A View from Here

Bill's Sisson's weekly Trade Only blog

Survival story: small-shop boatbuilders

The question is this: Why did so few boatbuilders (compared with dealers) go out of business during the recession?

Trade Only associate editor Reagan Haynes does a very good job of unraveling the various reasons builders, or at least their brands, seem to have nine lives. It’s an interesting topic because it speaks, in some ways, to the core of our industry. With notable exceptions, the boatbuilding segment has mostly been made up of hundreds of small businesses. There’s been some consolidation of brands because of the most recent economic shakeout, but most builders still operate small shops — even smaller since the recession.

They got into building boats because that’s what they love to do. The overhead was low, the technology was far from rocket science and when things got slow, you did something else. The small builders I knew repaired boats when they didn’t have an order for a new hull. Others fished commercially during the season and layed up a boat or two in the winter. Some went back and forth between building boats and pounding nails. Boatyards would sometimes build a hull in the offseason to keep the crew on.

There are still plenty of traditional small shops that employ just a handful of workers. The shed or building is usually paid for. The crew is small and flexible — they work when there’s work, building anywhere from one to several models, depending on the number of molds the owner has managed to acquire over the years. In an industry dominated by production boats, they offer “choice” to buyers who wanted something a little different or distinctive.

But successful boatbuilding today employs new technology, designs and materials; production efficiencies; stable supply chains; marketing and distribution; and much more. There is ample room for innovative niche builders, but they usually own their space, embrace the technology of tomorrow and can pivot on a dime. And they sell to an upscale market.

My sense is that things are changing on the typical undercapitalized small-shop front. The heart and soul of these operations is typically one (stubborn) guy with a dream. They’re smart, resourceful characters, jacks of all trades.

In truth, some are probably stuck — it’s not easy to reinvent yourself when you’re north of 50. Regardless, they build smart, seaworthy boats for their home waters, which they know well. Some turn out boats that are plain-Jane. Others are works of art. But they are known for time-tested boats, not new models, and that limits their growth.

These builders are starting to age out and, when they’re gone it’s unclear, probably unlikely, that there will be an able young person standing there, anxious to take over. If the tooling is in decent shape and the models have even a very modest following, someone will likely pick them up. Or not.

A chapter is probably closing.


4 comments on “Survival story: small-shop boatbuilders

  1. Dean Waite

    The one thing in life that is guaranteed is that change is inevitable. Walking through the aisles in Miami last week, there seems to be no shortage of people who still have the dream. Boats have never been as beautiful, functional and safe. New technology will push them more effectively into younger hands at the helms.

  2. Anthony Cavallo

    I think that any small boat builder or any boat & moter dealer would be able to start to repair the boats that they made, then sold and should offer a customer the right to have there boat put back into as new condition, and save $ because they don’t have to buy a new boat at many more $ than having there old boat restored, watch the trend is already starting, Baha,Fountain, have aready started to offer there customers the oppshion.

    Thank You Anthony

  3. John Page Williams

    Interesting thoughts, Bill, especially your comment about (stubborn).

    They bring to mind several yards, though, with relatively young folks embracing and synthesizing the past and the future. Two are Downeast: Jamie and Joe Lowell’s Even Keel Marine Specialties in Yarmouth, ME (www.lowellbrothers.com) and Stewart and Alice Workman’s SW Boatworks in Lamoine, ME (www.swboatworks.com). Three more are here on the Chesapeake: Martin & Lewis Hardy at Composite Yacht in Trappe, MD (www.compositeyacht.biz), Bill Judge at Judge Yachts in Denton, MD (www.judgeyachts.com, and Pete Mathews at Mathews Bros, also in Denton (www.mathewsboats.com).

    I hope for the sake of the craft that folks like them continue to survive and even propser.

    Best regards, John Page

  4. loren schweizer

    A very thoughtful piece, Bill, thank you.

    I would add, however, that over the past forty years, there have even been some large production-boat builders who managed through flexibility, smarts, and sheer guts to weather the economic malaises such as the Jersey boatbuilders like the Healeys and the Leeks, Viking and Ocean, who lived to fight another day.

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