers really value and making engineering judgments along the way. Now we’re able to do that on the sterndrive side, as well, with the new platform. One of the strengths of Mercury and Brunswick overall is we do an awful lot of voice-of-the-customer work and trying to understand their priorities. We felt that we were better able to satisfy those priorities with a ground-up engine rather than with an automotive derivative.

Q: How?

A: For lots of good reasons. The automotive engines are proceeding down one development path, based on the specifics of the regulations they need to meet. That has begun to diverge from the best value proposition and best interest for marine customers. I was really delighted to get the chance to do a ground-up marine design. I think the good thing about Mercury is it has the scale to allow you to make those kinds of decisions. It’s everything from being able to select the right materials to being able to place the components on the engine the way that you want to make it really quiet, really smooth, to make it really easy to service and maintain.

Q: Do you think this opens opportunities for innovations in that sterndrive space? Can that help reinvigorate this part of the market? Has there been a shift from sterndrives due to some of the innovations in the outboard market, and can more innovation in sterndrives help reach some of those people?

A: I think that’s definitely the case. We talk a lot inside the company about consumer-focused innovation, not just picking up whatever is a trend somewhere else, but thinking through exactly what technologies are providing real value to our consumers. I think what people are seeing on the outboard side are advances in [those products]. We produce the quietest, lightest, most fuel-efficient outboards, and we want to bring some of that capability into the sterndrive market. We want to make those sterndrives extremely quiet. We want to make them very easy to operate, and easy to maintain and service, and make them very, very fuel-efficient. I do think that outboards, to some extent, have rebounded very quickly in some very specific segments — like the pontoon segment, and particularly the offshore saltwater fishing category — which have been particularly outboard-dominated. That has really led to a good rebound in the outboard market. A lot of the sterndrive product is primarily in the cruiser market, which has not rebounded quite so quickly. I’m not sure if it’s just a one-type-of-engine-versus-another-type-of-engine discussion as much as it’s one type of boat versus another type of boat.

The new Verado outboards were kept busy in sea trials during the show in Miami.

The new Verado outboards were kept busy in sea trials during the show in Miami.

Q: Those outboards have helped play into the success Mercury has had over the past several years.

A: The first really big outboard product I was heavily involved in was the 150 [FourStroke] that came out in 2011. That product was a prototype for a lot of what we wanted to bring to market in outboards. It looked great. It was the lightest, quietest, most fuel-economic — it was super-reliable. It was easy for anyone to understand. That was kind of an archetype for what we’ve been doing and later did with the new 75- to 115-hp platform. I’m really lucky because we were able to make what was already a great team and roll them from one major project to another.

At our headquarters in Fond du Lac, we’ve spent a large number in expansion of manufacturing facilities, but we’ve also spent about $16 million on the expansion of engineering facilities. That was really to give us the capacity to deliver the pipeline of products we have been over the past five years or so, and also the power levels we’re delivering now are more than what was originally foreseen when the Mercury facilities were last upgraded. We’re doing 350-hp and 400-hp outboards and high-horsepower sterndrives and diesels, as well. We just need bigger test tanks and all those other things.

About two years ago also, the Mercury Racing organization started to report to me. Mercury Racing is such a tremendous force, both in high-performance as well as in the competition market. We’ve been very fortunate to deliver really good mainstream products and blockbuster racing products, as well. You saw that in Miami with the 350 Verado, the 400R racing and the new 1550 racing sterndrive.

Q: Does it make you nervous when Dusty calls you a “near genius” and talks about how you guys have hit “home run after home run?”

A: (Laughs.) I very much appreciate his comments, but once again, we have a team that is really clicking, and it’s really a lot more about the team than it is me. It’s a tremendous feeling to have a group of people that have been gathering experience and gathering depth, and flexibility and breadth, and cope with whatever is thrown at them. When we decided we were going to do a new sterndrive platform, whether we could do it was never a consideration. We knew we could.

Q: How enjoyable has it been to develop some of these powerful, high-horsepower engines?

A: One of the great things about working in an industry like ours is the people who work on the product are enthusiasts and the people who own the product are enthusiasts, as well. So you’re not engineering something in a detached way. It’s very intimate and engaging.

We try to bring out products that are breakthrough, no matter what we’re doing. The 75- through 115-hp we brought out recently, it may not on the surface seem as glamorous as a 400-hp outboard, but it is the lightest, the quietest, the smallest, the most fuel-efficient outboard in its class. I think everyone gets a kick out of doing something that really makes a difference in whatever segment we’re working with at the time.

You know, we’ve been really engine-focused [during this interview], but some of the biggest breakthroughs, if you like, and influencing technologies have been on the control side — things like joystick piloting, initially for sterndrives, but now for outboards, and Skyhook, the digital anchoring technology.

Q: New-boat sales still being roughly half of what they were in 2007, do some of these innovations help attract people to boating by making it more accessible and easy? Have you seen that component play into moving the dial?

A: Yeah, we’ve seen it happen. You used the word accessible, which I think is a great word. Our job really is to make new technology as accessible as we possibly can. Some of these bigger boats with multiple engines can be a little intimidating when you’re docking or doing those other things, so things like joystick docking can make a huge difference. It can take someone who might be nervous about wanting to buy and own a boat like that to the point of being confident and doing it.

Q: You were named chief technology officer for all of Brunswick. What does that entail?

A: It’s everything, including fitness. It’s a different kind of role. In my Mercury role in product development, engineering and racing, I have direct control over the product development programs. I’m heavily involved in technical decision making, the overall details of both our product portfolio and our individual products. The CTO role that covers Brunswick is much more about: How do we enhance the fundamental capabilities of the whole organization? How do we get the right career development for the technical personnel, the right training so our personnel are familiar with and can implement the next generation of technology? How do we get consistent contemporary product development processes and innovation processes in place throughout the organization? It’s making sure everybody’s aware of what’s going on in other fields, like consumer electronics and the automotive industry, and that we can get access to those latest technologies and are ready and able to implement [them].

Q: There has been a huge push by Brunswick on product development and innovation. There seems to be a pretty aggressive push to re-energize things on a really continuous and quick basis. How hard is it to do that?

A: I think there are a couple of key things about it. When you say that is your strategy, then you have to put behind it all of the necessary resources to be able to deliver it, and that’s what the senior management at Brunswick and Mercury have really done.

Another thing is this culture of innovation and excitement around new product that is being very much cultivated within Brunswick. People want to work on new products because they know how valuable it is and they know how valued it is.

The third thing to think about is we have become very consumer-centric in terms of our deployment of various voice-of-customer techniques. Everything from ethnographic analysis, where we work with people, whether it’s life fitness in gyms, or consumers on boats, we go see what they do. We don’t just listen to what they tell us. We go and see how they’re using our products.

Q: I interviewed Maverick president Scott Deal last month, and I remember him saying that when you invest in R&D for engines you’d better be right because there is a huge upfront investment.

A: Engine development is expensive. It does take a lot of investment. It takes investment on the manufacturing side, whether you’re modifying the manufacturing facility or adding new capabilities. It takes investment in the supply base because we get a lot of procured parts that need to be tooled. And finally, it takes a lot of investment in the engineering resources and expenses associated with that product. You’re always looking at making sure you have a robust business case that delivers return for the company and shareholders. It’s critical that we’re always able to do that.

Q: Can you speak to margins on the engine side? I sometimes hear people grouse about engines driving up the price of boats.

A: It’s a competitive marketplace, and we have strong competitors both on the outboard and the sterndrive side. We price our products competitively. On the cost side, we make tremendous efforts, and I think very successful efforts, to contain our costs.

As boats have gotten bigger, power requirements got somewhat higher, so that does potentially add cost. But I think our job is to … make sure we offer the best value for the money and offer a broad range of alternatives.

Q: Anything new on the catalyzed outboard front?

A: We’ve done some work on the technologies. We continue to protect the space needed for catalysts in our new outboard programs, so if that is a regulated requirement, then we can accommodate the catalysts as best as possible. It’s difficult to say on the timeline because the rule-making process has not even started. It doesn’t appear to be imminent, but on the other hand it is difficult to say what the timing is until there is a rule-making process initiated. What we can do is make outboards extremely clean … but I think the engines are very clean already.

Q: Brunswick’s plan is to have each new boat model be introduced at the same price as, or cheaper than, the model it is replacing. Can you talk about that challenge?

A: There are fairly systematic ways of approaching that. We try to develop systems and components that can be used across a broad range of our models so that economies of scale are helpful in keeping costs down. As an example, I don’t think people appreciate there can be commonality between sterndrives and outboards. We use the same fuel system on the new gasoline sterndrive engine that we use on the 150 outboard, the 75 to 115 outboard, and now on the Verado. So across a range of products that might seem on the surface quite different, we’re able to leverage the development of a completely state-of-the-art fuel system and deploy it across a very broad range of applications. We do a lot of what we call value engineering. Up front in the program, we evaluate many, many alternative ways of designing and developing and delivering particular attributes for products. We go through a very exhausting process to select the one that represents the best value way to deliver the attributes we want.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue.



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