EXCLUSIVE - Defying gravity

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Times might be tough in the USA, but Chris-Craft is cheerfully bucking the trend. <I>Trade-a-Boat’</I>s GUY ALLEN took up an exclusive invitation to the international dealer conference and 2012 model launch in Florida to find out more…

EXCLUSIVE - Defying gravity
EXCLUSIVE — Defying gravity

Can water flow uphill? Spend a bit of time with Chris-Craft CEO and part-owner Stephen Heese and you’ll start to believe it just might be possible. Unlike many in America’s corporate world, he’s got a smile on his face and reckons things are looking up.

We spent a couple of days with the company at its recent dealer conference and model launch in Sarasota, Florida, gaining a unique insight into what makes this historic brand tick.

Five new models were featured at the event. They were the:

* Limited Edition version of the 20-foot Silver Bullet
* Corsair 22
* Corsair 32
* Catalina 29 Sun Tender
Catalina 29 Express

However, the five new boats were only part of the story —several other models were available for testing, showing off a range of upgrades.

For Australia, the key models are the upgraded Launch 28 and Corsair 28, which Trade-a-Boat got to experience in the warm waters on the State’s west coast.

Heese says the biggest challenge in recent years has been weathering the financial storm. "I’m very, very thankful and relieved — don’t forget, well over half this industry went bust." He lists several names, "It’s littered with bodies."

"I never called dial-a-prayer," Heese says, only half-joking, "But when Lehmann Brothers collapsed, our business stopped, everybody kinda went what?! When they went, and the stockmarket went to 6000, it paralysed everybody."

"So we cut," reveals Heese. "We laid off production workers, we implemented pay cuts, we even stopped production for about eight weeks at the end of ’08.

"So was I scared? Hell yeah! But you know what? We kept the faith.

"We’ve got the cap-ex budget where it needed to be and we weathered it. Dealers are happy.

"It’s got a rhythm to it now," adds Heese. "Business is probably smaller than it could be right now, but I sleep at night and I’m cool with that."

Chris-Craft is famous for its attention to detail. Climb aboard a Corsair and you won’t see plastic. You’ll come across slightly obsessive giveaways, such as groups of screws that have been carefully installed so the slots line up with each other.

Heese is clearly proud of what they do. Sitting in the back of the 28, he starts waving his arms around.

"If you look at this boat," he says, "You go around it, (and) you will see things that you don’t see on anything else in this size range.

"First of all, all the dark colours are painted. So that boat (pointing to a Corsair 25 moored next to us) has five coats of Imron 2000 on it. There’s no other 25-foot boat that’s painted, right?

"They’ll last like that for 10 years, versus gelcoat which will be gone in three.

"You’ve got 40-ounce vinyl," he adds, smacking a seat, "Dual-density foam, everything’s double-stitched. There’s half-inch thick teak. Custom stainless windshield. It all costs money, which is why you don’t see it.

"The tooling for that windshield is $50,000. The reason all boats have the same windshield, except for ours, is there’s no tooling charge. So it’s a completely different philosophy of product development.

"It means you’re not going to sell a million of them, and we’re okay with that. Better to be pure and live in your own skin," Heese says.

In some cases, the upgrades for the 2012 model year are subtle. For example, the Corsair 28 looks like its predecessor, though it’s running a six-inch wider deck. Standard, it comes with a Volvo Penta 8.1lt V8 with 375 horses, though you can spec it up with twin Volvo Penta 5.7lt Gi DP units, claiming 600hp. The test data reveals a top speed of 44kts.

It’s sister model, the Launch 28 bowrider, has been broadened in the beam and now features more space in the forward seating area, along with the option of a cockpit galley. It too starts with the 8.1lt Volvo Penta, though you can boost the engine room up to 620hp with twin Volvo Penta 5.7lt GXi units — good for 53kts, according to the factory data.

Get out onto the water with a Corsair and you quickly fall victim to its charms. There’s the immediate appeal of a modest-sized boat with a huge engine package onboard — crank the throttle forward and you’re immediately rewarded with a convincing roar as the machine gets up on the plane and hurtles at the horizon.

It’s responsive, while providing a solid and well-damped ride across a wake, and it’s dry. The trademark flare in the bow helps knock down the spray, meaning you can turn up at the other end of your trip looking largely unruffled.

But probably the biggest selling point for these boats is how they make you feel. It reminds me of a comment made by a car-testing colleague about BMW. "They succeed," he suggested, "because they know how to make the driver feel good." The same theory works for Corsair.

"We’ve got a 45 we’re working on right now, we’ve got two 32s that we’ll have out this year," says Heese.

He also hints at some radical rethinking, perhaps even alternative powerplants for some models.

"The market’s not static. Certain segments are tired, where bringing out another one isn’t going to excite anybody.

"Using new technologies or new thoughts — I think you’re seeing it now in lots of places that the market is looking out for something new.

"The issue of green says to me: does the boat really need to go 50 miles an hour? How’s the owner going to use it?"

For the time being, the company is rolling along well and looking for new opportunities. "We’ll continue to expand the product line and as the emerging parts of the world come on line, we’ll expand our distribution there," says Heese.

"We’re already selling boats in China and a few in Brazil. Those markets will become more important."

He insists Australia remains on the corporate radar. Heese has a strong connection, having spent some of his career working here — it’s also where he met his wife.

"We build boats that are designed for the coasts of the United States, the Med’ and places like Sydney Harbour and the Gold Coast," he says. "Emotionally, it’s an important market to me, but also we do a lot of business there."

Importer Premier Marine says locals "get" the Chris-Craft brand, which has been doing exceptionally well since this year’s Sydney International Boat Show, an event attended by Heese.

The latter reckons the secret is to keep your standards up. "Most companies, I believe, design and engineer product to be sold at a price. We don’t do that. We design them and build them and spec them how we want to see them spec’d, we figure how much that is going to cost, and we put our margin on top of that and we take it to market."

So far, it seems to be working.

"I started as a child with a little aluminium 12-footer with a 35hp Evinrude outboard on the back. And like most boats of that era, it started less than 50 per cent of the time. But that never stopped my brother and I tinkering with it.

"I got bitten by the fun one can have on a boat and, when I lived in Australia, I belonged to the Middle Harbour Yacht Club and owned an S80, a J24, an Adams 10, an Etchell and got heavily into sailing — I’ve had an eye for boats my entire life.

"When we bought this company we didn’t do a lot of market research. We knew deep down that if we did things the way we wanted to see them done, there’d be other people who’d appreciate that.

"I knew from being in boating that it was a really good trademark with a huge following over a huge number of years — it actually turned out to be bigger than I thought it was going to be.

"If you stand at a boat show for four days, you will have a hundred people come up to you to tell you a story about their dad, their uncle, their grandfather, the neighbour, involving a Chris-Craft. It’s cultural.

"They’re yearning stories — they’re stories that take people back to a time in their life where they were innocent and had fun. Kinda like my childhood boating experiences.

"This is indulgence. What do you do with this product? You indulge yourself, you go out and have fun, you escape.

"I have no problem getting up and going to work in the morning. I am blessed to be surrounded by an incredibly passionate group of people. They don’t need to be told to get up and go to work, either. This is their passion, too."


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