When Henry Keene bought Massachusetts-based Edson International in 1956, the company was almost 100 years old. His sons Will and Hank grew up learning the ropes while sailing on boats their family built. When the brothers wanted their own sailboat, the family built it together.
That upbringing laid the groundwork for Will Keene to spend almost 30 years as Edson CEO — enough time, he says, to risk making the 160-year-old company stale. So Keene handpicked his successor: 31-year-old Adam Cove, the son of a general contractor. Cove moved through the ranks from marketing manager to engineering vice president to CEO about two years ago.
After more than a century and a half, Edson is still navigating market fluctuations. “At one point we were a sailboat equipment manufacturer that also does pumps; now we’re seeing a more balanced mix in sailboat equipment, pump equipment and powerboat equipment,” Cove says. “We’ve experienced rapid growth on the powerboat side, but the sailboat side is coming back, and there’s also a lot of growth on the refit side.”
As chairman, Keene spends his days talking customers through complicated steering problems. “People ask me where my latest adventure is taking me,” he says. “My dock lines are still tied to my desk. It’s my job to keep other people sailing.”
We sat down with Keene and Cove to learn about Edson’s history, its unique position in the market and where it is going next.
What are your professional backgrounds, and what brought you to Edson?
Keene: I wanted to be a banker, so I did an internship and found out quickly I did not want to be a banker. I got a job at Cape Dory Yachts after college, in the quality-control program. That taught me a lot, from resin analysis to a dealer-commission checklist and inventory control. I reported directly to Andy Vavolotis, the owner and founder of Cape Dory. He was instrumental in pushing me along. We had a family rule where you had to work for somebody else for five years before you could even send a resumé to Edson. I was asked if I wanted to join after five years, so I sent a resumé and got the job. Coming in as the son of the boss is not easy.
I’ve been here 40 years, and I have the title of chairman, but it’s really customer service. Because of the experience I’ve had designing steering systems for production and custom boatbuilders around the world, I can help customers understand exactly what they need to tackle the steering systems on their boats. It’s rare for an owner of a company to give his personal cellphone number out as a 24/7/365 help line. I encourage people to use it on a Saturday because that might mean sailing on Sunday. If they wait until Monday, they’ve lost a weekend. The long-term future of the Edson Corp. is, I think, going to be built on that foundation.
Cove: I graduated from University of Michigan with a degree in naval architecture and marine engineering. I earned my MBA from Salve Regina University in Newport. I’ve worked as a rigger, sailmaker, boatbuilder and naval architect — a diversified skill set that has helped me out here at Edson. It’s offered an opportunity to incorporate hands-on work while tackling manufacturing and design challenges. It’s challenging for me to sit still all day.
Will, what made you step away from the CEO role?
Keene: Every company needs succession planning. I’m getting older, and it seems to be happening faster than I expected. You’ll never know if a succession plan is going to work unless you employ the plan. I wanted to make sure that the plan worked while I was still, shall we say, on the younger side. I didn’t want to wait until I was 75. The plan also led to me stepping back, not going away.
When Adam and I first talked about him working here, we had an opening in marketing and Web orientation. I called Adam to see if he knew of someone who would be interested in it, hoping he would ask if he could apply. Our thought was that Adam would come into that department, learn it, train a successor, move on to another department, learn it, train another successor, and keep going through the company so he knew each job himself and could hire and train his replacement. In his role as CEO, the more he knows about the internal operations of each department, the better job he’d do. That’s proven to be true.
Adam, what’s it like to be such a young CEO?
Cove: When I took the role of CEO, I was 28 years old, but I never have let age be a determining factor for anything. I’m more critical and demanding of myself than anyone else. If I had to pause and think about age, I’d say it’s a fantastic opportunity to change the status quo in our industry. Younger individuals are cycling in.
Past accomplishments are great, but it’s really about the future, which resides in being a premium manufacturer of recreational equipment, as well as our industrial pump line. We have stepped up our product development efforts and continue to dial in our product quality, which has always been exceptional. We have also set the highest bar for customer service. That is such a critical part of our company’s culture. We want to be able to see customers get back on the water. This all equates to expansion to fields where we don’t currently reside, with the goal of making adventures happen with our customers.
Was taking over as CEO intimidating?
Cove: Respect is something that has to be earned. It can’t just be taken. Some people I had interacted with in the past were appreciative of my skill set. With others, I had to gain that respect over time and by remaining modest. I do a fair amount of listening. People recognize how well it works to take opinions of people who have much more experience than me and synthesize those to form a plan going forward.
Keene: The other part is, Adam took over for somebody that had been CEO for 28 years. That’s a long time to be CEO, and I think the change was welcomed by everybody. He’s got more energy than I do. He’s smarter than I am and has talent in many more areas than I do. When I got the role of CEO at 35 years old, people said I was too young. That didn’t bother me. You have to go do your job. It was at a time when it was unusual to see a 35-year-old because the generational change was happening in the industry. We’re just going through another generational change.
Do you think the pace of technology opens up opportunities for young people?
Keene: No question about it. It’s harder for us older guys to learn the latest technology than the younger generation brought up with it. That was an important part of the consideration, too. A lot of us in my generation have a hard time staying up to speed.
How did it feel stepping aside?
Keene: When my brother and I bought this company from my father, he would call to say there was no way some new product was going to be successful. I told him he didn’t need to tell us what he thought if it wasn’t positive. So I’ve taken a back seat. If Adam’s going to be CEO, he’s not only going to have the responsibility; he’s going to have the authority. If Adam and I agreed on everything, why make the change? We have a board of advisors specifically because the old CEO doesn’t necessarily agree with everything the new guy is doing. Adam’s done a fabulous job making the company healthier in many ways.
Cove: We need to have a mix of experiences at this company. We need a certain amount of energy, but we also need a certain amount of wisdom. We’re in the transition period in a number of areas right now, with veterans stepping down and new people stepping in, so we are thankful for the amount of documentation that has been done. We keep files on every boat we’ve ever worked on — thousands of boats — that we can access.
How has Edson adapted to changes over so many years?
Cove: The only way to survive 160 years is having a strong ability to adapt and innovate. Jacob Edson instilled that in the company when he founded it in 1859, and we still have that spirit today. We are constantly looking at markets and how they’re changing, and our offering of powerboat products has expanded rapidly the last few years. We’ll continue with that while innovating on the sailboat side.
Keene: The company has always had to react to changes. In World War I, we did powerboats; back in the early 1900s, we worked with commercial fishing in Gloucester, Massachusetts, with pumps and worm-gear steering systems. In the last 12 months, we’ve repaired more worm-gear steering systems that were anywhere from 50 to 110 years old. Recently, someone asked if we could fix the original steering system on his boat built in 1907. There was a foundry fire, so we didn’t have the parts to fix it, but we said, “At least you can come to the company that originally made it 110 years ago.”
The only reason you didn’t have the 110-year-old part was because of a fire?
Keene: Sometimes it’s satisfying to say you can’t service a product you made 110 years ago because you don’t have the prints anymore due to a fire. When we can’t support a product for whatever reason, it forces a customer to modernize their vessel, which makes it more valuable. The customer with the 110-year-old boat called and said sailing his boat is totally different after we replaced the steering system, and I said, “It should be after 110 years.” It’s great that we have the history and that foundation, and you can build on that foundation, but you can’t stagnate and stay in the same space. You always have to be moving.
How do you innovate while preserving the Edson legacy?
Cove: We get ideas from our customers and our experiences, and set targets for new projects, but we don’t try to force a specific number of products into the market. It’s important we remain flexible because often our ideas can be a little outside the box, but that’s expected of Edson.
What kind of international presence does Edson have?
Cove: Edson has been international since it first started. We recently returned from Metstrade in Amsterdam, where we’re focused on fully custom superyacht steering systems.
Keene: Our U.S. customers don’t even see that because there are no superyacht builders here. Our custom series is at the 150- to 225-foot range, and that typically happens in the European arena.
Cove: The majority of our custom market is on the sailboat side, primarily superyacht steering systems. However, we also do fittings and components for local boatbuilders. We’re doing custom work on the powerboat side, as well, typically steering wheels, radar towers and struts.
There are areas at the top end of the market that aren’t quite the right fit for us, but other areas that make more sense for us; we are seeing 20 percent growth in some of those areas on the powerboat side.
How do you approach a project like Royal Huisman’s 190-foot sailing yacht Ngoni?
Cove: When someone comes to Edson for steering systems on these boats, they are true sailors. They want to enjoy sailing a superyacht as much as sailing a daysailer. The reports we’ve received on this project have been fantastic.
Keene: The projects we’ve done over the last 20 years, those boats are still out sailing with our equipment, and the equipment is performing up to spec. It has been an area for us to spread our wings into things we don’t do on a day-to-day basis. At the custom level, we try to see where we can downsize that experience. Instead of being exclusively set up for a 150-footer, can we bring it down to the 60- to 75-foot range. Those are things we look at in new market opportunities.
Cove: In recent history, we have steered boats up to 220 feet in length purely mechanically. We are working on some products now, shown to limited people, who could be quoted as saying “game changer.” We’ll see that coming out this year and the years to come. It will make a tremendous difference on these larger vessels on mechanical steering, something that has not been seen before.
Where do you see a rebound in sailing?
Cove: The best example is a customer that’s been with us for a long time, U.S. sailboat manufacturer Catalina Yachts. Their new 425 has done exceptionally well, and so are the number of steering systems we’re selling them. They’re coming out with a 525 because the market is asking for it. We’ve seen increases in steering-system orders with other U.S. builders that we haven’t seen in some time. And although you can’t quantify it, the level of passion around sailing has increased. It’s amazing what that can do for the market.
Keene: Adam and I are in the continual process of upgrading rescued boats. Adam’s got a sailboat, and I’ve got a 1985 Grand Banks 42; almost everything has been replaced. That’s an opportunity for people with limited boating budgets to get into the sport. I’d rather see an older boat rehabilitated than being cut up, because it is an opportunity for a young family to be on the water.
Edson has taken a big role in the New Bedford Whaling Museum. What are your other advocacy efforts?
Keene: I’ve spent time in Washington for the Clean Vessel Act and testified in front of Congress. I went numerous times to write standards for a pumpout rule to make it a free service or less than $5; there was tremendous reluctance on the part of boatyards. We created the Engine Green Team, got retail customers to tell boatyards they want to keep water clean, and made sure it was in the news every month. At boat shows, we gave away canvas bags to people who took the Green Team pledge, which meant you were going to encourage boatyards to have pumpout stations. I was part of an NMMA marina committee and suggested we have an award for cleanest marina; that’s still going today. I take a tremendous amount of pride in that. As you mentioned, I’m on the advisory committee at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and as I spend less time at Edson, I’ll spend more time there because it is my passion. It’s one of our cultural cornerstones in Massachusetts.
Cove: We help sponsor the Whaling Museum’s Sailors’ Series. We also take on co-op students from the local vocational tech high school and have seats on its advisory board. Both of us teach safety at sea seminars, which is a nice way to give back to the sailing community. We have a customer that we’re quite passionate about called the Center for Coastal Studies based out of Provincetown, Massachusetts. We build equipment for them to rescue marine wildlife.
Keene: That ranges from dolphin carts to rescuing stranded dolphins off the beaches to cutting lines off whales and turtles. These extendable poles with sharp blades allow rescuers to stay at a distance and not stress the entangled whale even more. It allows the blade to go down the back of the whale without cutting it. The blade is so sharp it cuts through old, dead polypropylene like a hot knife through butter. We didn’t design it, but we helped improve the design. They sell this gear around the world. It’s going to groups trying to save mammals and turtles so they can be brought back to health and returned to the ocean.
This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.