This is a brief history of Boston Whaler, the company, not the boats. There are five distinct eras to this story, as Boston Whaler was passed among five distinct owners. There are also a number of notable personalities that left an imprint on the product line.
While the Boston Whaler boat came into commercial production in 1958, the company that was making them was formed twenty years earlier. In 1938, Harvard graduate Dick Fisher and partner Bob Pierce started the Fisher Pierce manufacturing company. It began with little money and little equipment in a shed in Dick's back yard. What they lacked in capital they made up for with Yankee ingenuity and a passion for quality. Their electrical manufacturing business was soon inventing and producing products like photo-controls, sensitive electro-magnetic relays, stepper motors, telegraph relays, magnetic amplifiers and high voltage/current sensors. By the mid-1950's the business was well enough established to permit Dick Fisher to have some spare time to follow his passion for boating.
Fisher's inventive genius wasn't limited just to electrical apparatus. He began experimenting with innovative manufacturing techniques in boat building, planning to produce a small sailing board similar to the then very popular Alcort Sunfish. In the process, and with input and suggestions from naval designer C. Raymond Hunt, he invented the 13-foot Boston Whaler, a small, unsinkable outboard power boat. After showing the boat at the 1958 New York Boat show, the design became a huge commercial success.
A Boston industrial arts teacher named Bob Dougherty came to work for Boston Whalers in the early 1960's. Dougherty would become, among other things, the chief designer of the later generations of Whaler boats.
A production facility was set up in 1958 in Braintree, Massachusetts to manufacture the "Boston Whaler" boat. The first model was to be called "The Cox'n", but this gave way to a more prosaic "Standard" model. The initial product line was confined to the 13-foot hull, until the introduction of the 16-foot model in 1961. At some point, production moved to the Hingham Street plant in Rockland, Massachusetts.
The electrical company, Fisher-Pierce, (which incidently survives to this day) and the boat building company, Boston Whaler, eventually were separated as corporate entities. Boston Whaler continued to design and produce innovative and successful products, under the control of its founder Dick Fisher.
Fisher is often described as a genius, an inventor, a tinkerer, and a perfectionist. In 1969 he was 55-years old, and he had been running Boston Whaler for over a decade. Perhaps he wanted to retire early; perhaps he wanted to get back to other pursuits, to tinker around with other inventions; maybe he just wanted new challenges. Whatever the motivation, in 1969, Fisher sold the Boston Whaler company to CML-Group of Acton, Massachusetts, a specialties marketing company. After the sale, Fisher stayed on as a consultant until 1972.
As part of the CML-Group, Boston Whaler boats flourished. The CML Group ("Consumer Marketing Lifestyles") was a just formed small conglomerate looking for businesses to acquire. Eventually they would assemble a stable with strong brand names and high quality products like Nordic Track and The Nature Company. Boston Whaler was CML's first big acquisition, and they seemed to be a good fit with the Whaler corporate culture.
Sales boomed and more models were added to the product line. In 1970 the 21-Outrage appeared. In 1972 the 19-Outrage was introduced. In 1973 the first 21-Revenge model was created. In 1974 I/O powered Revenge and Outrage models were featured. In 1975 the 15-foot hull was added. Many other models and refinements continued throughout the 1970's.
The 1980's continued strong for Whaler, and catalogues from this decade feature an amazing number of different length hulls, different model trims, and hundreds of accessory options. Bob Dougherty became Chief Designer and Senior Vice President of Engineering. Redesigned hulls in the Outrage and Revenge series from 18 to 25 feet were added. Many consider Whaler boats from the late 1980's to be the most desireable of all the older Whalers.
In 1987 to expand the manufacturing operations Whaler acquired a plant in Edgewater, Florida from a defunct boat builder. In 1988 a new company headquarters building was opened in Rockland, Massachusetts, and featured in that year's catalogue as well.
The 1988 Boston Whaler catalogue also contained the following paragraph, which these days one might call a corporate mission statement:
"...many things have changed over the years, but...the things upon which Boston Whaler values are built--our people, our pride in our craftsmanship, our belief that a design should fill a need, not follow a trend--have not changed at all, and never will."
The CML-Group appeared to be a good corporate owner, a group of savvy New England business men who also liked boating and Boston Whaler boats. Charles M. Leighton the CEO and "CML" of CML-Group was being honored by his alma mater, Bowdoin College, in part because his company was "a model of how an enlightened businessman can bring a number of small companies together without dampening their creative fire, without forcing unsympathetic management on the entrepreneur responsible for their identity and success."1
Then something happened.
CML stock was one of the most hyped issues on Wall Street, and as a result heavily shorted by traders. They must have been on to something. In 1989 the Boston Whaler company, the pride of American and Yankee ingenuity, the most honored name in boat building, was sold for $45-million to Reebok, an athletic-shoe maker of all things!
There is some speculation that the motivation for the sudden sale was the threat of a hostile takeover of CML by Irwin Jacobs and GENMAR Corporation, a large boat and marine conglomerate. Jacobs had been buying CML stock, intent on capturing CML really only to acquire the crown-jewel of boat building, Boston Whaler. Rather than see itself taken over by GENMAR, CML quickly negotiated the sale of their valued boat company to Reebok, thus ending Irwin Jacobs' bid to own Boston Whaler.
The sale of Boston Whaler to Reebok was a deal with some sweetener added; along with Whaler, CML also gave Reebok warrants on CML stock, which when exercised in 1992 resulted in an almost $30-million profit to Reebok.
Athletic shoes sell at huge multiples of their manufacturing cost, their design is driven almost entirely by style concerns, they are typically made overseas by the cheapest labor available, and as a product they have a life span of a year at best. It his hard to imagine that ownership of Boston Whaler could have come from a more different corporate background than Reebok.
Reebok described itself as a "marketing" company. Their products, athletic shoes, were often made by subcontractors. Reebok marketed them quite successfully with an upscale image. Intent on building their sales and expanding, Reebok went looking for acquisitions and found Boston Whaler. Whaler would be their first manufacturing company. "Recreation" was the only thing the two corporations had in common other than both being located in Massachusetts.
Under CML ownership, Bob Dougherty seemed to have had a free hand to design and produce the Whaler product line. With the sale of the company to Reebok, that changed. By early 1990 Dougherty left Whaler, taking with him thirty years of experience in designing, engineering and manufacturing the Boston Whaler boat. He had already relocated to Florida when the Edgewater facility had been purchased a few years earlier, and like many Florida boat builders before him, he left one boat building company and started another one almost next door, producing a line of boats called Marlins. Marlin soon became Edgewater Boats. Ironically, the boats Bob designed and produced at Edgewater began to look more like Boston Whalers than the newer designs from Whaler itself!
The new owners of Whaler installed new management, and also a new Chief Designer, Peter Van Lancker. A new chief designer meant new designs, and in 1991 they began to appear. When the 1991 catalogue was published, all the previous "classic" hulls were neglected. They were mentioned on only one page of the literature. The entire rest of the catalogue was devoted to announcing and showing the new boats, all with new hull designs. In several cases the new boats were shown only in sketches and drawings; they were so new and innovative there were no pictures available! The new boats took on a more rakish appearance. The beautiful teak and mahogany trim and components disappeared. Gelcoat colors switched to white. Hulls became deeper V's. Critics noted a strong resemblance to the designs Van Lancker produced while with the Black Watch Boat Company.
At dealer show rooms, only the new 1991 styles were encouraged. The classic boats were not to be seen, relegated to special order status.
There is an old saying: "What's the best way to make a million dollars in the boat business?"
Answer: "Start with two million." Reebok was about to get an appreciation of this, only on a bigger scale.
Esthetics of the new design aside, the new boats tended to have increased weight and manufacturing costs. Boston Whaler continued to produce only the highest quality boat possible, but as production costs increased, lack of pricing flexibility and decreased demand did not allow for much profit.
The year 1990 was not the best in the history of the boat business, as a nation-wide economic recession hit the industry hard. On top of this, for Whaler there was considerable resistance from the customer base to the new designs. An advertising strategy of running down the classic boats did little to drum up customers, many of whom left and never came back. Sales were $37-million, but profits may have been hard to come by.
In 1991 there was one glimmer of hope. The Van Lancker-headed design team came up with a small I/O jet boat that produced some sales. The Rage was like a cross between a Whaler and a Jet Ski, and it appealed more to youthful wearers of athletic shoes than to salty old fishermen. Its OMC engine would prove to be about as durable as a pair of fancy sneakers, too. Unfortunately, sales of jet boats came mainly at the expense of classic 13-Sport sales, further eroding the future customer base. Whaler sales in 1991 approached $38-million, up a modest 2.5%
In 1992 Reebok reported that Boston Whaler sales were $45.0 million, an 18.7% increase. Reebok's total sales that year were over $3-billion. After three years in the boat business, Reebok sold Boston Whaler to Meridian, on July 3, 1993 for just $20-million, or a $25-million loss on their three-year old acquisition.
Whaler's new owner, Meridian Sports, also made Mastercraft, a competition style ski-boat designed for operation in calm, protected water, powered by inboard engines, fitted with plush carpet and upholstery, constructed with conventional fiberglass laminates, and designed not so much for the ride it produces but for the wake that it doesn't.
Millions of people use their Whalers to go water-skiing, but I am still waiting to see the first guy salt-water fishing from a Mastercraft.
While Reebok-ownership had been a rough ride for many old-time Whaler boats and employees, having Meridian at the helm would turn out to be a near capsize! To be fair, they started from much less of a position, as the 1994 catalogue of Boston Whaler boats now had only two of the Dougherty-designed classic boats in production, the 19-Outrage and 27-Offshore, to go with the classic Fisher-era 13-foot and 17-foot hulls. The poor selling Van Lancker designs of 21-foot and 23-foot Walk-Arounds were gone, the molds turned into new 21-Outrage and 24-Outrage production.
Having large facilities in both Massachusetts and Florida and lower demand, Meridian closed all the Boston area operations of Boston Whaler and moved the entire company to Edgewater. Relocating a business that had operating in the same place for almost 40 years to a new state 1,500 miles away is a drastic move and one that probably left a lot of old-time Whaler people behind. When the name of the town you're leaving is in the company's name, it is even worse psychologically. However, the move did get Whaler more in line with the rest of the boat building business. Many builders were already concentrated in the warm-climate, low-cost-labor market of Florida.
With new owners and management on board, chief designer Peter Van Lancker jumped ship to become corporate head of Outboard Marine Company's boat division. As we know now, OMC was destined for an even harder landing than Whaler.
Much of the design team from Van Lancker's era stayed, however, producing a series of new models that again did not raise many fish from the core of Whaler's customers. The term "bowrider" was cautiously used for the first time to describe a Boston Whaler. The 18-Ventura introduced the first Whaler "Euro transom" boat--it's designer reportedly under orders from Meridian that the boat must have that style stern.
Problems with the OMC engines in the Rage series of jet boats brought Mercury power on board. Historically, Whalers had most often been sold with OMC outboards. Now Brunswick's marine powerhouse was finally seeing their engines installed at the factory.
On September 25, 1995, 81-year-old Richard T. Fisher, founder of Boston Whaler, died at his home in Florida.
In February of 1996, the old Boston Whaler building on Hingham Street in Rockland, Massachusetts was torn down to make way for a new Home Depot store.
In 1998 the CML-Group sold off Nordic Track and filed for bankruptcy protection, its stock price plunging. CML's days as a darling of Wall Street were over. The television ads that sold millions of Nordic Track machines no longer worked. Their stock, which had once hit $30 now trades on the OTC market for $0.35
Back at Meridian-owned Boston Whaler, business was not good either. There is some speculation that the only thing keeping Whaler afloat during these years was profit from the highly successful Commercial Products Division, makers of expensive and customized Whaler variants for military, law enforcement, and other commercial customers. During this period, Meridian was offered as an IPO, and opened its books for examination by prospective investors. Notice the wording regarding their Boston Whaler operation, wherein they said:
"Boston Whaler produces boats used for fire, rescue and marine governmental patrol, and sport fishing and recreational boats. For the first half of 1994, Boston Whaler had net sales of $25.4 million as compared to $22.3 million for the first half of 1993."
Usually an established company sells for some multiple of its annual sales, and Meridian had just said Whaler had annual sales of about $50.8-million. Brunswick was about to offer less than half that amount, and Boston Whaler, the queen of the American boat building, was about to get its third owner in four years.
Brunswick is a huge conglomerate of "recreation" companies which by 1996 included Mercury Marine, a giant in outboard motors and I/O propulsion, and Sea-Ray Boats, a market leader in upscale production boats. On March 29, 1996, Brunswick Corporation announced that it "had agreed to purchase the Boston Whaler line of fishing vessels from Meridian Sports Inc., for about $25.3 million." It later submitted a 10-k form to the SEC that said:
"On May 31, 1996, [Brunswick] acquired the assets related to the Boston Whaler line of boats from Meridian Sports for $27.4 million in cash and the assumption of certain liabilities. The Company acquired assets, including goodwill that will be amortized using the straight-line method over 40 years. This operation is a part of the Sea Ray Division of the Marine segment."
Twenty-five or twenty-seven million dollars might sound like a lot of money, but it is cigarette change to Brunswick. Around this same time they paid $110-million to acquire Igloo, the makers of those little coolers people sit on in their Boston Whalers! Paying four times more for the cooler company than the boat company just doesn't seem right. To put the relative price of Whaler in 1996 in better perspective, to land their big fish Sea Ray in 1987--nine years earlier-- Brunswick paid $425-million!
For $27-million--probably little more than what the land and building in Edgewater were worth--they got the entire Boston Whaler operation, the designs, the molds, the reputation, the number-one name in boating! It was at once both the bargain of the century and also an indication of just how close to foundering the Boston Whaler boat company had come.
Sea Ray was once a small start up boat builder much like Fisher's Boston Whaler. Begun in a garage on the west side of Detroit in 1959, Sea Ray has become perhaps the largest American boat builder. It has multiple plants and multiple lines of boats. Their reputation is, deservedly or not, as a better-than-average quality boat, with an above average price as well. Their boats are trendy and tend to change almost yearly, reflecting their automotive roots. They were once designed in part by the famous General Motors stylist Harley Earle, the designer who created the most outrageous automobiles of the 1950's and 60's in an era when style was more important than utility.
Sea Ray promotional literature touts their advanced manufacturing techniques, including things like 6-axis CAD-controlled milling machines that can make molds for new designs in a day or two. If you want to make a lot of design changes each year, you probably need a machine like that. When Sea Ray looked at Boston Whaler, instead of seeing all the good, classic designs Whaler already had, it just saw another way to keep that 6-axis mill busy.
Boston Whaler had a classic 22-foot hull that had been sold in thousands of Outrages and Revenges, and in thousands of Guardians. Guys catch fish from these hulls, families cruise on these hulls, Coasties patrol on these hulls, and Marines go to war with these hulls. It is one hell of a hull design.
Sea Ray used to make series of center console fishing boats called Laguna. If you took all the Lagunas still afloat and strung them together, you could probably tow all of them out to sea with one Whaler 22-Outrage.
When it came time for new designs, which hull form did Brunswick choose? A new, "improved" Accu-Track hull with a Euro-style transom quite reminiscent of the Laguna superceded the Classic Whaler hullform.
The classic construction technique was also modified for many of the new designs. In the original Whaler boat, there were only two pieces: the hull and the turtle. All the details of the interior were molded into the complex turtle shape. The turtle and hull were joined, and the interior filled with foam. The result was a one-piece, lightweight, unsinkable boat. Add a few wooden seats and a console and you had a legendary Whaler.
The original technique had some limitations. The shape you design for the cockpit must create strength for the hull, provide the necessary interior elements, and also be suitable for the foam filling process. It must be engineered in such a way that it can be produced without voids in the foam interior. Allowances must be made for the foam-filling process to occur properly, which can mean locating sprue holes for trapped air to escape from the interior and in general making a space that can successfully be filled with a one-shot expanding foam. After making a few thousand boats you probably get an appreciation of what will work and what won't.
Also, the complete encapsulation of the cockpit surface backsides presents problems in securing hardware to it. Numerous backing panels have to be fabricated into each interior layup to allow for secure mounting of hardware and other components, some of which might only be optional accessories.
Sea Ray began to build its newer styled Whalers differently. Three molded pieces were used. The hull was first joined to a very simple "liner", and the space between hull and liner filled with foam. Then a detailed topsides molding was laid on top of the liner, forming a three-piece boat.
The advantages to this technique are that it may allow some shapes and designs that were not feasible in the two-piece technique, due to limitations with the foam filling process. Accessories and other components can be fastened to the topsides without having to use encapsulated backing material, since many of those surfaces are now accessible. They can also re-use the hull and liner molds to make more than one model; only the topsides molding has to change.
The disadvantage is the boat that results from this three-piece technique has less interior foam and therefore less reserve buoyancy. Comparison of the quoted reserve floatation weighs of similar size hulls built with each technique will show quite a difference. The three-piece boat also weighs more than it might need to if the traditional two-piece construction technique had been used. Heavier boats need larger motors. Larger motors cost more. Guess who also sells motors.
The boat building business seems to be on a course of natural evolution that results in all boat building companies being owned by companies that make outboard motors. This tendency is an outgrowth of the margins available in the two products. Boats often sell with quite small margins of profit, while outboards are reported to be retailed with 60% profit margins in their prices. Further adding to the evolution is the relative durability of the products. An outboard might be replaced every decade, while 20- or 30-year-old boats are common. With huge start-up costs to begin manufacturing an engine, the outboard market is dominated by two or three makers, while hundreds of little boat companies (and more springing up each year) split the market for boats.
As a result, if a boat builder is not owned outright by an engine maker, then it is at least bound to a particular outboard company in a co-marketing relationship. From the outboard engine maker's point of view, this is called "buying transoms." With ownership by Brunswick, this has finally come to Whaler. One has to wonder why it took so long.
Beginning in 2001, Boston Whaler boats are being delivered with Mercury engines on the transom as part of a "package." Separating the boat from the motor will be possible but expensive. In this regard, Whaler has joined what is almost an industry-wide practice of marrying boat and motor at the factory. Even independently owned boat builders have resorted to alignments with certain outboard makers--usually ones that don't own boat builders with competing lines--and offer their boats pre-rigged for that brand exclusively. Grady-White and Yamaha are one such pairing. This practice may not offer the buyer the most flexibility, but it is how business is done these days at the boat show.
The final arbiter of value is the marketplace. Ultimately, then, in the marketplace, the changes introduced by Brunswick appear to have been very successful. The current Boston Whaler Edgewater plant has been running three shifts around the clock to keep up with production demands. The success of the design trends, however, may also reflect a sea change in the marketing of boats.
With many married women now holding full-time jobs and careers in America, makers of expensive goods like cars and boats have realized that women have great control over the decision of what to purchase. The stark functionality of a 17-foot Montauk might appeal to every adult male that sees it, but his wife will complain about where she has to sit and where is the bathroom.
Sea Ray is a master at "tuning" the boat to suit the wife. Keeping the wife and the family involved with the boat is one way to sell bigger boats every two years. A promotional booklet one dealer sent out advises prospective buyers about the amenities of larger Sea Ray cruisers by noting the experience of a wife who says--and I am not making this up--that "the thing I like most about my Sea Ray is the built-in clothes dryer."
Although he started Boston Whaler in 1958, Dick Fisher actually only owned it for 11 years of its now 43-year history. CML ran the operation in a similar style for two decades before selling out to Reebok in 1989. Reebok and subsequent purchaser Meridian together had Whaler for only about seven troubled years. Finally in 1996 Brunswick picked up a bargain-priced Whaler company that was not as unsinkable as their boats. They've been running the ship for about five years now.
That is a total of 43 years in the boat business. There are not too many other builders who can trace such long roots or have made as many boats. Will we see Boston Whaler boats returning to those wonderful designs of yesteryear? Probably not, not as long as the offerings in the current catalogue keep the factory running around the clock. But the Legend of Whaler lives on, an amazing unsinkable boat and an equally unsinkable boat company.
Written by Jim Hebert, February 11, 2001. Revised February 25, 2001. Revised April 25, 2001.
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