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Captain's Report

Boston Whaler is one of those iconic companies everyone is familiar with, either by ownership or a riding experience in one. Nearly everyone has a Whaler story that usually starts out with those original 16 footers we all either had or knew someone else who did. The brand is 58 years old, and for many of those years it has been owned by three different conglomerates whose primary focus was not boating. The result was that the brand lost the dominance that it had in its early days. Other builders caught up, and some went ahead of it.

Boston Whaler Passion group shot
Boston Whaler has built its reputation on the fact that it will float level if swamped. In this publicity photo, the boat was flooded with water over the cockpit sole, and overloaded, yet she did not sink.

A New Day. Then, in 1996, it was bought by the Brunswick Corporation, which, in our opinion, was the best thing that ever happened to Boston Whaler. Brunswick Corp. owns Mercury Marine, Sea Ray, and a number of other brands and is dedicated to the recreational marine industry. Its focus is almost exclusively on boating.

Boston Whaler Today. With 31 models from 11’ (3.35 m) to 42’ (12.8 m), it is stronger than ever before and leads the boating industry in sales in center consoles/dual consoles over 20’ (6.1 m). Not only is it a market leader, but it has done so as a premium brand with prices to match. So the question begs: what is going on at Boston Whaler to make it so successful?

Boston Whaler Passion
Boston Whaler injects expandable foam into every boat it builds so that it will float level if swamped, something few companies are able -- or willing -- to do.

The Secret to a Quality Build

All boats are largely built by hand. While a few builders have some robotic machines, they do little more than drill holes to certain shapes and cut out fabric to a pattern. The rest of the build is handwork, and that means that shop floor personnel are the key to building consistent high quality.

The Wrong Stuff. The boat business over the years has been notorious for hiring cheap labor, not training them well, and suffering the consequences with a high turnover rate. In these situations, while the foreman or the brand’s owner know how to do things right, sloppy work is still often pushed out the door . Who among us has not owned a boat with things not done right?

At one time, Boston Whaler suffered the same problems as many other builders -- then Brunswick bought it. Being a Fortune 500 company, it introduced management “Best Practices,” knowing full-well that the attitude of management quickly filters down to the shop floor. That caused a sea-change among the employees of this Florida company.

Longevity Pays Off. By creating a safe, well-managed, and employee-oriented workplace and by paying livable wages, today the Boston Whaler work force is one of the longest-tenured of any Florida boat builder we know. Today, Boston Whaler tells us that their turnover rate is between 5% and 10%. The environment is so positive that some of the older parents even encourage their children to work there.

The result, obviously, is that people know what they are doing and care about doing their job right.

Boston Whaler Passion
Every new employee gets a week of classroom training to explain not only the “how,” but also the “why.”

Training. Each new employee has a week of classroom instruction. Graduates are then given either more detailed instruction or are taken to the shop floor for a week of on-the-job training by a dedicated trainer in a paired instruction mode. In this way, all new hires learn their specific function.

Taking two weeks to train all shop personnel is costly, but it ensures that everyone there knows not only how to do things, but why they must be done in a certain way. It also inculcates the Boston Whaler culture of doing things right the first time, even if it takes a bit longer.

There’s a follow-up after the two-week period where the team leaders ensure that everyone is up-to-speed and on the same page. It’s also a chance for the new employee to rate their supervisors and trainers. This happens every two weeks, typically ending in roughly 90 days.

This training technique engenders pride almost immediately in new employees, who know that they have done a good job.

Boston Whaler Passion
There is no substitute for one-on-one training and being paired for a week with a personal trainer on the shop floor.

Employees Involved with Customers

Periodically, Boston Whaler invites its boat owners to a customer rendezvous. For four days, there are classes, electronics updates, mentoring, tutoring, and, of course, plenty of free time to enjoy the surroundings. More importantly, the executives of the company are right there, along with the designers and engineers. The Boston Whaler staff interacts with the customers and gets direct feedback on the product and how to improve it. So, not only do staffers pick up good ideas, they also take a real interest in what satisfies their customers. Customers become real people, not just numbers on a board.

Observations

The price of a Boston Whaler includes a lot more than just fiberglass, engines, some hardware, and equipment. What really sets them apart are all of their design details that have been worked out with great care, as well as the build quality produced by people with remarkable passion for what they do.

All of these elements -- taken together -- result in the creation of an excellent product. And that is why people have made Boston Whaler the largest builder of boats over 20’ in class.