Boat builders on crest of a wave
This summer, a common ritual will be observed at boat ramps up and down the country as thousands of Kiwis back trailers into the water, launch a boat and whizz off for some sea action.
Of all the ways we like to get afloat, getting into a 4-8 metre powerboat is by far the most popular. According to industry estimates there are about 170,000 of these craft out there – a number exceeded only by the flotsam of 250,000 dinghies, kayaks and windsurfers we mess around in and on at weekends.
Those numbers add up to a seriously big local manufacturing sector, by some accounts New Zealand's biggest.
But the businesses making New Zealand such a powerboat powerhouse are not big corporates or offshoots of multinationals. Almost invariably they are family affairs, run by committed, inventive engineering types who love what they do.
Paul Adams is one of them. A Southlander who rolls his "Rs" with the best of them, Adams founded Stabicraft 24 years ago in an Invercargill workshop, where he and colleague Bruce Dickens built their first boat.
Its characteristic design was born in the tough seas of Foveaux Strait, says Adams.
"It was based around a couple of clever fishermen in the local port of Bluff, who had the idea of an aluminium pontoon boat versus a rigid hulled inflatable. [They thought] `This rubber thing, we're always fixing it, it's not durable. Aluminium would solve a lot of the problems'."
Since then Stabicraft has become synonymous with the aluminium pontoon – its snub-nosed, angular boats clearly built for practicality more than looks.
"Some people can call it ugly," says Adams good humouredly. "But there is something about it that's kind of `stealth', that people like. It gives them a sense of confidence I think."
Ugly or not, the concept has helped Stabicraft become one of New Zealand's biggest trailer boat manufacturers. Adams estimates 8-9000 New Zealanders are buzzing about on a Stabicraft, as well as more than 1000 boaties overseas.
But some years have been tough – 2009 in particular, when Stabicraft had to lay off 13 people, reducing its staff to 47.
It was "a very difficult time," says Adams, "but we had to do it only once, and I think we made it as painless as we could for everyone."
But from those depths, business has improved and, at the end of 2011, conditions are looking better than they have for a long time.
Staff numbers are back up to 54 and "this is the first year in four we've seen sales ramp up in the last 12 weeks of the year," says Adams. "Normally in the second half you'd start ramping up and get extremely busy leading into Christmas.
"This year is the first year it's come back to some normality after the [global financial crisis]. So that's quite encouraging. Also we have a reasonably good forward order loading out in the new year as well. So that's nice to come back to after a couple of weeks of well-deserved break."
After peaking at 620 boats a year, Stabicraft is currently producing about two-thirds of that level, but "it's looking brighter".
Among Adams' reasons to be cheerful, his company's 2150 Supercab was named Australian alloy boat of 2011 by Australian Trailerboat Magazine.
"We're pretty happy to take that out over the Australians, of course."
Further north in the Bay of Plenty, Glenn Shaw is also feeling chipper. A dairy farmer and agricultural engineer, Shaw has been turning out aluminium vessels through his company Extreme Boats since 1998.
This year  has been "very good" he says, noting the same Christmas rush as Adams in Invercargill.
"We're about 30 per cent up on last year and we've just had the best December we've ever had, to cap it off."
Based in Whakatane, Extreme makes boats for the keen fisherman and, like Stabicraft, aims for the upper end of the market.
Shaw knows his customers well – they tend to be men, aged 45 to 55, professional, with money ready to spend on their chosen boat. No one has ever taken up his finance option.
"Very rarely do we come across a first-time boat owner," he says.
These experienced customers tend to know what they like. They focus on function, practicality, quality – and Shaw does the same.
Ask him why he thinks sales are up and you get a suitably no-nonsense answer.
"If you got the right product at the right price and put it to market, people will buy it. It's all fairly simple, really, isn't it. People over-complicate it.
"We just enjoy being involved with our customers and become good friends with almost all of them. And we've got very good staff – without them I'd be buggered, of course."
In the past year Extreme has produced about 120 boats and Shaw reckons several thousand Kiwis are going to sea in boats built by his company, as well as increasing numbers of boaties overseas.
Business is so good, in fact, Shaw is building a new factory on an industrial site after years of making boats on the farm.
"At the moment we manufacture on two different sites – manufacture on one site and finish in the other. So this will bring us under one roof and enable us to expand. We could do with another half a dozen boatbuilders at the moment but we simply can't fit them in the workshop."
Like many boat builders, Shaw's business is family owned. He's not sure why so few corporates get involved.
"I don't really know, mate. It's one thing that is very common in the boatbuilding industry. Where the original owner has sold, they've almost all failed or decreased in prominence.
"Once you get established, of course, it's a nice product to be selling and making. It gives a lot of satisfaction."
Two sons look keen to follow in his footsteps.
Compared to other businesses, however, Shaw concedes he has a particular advantage.
"I own a dairy farm. It's probably my biggest strength compared to most of the other guys," he says.
After starting out as an engineer, Shaw went into dairy farming for 15 years.
"We wouldn't have been able to do it without [the farm] to be honest. That's what provided all the capital in the early days, so we're certainly not going to run out of money."
BACK in Invercargill, Adams is mulling how to take his already advanced manufacturing business to the next level – a move that could mean a step away from family ownership.
After working with the NZ Trade & Enterprise programme Better by Design, Stabicraft has some ideas ready to bring to market.
"I think with some of the opportunities ahead of us, there might be some options to look further afield."
If other partners were brought on board it is likely they would be Kiwi organisations. "I think that would be something I'd hold fairly close to my heart," Adams says.
But exporting is not about just being the biggest, "it's also about growing our business for New Zealand.
"We need to play our part in growing our part of the world. And the only way we can really do that is by exporting."
Adams is also a keen supporter of the marine industry's apprenticeship programme, with four on the books and ambitions to take on three a year.
Marine Industry Association executive director Peter Busfield is in no doubt of the programme's significance.
"Without these apprenticeships we wouldn't be building these boats in New Zealand," he says. There is even a specialist trailer powerboat-building qualification – the only one in the world.
All of which adds up to better products for Kiwis heading to the boat ramps this summer.
Total number of boats in NZ: 450-500,000
Trailer powerboats: 170,000
Trailer sailboats: 15,000
Personal watercraft: 10,000
Source: NZ Marine Industry Association
- © Fairfax NZ News
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