by Dale DuPont
Updated 3 yearss ago
By the time two private equity investors bought Chris-Craft in 2001, the company — one of America’s oldest pleasure boat builders — had little going for it aside from its past glory.
Founder Christopher Columbus Smith had built his first boat in 1874 in Algonac, Mich., and went on to produce classic mahogany runabouts that appealed to the Vanderbilts, the Fords and their ilk. But in recent years, the storied brand made two trips through bankruptcy — the first in 1988, when it was owned by Murray Industries. Then, in 2000, Outboard Marine, which had bought Murray’s assets, filed for Chapter 11 protection.
Genmar Holdings’ investment arm and Bombardier scooped up Outboard’s boat and engine companies, but decided not to keep Sarasota-based Chris-Craft, selling it in 2001 to Stellican, a London firm headed by investors Stephen Julius and Stephen Heese.
The new owners set out to develop New models and reposition them as premium products, “and we haven’t looked back,” says Heese, president and CEO.
Today, the company has more than 200 employees, produces about 450 boats a year and is profitable, with annual revenue of about $50 million — about 70% of prerecession levels. Boats range from 20 feet to 36 feet and from $50,000 to $600,000. “We have more large products on the drawing board, but the market for 40-foot and above is very challenging,” Heese says. “We’re selling product to people that are trading out of those big boats.”
Some yacht owners buy the smaller boats as tenders, says Josh Hendrix, who specializes in Chris-Craft at Grande Yachts International, a boat dealer in Palm Beach Gardens. Hendrix says he used to get people who said, “ ‘Oh, Chris-Craft, I didn’t know they were still around.’ But that’s less and less nowadays.” Heese and Julius, he says, “really brought the brand back.”