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He’s been called Irv The Liquidator, but Irwin Jacobs is reinvesting heavily in the global marine industry and the rebound is underway, he tells DAVID LOCKWOOD in an exclusive <i>Trade-a-Boat</i> interview


News travels fast in this world. Irwin Jacobs (69) is on the phone from Minneapolis, Minnesota, where the temperature is -13°C. Of course, the climate for the global marine industry has been just as frosty. But Irwin says things are hotting up. And, as one of the great entrepreneurs of the marine industry, he should know.

Irwin bought his first boat company in 1978, fibreglass yard Larson, and thereafter began collecting boat badges as though model cars. Genmar Holdings was formed and it acquired Four Winns, SeaSwirl and Stratos boats in 2000 after American giant Outboard Marine Corporation filed for bankruptcy.

In October 2001, Genmar sold Hatteras Yachts to Brunswick for $US115 million (a good deal, indeed). Meantime, Jacob’s corporate raids and business acumen had netted enough brands for it to become the world’s second-biggest boatbuilder.

At one point, Genmar’s portfolio included Aquasport, Carver, Crestliner, Glastron (built using Jacob’s patented VEC process), Larson, Logic Marine, Lund, Ranger, Trojan, Wellcraft, Four Winns, Hydra-Sports, Javelin, Lowe, Seaswirl, and Stratos.

In the 2007 model year, Genmar reported sales of about $US1 billion. Australia was among the growing markets.

American-born New Zealander, Peter Rachtman, who was regional sales manager for Genmar for many years, recently told Trade-a-Boat that Genmar shipped $US27 million in boats to Australia in one bumper year.

We remember the 2007 Sanctuary Cove International Boat Show, with a record 456 exhibitors, and wall-to-wall American boat-company presidents. We shook many hands. But would it last?

The National Marine Manufacturers Association said sales of new boats fell 30 per cent in 2008 and another 20 per cent the following year. Meantime, the banks put the clamps on Genmar’s credit lines and made life untenable just weeks after Jacobs and partner John Paul DeJoria (worth $US4 billion according to Forbes) ploughed $US40 million of personal wealth back into the business.

In June 2009, CEO Jacobs announced Genmar was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Six-months later, a Minneapolis bankruptcy court approved the sale of Genmar Holdings. Jacobs, with backing from DeJoria, bought back the farm — the Genmar boatbuilding plant in Little Falls, Minnesota, its VEC technology, then Larson, Fincraft (entry-level flat-water fishing boats priced to beat alloy craft), Triumph (tough trailerable offshore boats) and Sea Swirl (offshore trailerable fishboats).

We’ll leave the reporting of these latter three brands to our sister magazine TrailerBoat and use this space to deliver the big news about the big boats: Larson, Carver, and Marquis. History lesson over. Read on.

Trade-a-Boat tested plenty of Larson sportscruisers during those heady days. Turning 100 years in 2013, Larson is apparently the world’s oldest fibreglass boatbuilder. But Jacobs is quick to point out that he has retooled in the past seven months with three new cruisers and 10 additional smaller models.

Few builders in America are retooling right now, let alone 13 boats in seven months, and Jacobs thinks he has the jump. His new Larson cruisers are modelled the Cabrio 777, Cabrio 857 and Cabrio 927. Thus, the Cabrio name has been kept alive.

"For the first time in two or three years we’re starting to see some positive signs," said Jacobs.

"I don’t want to exaggerate, say it’s euphoria and we’re back, but the worst is behind us, we’re starting to see good crowds at the boat shows — dealer inventories are obviously way down — but people are starting to buy boats at retail.

"We retooled Larson and did something — I’ve been in the business for 35 years — that I don’t think I’ve seen done. In just seven months we tooled, built and started shipping a brand-new line of cruisers: the 25, 28 and 31. That’s the sweet spot for the market today," Jacobs enthuses.

How does this compare to the sweet spot five years ago? "People aren’t buying the larger ones like they were. They’re downsizing and starting out smaller. It’s a financial decision. But we’re getting them out there and we expect 100 orders for the three new boats from our dealers," Jacobs told us.

"We have signed up 104 dealers in the last six months. That’s over and above what we had. The other thing that we’ve done that’s worked very well is retool our smaller boats, everything from 17-foot and up. The entry-level boating market, I think, is going to come back. And there’s not a lot of people paying attention to it ’cause they always want to sell bigger boats," he says.

Jacobs says the big features of his new Larson cruisers are lively interiors, more space, greater windows — "everyone likes to see sunshine in their boat" — and more contemporary finishes. "Every inch of these new boats is well defined," he explains. "When you get on a 31-foot boat you’re going to swear it’s a 34-footer."

Being able to come out with orders for 100 cruisers after all this is quite remarkable, boasts Jacobs. "What I’ve done is try and create a selection and diversity among the Larson line that gives it an all-things-to-all-people appeal," Irwin says, adding that he’s now keen to get customers back to his fold.

The new Larson cruisers are MerCruiser powered but Irwin doesn’t feel high fuel prices will alter that. His research says boaters put up with high fuel prices by altering their habits, perhaps sitting at anchor more and using their boats as floating lifestyle stages.

"People don’t run their boats as much but park them more," he says, "taking them to an island or anchorage and using them more as a party boat than as a cruising boat."

Local Larson dealers include Cunningham's Marine in Clontarf, Queensland; Good Times Marine at Taren Point, Sydney; and Sports Marine in Bunbury, WA, which has the new Larson sportscruisers on order. Watch this space.

Carver has gained a toehold in Australian waters but of all the American boat brands they are perhaps the most parochial. Their big-interior layouts are exceedingly popular in cold-climate countries and boating regions like Canada, but the styling tradeoffs don’t appeal to that many Down Under boaters.

That said, Carver is kicking goals on the North American stage and, well, your mileage or tastes may be parallel. Irwin says he just retooled at Carver, too, with a new 36, 38, 41, and 44. "We’re getting very, very good reception to them," he says. "I feel we’re going to have a much quicker recovery with these boats than the smaller cruisers."

The Australian dealer for Carver is Sydney Powerboat Centre, 97 Darley Street, Mona Vale, NSW, 2103. Phone: (02) 9997 7797.

The Marquis line-up from 42ft to 72ft is something else again. The semi-custom range of sportscoupes, sports(fly)bridge and yacht-type cruisers has Italianate styling from superyacht studio Nuvolari-Lenard, which is famous for its world-beating designs.

"We’re knocking ’em dead with Marquis. We’ve got so much new stuff coming out: we’ve got a new 63, a new 72 a new 42 Sport Bridge we’ve just unveiled at the Toronto Boat Show as a home run… we’re extremely pleased with our Marquis line," Irwin says. "We’ll go toe-to-toe with anyone, we’re very forward thinking."

With oversized oval portlights, designer lines and contrasting finishes, the Marquis have real wow factor. We were given a sneak preview or virtual tour of the new 500 Sport Coupe and 720 Fly Bridge and feel the Marquis have the greatest potential to crack it on discerning waterways such as Sydney Harbour.

"When you look at the Marquis line, that’s a special customer. Our international business has been very strong. We’re shipping five yachts a month right now but we expect to move that right up. We have 20 yachts in construction," says an upbeat Jacobs, who’s vowed to keep a cap on his boat stable this time around.

"We’re up to 700 staff and hiring again. I will never say never but it’s not highly likely (I will get more brands). We’re going to develop our existing companies and service the people with the products we have," he says.

Marquis is being handled locally by Sydney Powerboat Centre, details above under Carver.

Photos: Irwin Jacobs; Maquis 500 Sport Coupe; Larson Cabrio 857 (overhead & profile).


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