Too Many Builders?

Recently, another independent builder of small fishing boats was bought up by boat building giant Brunswick. While this was probably a good deal for the people who founded this company, I wonder if it is really good for boat buyers and the boating industry. I'll be the first one to admit that shopping for a new small boat can be daunting, what with all the choices out there (especially as so many of them seem to be copies of each other). But, is that not better than the alternative, few choices?

The auto industry went through this many years ago. We have gotten use to having a relatively small number of car companies to buy from, but in the early days of the auto industry, there were hundreds of car companies. There is a certain charm to the boat business in having so many mom and pop shops building boats. These shops are generally run by people who could do other things (and make more money), but they choose to build boats because they enjoy it for one reason or another. Those of us who have been in this business for a long time attribute this to some sort of birth defect or mental disease, myself included!

If you want a car that is different than the one you can buy from Ford, Chevy, Toyota or BMW, you have to first buy the stock car and then take it to a shop and have it customized. You could do it yourself, but as complex as new cars have become, you would need degrees in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering. Then you may not be able to get insurance and will have voided your warranty because you modified the car from its stock configuration. Even with the above problems, car customizing is a multi-billion dollar business just in America. This says to me that there is still a need for cars other than what is commonly available in your local showroom.

Contrast this with the marine industry. There are hundreds of builders, building many different types of vessels, small to large, high volume and one of a kind. If all this choice isn't enough, you can still customize or go for a custom designed and built vessel. Many still build their own boats in their backyards. You better have extremely deep pockets if you want to build a custom car from scratch!

Even with all these builders, it still seems we have lost a little of the personality that the business used to have when boats were predominately built of wood. Nearly every seaside town had a local builder who could build a boat specifically for you that was well suited to your immediate boating area. Thus the reason for so many regional designs that were seen in one area of the country, but not in others. This was also good for the designers, as boats were far more likely to be one of a kind, rather than production line boats.

I guess my fear is that the business will consolidate to the point where there are only a few large builders. If you wanted to be a boat designer, you would have to work for one of the big corporations or design parts of mega-yachts. There would be very little opportunity to design boats any other way. This is what has happened to the car industry where visionaries like Colin Chapman, Ferdinand Porsche and Sir Alec Issigonis have been replaced by design teams and focus groups. I can't think of any classic car that was designed by a committee! Small boats are still designed mostly by a single designer, although that is starting to change. I have been working with another designer recently whose expertise is creating surfaced CAD models. Although I have the software to do this now, it will be a while before I have become proficient enough using it to feel comfortable sending a file out to a plug cutter.

I'll try not to complain too loudly next time I go to a boat show and can't tell one boat from another. Things could be worse, we could go to a boat show and have our choice of the three 20' center consoles on the market, what color you want being the toughest decision. That being said, I'd still love to see some more of the small builders take a chance on building something unique and out of the ordinary. We know the big guys won't take any chances, they have too much overhead to cover. So, do we have too many builders? In some ways I don't think we have enough!

Timm Smith
February 12, 2005