S.C. boat builders catch a rising tide

Sea Hunt Boat Co.’s Joel Moss sits inside an Ultra 235 SE fishing boat. The Columbia-based company is doing record sales after recovering from the recession.
Sea Hunt Boat Co.’s Joel Moss sits inside an Ultra 235 SE fishing boat. The Columbia-based company is doing record sales after recovering from the recession.

Plans by Sea Pro Boats to resume manufacturing in the Midlands market might be one of the best indicators of how much the state’s economy has rebounded since the Great Recession.

In 2014, consumers spent more than $445.7 million on new powerboat, engine, trailer and boat accessories in South Carolina, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. That’s a 23.4 percent increase in boat expenditures over 2013 – and good enough to land the Palmetto State 14th in spending in the United States.

“It’s booming right now,” said Jimmy Hancock, Sea Pro Boats co-owner, describing the rising market in South Carolina and nationally. “I think it has a lot to do with the economy coming back and there’s a lot of pent-up demand. During the recession, I know the used boat market really did well, and I think a lot of that inventory has been gobbled up.

“So, the new boat market is starting to come back strong,” said Hancock, who projects having a two-year backlog in boat orders once he begins manufacturing later in the year.

Hancock and his brother started Sea Pro Boats in Newberry in 1988 and sold it to the Brunswick Corp. in 2005, employing about 400 workers at the time, he said. Meanwhile, Sea Pro’s new co-owner, Preston Wrenn, a lifelong friend of Hancock’s, had started Tidewater Boats in Lexington County in 2005, but sold the company soon after, Hancock said.

Hancock noted that boat builders in South Carolina for generations, typically, have been family-owned operations.

Hancock and Wrenn plan to invest $5.5 million into their business, which will be located in Whitmire, a small town in Newberry County, with plans to hire about 100 workers by the end of the year and to build about 20 boats per week, he said.

Sea Pro plans to launch seven models of “The New Wave,” a fiberglass saltwater fishing boat line that ranges from a 20-foot bay boat to a 27-foot center console model the company will have available by the end of the year. “That’s the initial lineup,” Hancock said. The boats will retail from $35,000 for the boat, motor and trailer to near $100,000, he said.

Other Midlands boat builders

Sea Pro Boats will be one of four full-fledged boat manufacturers in the Midlands.

Since 2002, the area has been home to Encore Boat Builders LLC in Lexington County, one of the largest boat builders in the state. Tidewater Boats opened in 2005, and Sea Hunt Boats, started by Vic and Bubba Roof, a father and son, opened in 1995. Tidewater Boats could not be reached for comment.

Encore might be more widely known by South Carolina boaters as “The Home of Bentley Pontoons” because the label can be seen in large letters by passers-by on its building on Two Notch Road in Lexington County.

The sign is visible from Interstate 20 just past the S.C. 6 highway exit heading west.

Owner Steve Deese, who has operated the company for 17 years, decided to start the company after manufacturers would not cut prices so he could sell more boats at his dealership.

He plans to retire soon, and his daughter, Samantha, will take over the company, he said.

Encore is known for producing a priceline boat that has all the options built in, Deese said. “We’re at a price point where the customer can come out and afford to buy a boat ... And I think that’s what’s made us very successful.”

The company is family-owned and operated, said Samantha Deese, Encore Boats vice president in charge of operations. “That’s important to us because we take it very personally,” she said.

The company builds 2,100 boats a year and grosses $50 million in revenue, Steve Deese said.

Shoppers can spend $50,000 on a pontoon boat, the Deeses said.

‘Not just a fishing boat’

In Columbia, Sea Hunt Boats’ Vic Roof has been in the business since the 1960s when he and his brother, Alvin, owned Galaxy Boats. Vic split off in the 1960s to start Sunbird Boat Co., makers of a run-about ski boat built in the same Shop Road facility Sea Hunt Boats now occupies.

“We started up in 1995 over in the Red Bank area,” said Sea Hunt co-owner Joel Moss, where Vic Roof owned some land and the company began by building a 15-foot center console fishing boat. Moss, a Clemson University graduate, started with Sea Hunt in 1998 and is a relative of Vic Roof, an avid USC fan.

The first thing Moss said Roof ever told him was they would never build a boat larger than 21 feet or build more than four boats in a day. Now, the company builds eight to nine boats a day, up to 30 feet each, Moss said.

“This year we plan on building 2,100 boats,” Moss said. “The demand is there for us probably to build 2,400 to 2,500 boats.”

That’s unlikely to happen, he said, because every boat is inspected by one of the two co-owners for quality control. Last year, Moss said his company’s 160 or so employees who earn from $15 an hour to $21 an hour split a $700,000 Christmas bonus.

Prior to the Great Recession, which started about eight years ago, the marine industry was booming, Moss said. While the industry is coming back, it’s still down by historical standards, he said.

The culture of boats and boating has changed, Moss said. “What we’re seeing is that our segment, this style of boat, which is a fishing boat, family boat, luxury-cruising boat – an all-around boat, makes everybody in the family happy, and therefore more easy to justify as a purchase,” Moss said.

Moss said Sea Hunt’s Ultra series boat “has taken over the market,” offering space for everything in a sport-utility-type fashion.

“We’re not just a fishing boat anymore,” Moss said. “We’re now hitting the run-a-bout market, the deck-boat market, which is a pontoon on a fiberglass hull.” At boat shows today, boat shopping is a family affair – and more of a family decision, Moss said.

The smallest boat Sea Hunt makes is an 18-footer, retailing for $25,000 to $28,000, and the largest boat is 30 feet and retailing for more than $160,000, he said.

Other big changes in the boat industry include better motors that are more powerful and more reliable than ever, Moss said, and capable of high speeds and logging more than 2,000 hours on the water. Boats also are now made of stronger composite materials such as fiberglass.

“It’s a change in the culture,” Moss said. In the Great Recession, the industry lost a lot of boat manufacturers and suppliers, he said.

Sea Hunt was affected, too, and lost employees as the company became lean to survive. It redesigned its boat line during the recession, and as a result emerged sooner than many other manufacturers.