Despite being a leading engine maker in the sailboat market, with a string of recent investments and acquisitions, Yanmar Marine has traditionally kept a low profile. That has been changing in the past two years as the Japanese manufacturer of marine engines, thrusters and maneuvering systems, diesel outboards and, most recently, automatic docking systems moves from being a “product-focused” company to one that is more “market-driven.”
Yanmar may be one of the boating industry’s best-kept secrets. Its parent, Yanmar Co. Ltd., is Japan’s largest family-owned company, with annual revenues approaching $7 billion. It has about 18,000 employees globally in its six business units, which include agricultural equipment, industrial engines, construction equipment and, of course, commercial and recreational marine engines. It has more than 100 subsidiaries globally.
“The marine unit is a bit different than the other divisions,” Shiori Nagata, president of Yanmar Marine, told Trade Only Today during a recent visit to Mastry Engine Center, a Yanmar subsidiary in St. Petersburg, Fla. “We’re involved with many different projects across the boating industry and have been expanding this division over the last few years. We see many opportunities these days.”
Nagata, in fact, has been leading a cultural change at Yanmar since she was named president four years ago. One of the first major changes was to move Yanmar Marine’s headquarters from its longtime headquarters in Osaka, Japan, to Almere, a town about 25 miles outside of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Nagata visited Mastry a few days before the Miami boat shows with several of her European executives.
Nagata, who worked for Deloitte as a division manager of corporate strategy and then for private-equity fund Unison Capital, has been quietly reorganizing Yanmar’s global marine division. When she took over the position, she said her job was to double Yanmar’s marine sales and establish the brand globally. One of the primary focuses, she said, was the U.S. market.
“My challenge is to ensure that we leverage our standing in the market by getting up closer to the needs of our OEM and end-user customers so that we’re ahead of the curve as new market trends develop,” she said at the time.
Since then, the company has made some interesting acquisitions and investments. It is now an official marine supplier to the America’s Cup, has launched the Yanmar Racing Team and is a sponsor of the Red Bull Foiling Generation series. It also will sponsor the Yanmar Cup in the Netherlands in June, part of a Dragon Cup sailboat racing series.
Nagata says Yanmar president Takehito Yamaoka, chief of all Yanmar global operations, is a “very enthusiastic sailor,” which gave the sponsorships backing from the highest corporate levels.
But the sponsorships are designed to promote its sailboat engines. “We have a very high share in that market,” Nagata said. “We’ve been very traditional about marketing our products in the past, which means we really didn’t optimize our brand value. These sponsorships will give our brands much more visibility across the market and increase the brand value in other segments.”
Yanmar Marine has been increasing its social media presence as a marketing tool, attempting to reach the different demographics of sailors who follow the America’s Cup, Red Bull series and the new Dragon Boat series.
Kevin Carlan, Mastry president and area manager for North America and South America, said Yanmar has been impacted by the growth of the outboard segment, like every other inboard manufacturer. But he added that Yanmar’s diesel sterndrive line has seen growth in segments like yacht tenders.
“We’ve solved some of the challenges with sterndrives,” Carlan said. “We’ve added innovations like smoother clutches and the ability to trim the drive higher. The fact that they’re diesel also makes them popular with larger yachts governed under the IMO rules.”
One of Yanmar’s more interesting investments was in Neander, a German manufacturer of diesel outboards. Yanmar became a minority shareholder several years ago. Neander recently launched its 50-hp Neander D-Torque, manufactured in Austria, but not yet approved for sale in the U.S. by the EPA. Yanmar says its performance surpasses 70-hp 4-stroke gasoline outboards. “It incorporates unique technology with very little noise or vibration,” Carlan said. “We see it for recreational but also the commercial market, like barges and crew boats.” As it grows, the D-Torque horsepower offerings will go higher and lower than the 50-hp model.
“We’ve been moving towards becoming a systems provider,” Nagata said. “We have our propulsion systems and have been steadily launching new engines and drives across different categories. We also own marine equipment providers like Vetus, Maxwell and Flexofold, a propeller manufacturer in Denmark. We will continue to make acquisitions as they make sense for our plan to offer more systems packages.”
Yanmar also made a strategic investment in GetMyBoat, a San Francisco-based peer-to-peer operator with 108,000 listings in 184 countries. “Boat sharing has huge potential to engage new audiences with boating and to grow the industry,” Nagata said after the 2018 acquisition. “As part of our search for the most innovative on-demand sharing-economy platform, GetMyBoat, the world’s largest and fastest growing marketplace for boat rentals and water experiences, was clearly our partner-of-choice.”
While an engine builder investing in a peer-to-peer business might sound counterintuitive, Nagata said it serves a necessary purpose. “As an engine builder, we are several steps away from the real consumer using boats,” she said. “This helps us get next to the customers so we know how they think and how they will use the boat. That knowledge helps us provide what is needed in the market. It provides data points like what type of boat is the most popular and what trends are emerging. It is essential that we keep on top of those trends.”
Yanmar also recently announced that it is developing automatic docking. It developed a robotic boat in Japan operated as an autonomous surface vehicle, with piloting technology that has been converted into an auto-docking program. “This technology can be integrated into Yanmar vessels to reduce the hassle of docking and make boating a more enjoyable experience,” the company said in a statement.
“Improving the experience is one of our main goals,” Nagata said. “Our focus is to modernize our products to make boating more convenient for our customers.”