Products durable enough for the Navy SEALs separate Latham Marine from your typical mom-and-pop
Tucked into a warehouse district just north of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, Latham Marine looks like just another of the mom-and-pop shops that come and go with the ebb and flow of business in this city’s marine districts.
Bob and Kathy Latham’s storefront is functional and unassuming — nothing fancy, just the business name painted in big black letters across the facade of an otherwise faceless white, one-story building. But the Lathams have been here 27 years. Latham Marine has been manufacturing “bulletproof” marine hardware and high-performance steering and tie-bar systems for four decades. They are celebrating their 40th year in business in 2013. If longevity is a sign of success, the couple have indeed been very successful.
The Navy SEALs are customers. Latham Marine has built steering systems for their small boats for 30 years. Bob Latham picks up a precision-built aluminum water pump that he now builds for one of the SEALs’ boats. Its parts are not cast; they are milled from solid aluminum bars called billets. After milling, the aluminum is polished and anodized to create a hard shell that resists corrosion. “Billet pieces are always better than cast pieces,” Latham says. Cast parts carry tiny surface voids that invite corrosion and, ultimately, failure. “You can’t afford failures on the military side,” he says.
Latham Marine offers that same commitment to reliability on the pleasure boat side. Dave Scott’s 50-foot Bud Light catamaran won a world powerboat championship with a custom-built Latham strut anchoring its rudder. Latham supplies steering for boats that range from single-engine outboards to 130-foot yachts. Starting as a raceboat rigger, he built steering assemblies for what were then blazingly fast 60-mph boats. His engineers now routinely design steering for 200-mph boats and they have built one for a 300-mph experimental racer. The first of Seven Marine’s beefy 557-hp outboards came with Latham steering.
The Lathams’ motto, immortalized in an ad picturing Roger Hanks’ Cigarette with its bow stuck in the side of a Hatteras after the raceboat slid off course in a turn: “If it doesn’t have good brakes, it better have good steering.”
At today’s high-performance speeds, the loads on a steering system are “astronomical,” Latham says. His shop’s strength has been designing and building systems to withstand the loads as the speeds have ratcheted up.
Heart of the business
Back in Latham Marine’s sprawling warren of offices and shops are the pillars of its operation: the design office, where two engineers design parts with CAD/CAM software, and the manufacturing shop, where technicians fabricate metal parts — mostly stainless steel, some brass — on a CNC robotic lathe and a robotic mill, precision machinery that costs millions. The computer-guided machine centers have 40 tools for drilling, cutting and grinding the metal parts to a tolerance of 35/1,000,000 of an inch.
Latham says the creation of a part begins on the computer with a concept, which evolves through computer-aided design into detailed three-dimensional computerized drawings of a finished part. Using the CAD software, “We can draw it [a part and the whole assembly], animate it and do a finite analysis on the system to find its weak points,” Latham says. The software applies different loads to a part or to a system and shows where and at what loads the material will yield. “It gives you some idea of what your design will do.”
The design process lasts a couple of months and ends with translating the computer drawings into computer instructions for the robotic lathe and mill, which make the parts. Rounding out the Lathams’ arsenal of technology is a plasma cutter that generates an electric arc for cutting sheets of stainless steel as thick as 2 inches — again from computer instructions.
As important as all this technology is, it still is the human mind — Bob Latham’s, to be precise — that figures out engineering solutions to engineering problems. “I have based a 40-year career on building the better mousetrap,” Latham says. He designs and builds his systems with the idea that customers will have to pay more for a Latham product, but they won’t have to worry about it failing. “I build it like it was meant for my boat,” he says.
Besides doing highly specialized custom work, Latham Marine makes 3,000 marine parts — hydraulic cylinders, outboard and sterndrive mounting plates, tie bars and assemblies, bolts and hinges, steering wheels, trim switches, sea strainers, spacer kits for MerCruiser Bravo drives, throttle controls. The company has built 22,000 steering cylinders in its lifetime.
Latham’s latest project is a lift for launching a PWC, RIB or dinghy off a yacht. Latham has made a patented hydraulic lift for Formula for seven years. Now its lifts are available for other boats as well. Designed with all hydraulic hoses and fittings inside the cylinder, the system is corrosion-resistant and minimizes the chance of hydraulic fluid leak, Latham says. His crew of about 20 designs, machines and builds the entire system in-house.
A couple and a team
The Lathams have worked as a team since the company opened — Bob, 61, overseeing the manufacturing, and Kathy, a few years younger, running the office, keeping the books, doing marketing and sales. “Everything except manufacture the parts,” she says. It is a division of labor that has worked well over the years.
“She’s strong in areas that I’m weak in and I’m strong in areas she’s weak in,” Latham says. “As a team, we’re very well-rounded. We work very well together.”
Largely self-taught, Bob Latham started in 1973 as a marine mechanic working out of a mobile workshop that did a lot of the drivetrain and engine work for powerboat racers. “I rigged boats from scratch,” he says.
Tormented as a child by a stutter that still surfaces in an interview, Latham was tagged early in life as a slow learner, Kathy says, so he started working with his hands. “I always had an aptitude for understanding electrical and mechanical things,” he says.
His father, a broadcast engineer at Miami’s Channel 10 news, would take him to the office as a 10-, 11- and 12-year-old to help build master control panels, wire electronic equipment and bring broadcast towers online. “I got exposed to a lot of different things early,” he says. “It gave me the impression that anything’s possible. If you really want to accomplish it, who’s going to stop you? Only you.”
As a teen, he helped his dad build the family boat — a small wooden Chris-Craft kit boat that they used to water-ski on the Intracoastal Waterway. He also tinkered with cars and was widely admired among his peers for souping up one of the hottest VWs in town. His mechanical acumen caught the eye of a friend’s father, a yacht broker who put him to work on some of his clients’ powerboats, and Latham got hooked on fixing boats.
In 1973, he started his own repair and rigging business. Three years later — the year he met Kathy — he started racing powerboats and continued to race for about 15 years. “I was always on the throttles,” he says. In 1981, he won a world championship racing the 32-foot Cobra Man of War in the modified class and finished his racing career in 1989 throttling Chris Lavin’s Superboat Jesse James.
Kathy, a Miami native, high school cheerleader and premed student at the University of Florida when she met her future husband in 1976, describes Latham as the “mad engineer” who would give away the candy store — if she let him — to do R&D on his next big project. “He needs a governor,” she says.
Latham agrees. “She’s got the checkbook, so she’s got the last say.”
Kathy attributes their success to Latham’s genius for problem-solving, his smart engineering and precision manufacturing, and her conservative approach to running the business. “What you see within these walls, we own it,” she says. “We try never to put ourselves in debt.”
Many high-performance boatbuilders closed their doors in the recession, but the aftermarket niche the Lathams are in — that they helped create — is resilient. It’s not a mass market, but it has a foothold in a lot of markets. Latham Marine builds for racers and day cruisers, for the military and the Department of Homeland Security, small boats and big ones, modest power packages and enormous ones, custom builders and production builders. “It’s not one area that keeps the doors open,” Bob Latham says. It’s [supplying] something here, something there.”
The Lathams always keep an eye out for opportunity. When they bought their first robotic parts-maker, Latham found the cooling system under-pressurized, so he designed his own and now markets it to the machine-tool industry.
He says that whatever he makes, he tries to make it exactly right, as if it were going on his own boat. “We have maybe five complaints a year,” Kathy says. “And that’s usually because people don’t take time to read the instructions.”
This article originally appeared in the February 2013 issue.