Byron Bolton, CEO,
Bolton Marine Group
When Byron Bolton first started out in the marine industry little could he have known that he would end up as the largest heavy-gauge aluminum boat manufacturer in North America. With four companies making up the Bolton Marine Group — KingFisher Boats, Renaissance Marine Group Inc. (which includes Duckworth, Weldcraft and Northwest Boats), Armstrong Marine USA Inc., and the most recent acquisition of Daigle Marine — Bolton is able to share insights on the aluminum boat building market for recreational boating, commercial use, law enforcement and military applications on both sides of the border. Add in a few observations on general industry trends and Bolton has captured a snapshot of today’s boat building industry like few can.
BCSN: Byron, could you describe your career path and some of the lessons learned along the way?
BB: I had a passion for boats and the outdoors but also a huge passion for business. When I started in the marine industry as a welder I saw an opportunity. From the beginning I placed a high priority on ongoing personal development and commit to some form of professional development on an annual basis. I think it’s important to ensure that, as the business grows, the leadership continues to grow, not just for me but for the entire leadership team.
To that end, I have attended a number of executive development programs at the Ivey School of Management, Stanford University and Harvard Business School. I have also been active on many industry and not-for-profit boards, including the Canadian Marine Manufacturers Association, the UBC Sauder School of Business and the Young Presidents Organization to name just a few.
My career can essentially be traced through the Bolton Group. It really all started with Kingfisher Boats in Vernon, B.C., previously known as Harbercraft. We were very focused on the recreational market with a small amount of government and commercial craft. That was in 1992. Then, almost 10 years ago, we acquired Renaissance Marine Group, located just south of Spokane, Washington. It was a major undertaking to expand across international borders and deal with the different intricacies of U.S. regulations on things like the environment, workers compensation, vessel construction standards and, most importantly, differences in cultures between the U.S. and Canada.
Following the economic downturn in 2008, we felt it was important to diversify from such a high concentration of recreational business which is a much more discretionary market. We looked at different ways to leverage the strengths and competencies of our existing business and saw an opportunity to expand into government and commercial markets. Armstrong Marine in Port Angeles, Washington fit the bill. With more than 25 years’ experience, Armstrong was one of the first companies in North America to focus on catamarans for both recreational and commercial vessels. When we looked at the global market, we saw that catamarans were of significant appeal to customers. To be first in catamarans signaled the strength, innovation and growth potential of that business, which became our first commercial acquisition
Continuing on with the plan of expansion into the government/commercial and highly customized recreational sectors, we were very happy to strike a deal with Steve Daigle and his business partner Bob Kristmanson to acquire Daigle Marine in January this year. Much like Armstrong Marine, we were attracted by the tremendous, highly skilled workforce. We found that very attractive. Over the past 30 years, Steve Daigle has done a terrific job in developing his company into the leading passenger vessel/landing craft manufacturer on the B.C. coast.
BCSN: Is there much interaction between the various companies? And further, could you give me an idea of the size of boats you’re building?
BB: Within our group, we have four different business units — two on the recreational side and two on the government/commercial custom side. Each business unit operates quite autonomously for operations and marketing but we look for ways that the companies can collaborate, especially on the engineering and design as well as the purchasing department, for example, with raw material or propulsion suppliers.
Because we have been operating KingFisher and Renaissance for a number of years we’ve seen significant advantages to collaborate that has enabled us to grow and continue to innovate and bring new products into the marketplace. We will continue to operate Armstrong and Daigle, as separate business units however we will be focusing on opportunities for collaboration with in-house naval architecture and design, certainly enabling both the Canadian and U.S. operations to tap into a large portfolio of vessels that we’ve developed.
The size of our vessel varies. Recreational boats range from 30 to 50 feet; commercial vessels — for example, fire boats or patrol vessels can range up to mid-60s and the maximum sized passenger vessel we currently build is about 80 feet with a capacity for 149 passengers.
BCSN: Could you describe some of the trends you’ve seen in the aluminum boat market?
BB: Looking at the recreational sector, we’ve seen quite a significant trend to more complex vessels that are larger and more ‘feature-rich’ (for example, with integrated systems). The other trend is the shift from stern drive to outboard power. Outboard power absolutely dominates the market, even with the large vessels.
On the commercial side, outboard power is also increasing in demand. They are more cost competitive and allow for greater flexibility in terms of taking one engine off for repowering – you can have the vessel up and running the next day.
We’re also seeing a higher demand for catamarans. If you look at countries like Australia and New Zealand, catamarans have been the hull choice for quite some time. It’s driven by the desire for enhanced ride performance, especially in coastal waters. Armstrong has been a pioneer in manufacturing catamarans in North America and, while the boat manufacturing industry in B.C. has been slower to adopt catamaran technology, I would predict we’ll see that increase in the future.
Another trend we’re seeing on the propulsion side — especially over the last few years — is that the propulsion companies are shifting from being engine suppliers, to being “system providers.” For example, outboard motor manufacturers are now putting a lot of emphasis on systems integration — propulsion, electronics, monitoring, docking, etc. There is a high degree of integration which I anticipate is a trend that will continue.
We’re also seeing greater interest in hybrid power vessels. We haven’t seen the momentum in B.C. as much as we have in some areas of the U.S., like the Bay area of San Francisco or in Washington State but demand is growing. Recently we partnered with Greg Marshall Design to develop a hybrid ready catamaran for the passenger vessel market. It’s an exciting time.
BCSN: What about trends that have changed the way boats are manufactured?
BB: One of the most significant trends has been the shift from manually lofting a vessel to producing 3D designs. That has a number of benefits for the industry on the design side in terms of variables like hydrodynamics or stability and meeting customers’ needs.
There are other processes and activities that are being automated — for example, computer CNC cutting / forming, we are also exploring robotics within our group, but I should note that, while we’re always looking for ways to increase efficiencies, we hold sacred the craftsmanship for which B.C. and the Pacific Northwest have become known. We strive to automate non-value activities where it makes sense and combine that with the superior craftsmanship when it comes to joinery, assembly and welding.
BCSN: Are you finding any shortages of labour in terms of meeting the need for the skills and knowledge required for the advanced technology?
BB: There’s a bit of a double-edged sword — we need a highly skilled workforce to wrap their minds around disciplines like naval architecture, engineering and design as well as fabrication but at the same time, we’re able to produce the vessel much faster without having to place as much domain knowledge in any one specific craftsman.
In our organization, we put a high priority on recruitment and retention of employees. One of our objectives is to be the preferred employer in every community we operate. While that’s a lofty goal, we believe it’s important, especially if you look 10 years into the future and finding skilled passionate workers continues to be a challenge. We believe that placing a high degree of focus on that gives us a competitive edge.
Right now, we’re not struggling as far as recruiting skilled workers however we tightly align ourselves with trade schools and local communities and keep in mind that there is a greater purpose beyond profitability in building boats. We all need a purpose in life and providing that greater purpose for our employees is important to us.
BCSN: I’d like to spend some time looking at the differences you’ve found between Canadian and U.S. operations.
BB: As mentioned earlier, there are a number of intricacies between Canada and the U.S. when it comes to local regulations for the environment and workers compensation as well as vessel construction standards and, probably most importantly, in the culture and preferences of customers. From our perspective, we’re seeing a slight increase in the trend for vessels to be purchased at home — i.e., U.S. customers purchasing in the U.S. and B.C. customers purchasing in B.C. We believe that trend will continue for some time.
For regulations in vessel construction, generally, all vessels are built similarly and to a high standard but the interpretation of those regulations is something that influences the whole notion of vessels being purchased at home.
I should also mention, from an environmental and health/safety standpoint, we have very high standards in B.C. and Washington compared to other parts of North America. That’s an important aspect for our customers as well as for our employees.
BCSN: What are the priorities for the Bolton Group in the coming years?
BB: First and foremost, we’ll continue to strengthen our team in terms of leadership, trades, naval architecture and engineering. We find that if we focus on the people, the plan will fall into place.
Achieving high levels of customer satisfaction is a close second. Something my father taught me was to “say what you do and do what you say”. Keeping this value front and center along with tools like closed loop contract administrations processes will enable us to build lasting relationships.
We’ll also continue to invest in new technology. We’re embarking on higher levels of automation in the manufacturing process. We believe it’s critical to have an edge over competitors by staying abreast of new technology.
On the commercial side, including government and military vessels, our goal is to increase our portfolio of product that focuses on the various needs of our customers.
We’ve enjoyed great growth over the last several decades and certainly plan on continuing in that direction while maintaining our standards for quality and reliability in products as well as focusing on shorter lead times and fair and competitive pricing.
BCSN: Does that growth include looking at new locations for manufacturing? Further to that, could you outline your current market reach?
BB: For the next 12 to 18 months, we’ll be very much focused on internal efficiencies, increased adaption and application of technology as well as growing our portfolio. When we look beyond that, we’ve been successful in acquiring and integrating companies and we’re always looking for opportunities to grow through acquisition. For the short term, we’re focus on our own backyard — B.C. and the Pacific Northwest — but longer term definitely includes geographic expansion.
Looking at the market we serve right now, on the commercial side, our strongest market is the Puget Sound and B.C. coast but there are some other markets that treat us very well — for example, the Great Lakes, Alaska, Hawaii and a number of different regions. We’ve got a pilot boat under construction right now for a commercial operator in Mexico. For recreational boats, again, B.C. and the Pacific Northwest are strong markets for us but we’re also in areas like California and the Gulf of Florida.
BCSN: Do you have a general forecast or insight into the future of the industry here?
BB: I’m optimistic about what the next 10 years has in store for the Canadian and Pacific Northwest boat building industry. We have seen steady activity with our aquaculture and survey / research vessels. There are some great initiatives being undertaken on the Canadian coast with the Oceans Protection Plan and we also anticipate a greater demand for passenger vessels as well as vessels to support the growth in the marine industry both in and around the Lower Mainland as well as in the north, Kitimat, for example. Certainly, military and law enforcement have aged fleets and will need to reinvest in vessels which creates opportunity for Armstrong and Daigle.
In the U.S., the demand for passenger vessels has been the strongest we’ve seen for quite some time and we anticipate that to continue into the future. The U.S. government has placed a priority on developing further infrastructure to transport passengers in metropolitan areas and that will positively impact aluminum boat building industry particularly.
About Byron Bolton and the Bolton Marine Group
Byron Bolton is an avid outdoorsman with a strong passion for the marine industry. Byron is the CEO of family-owned KingFisher Boats, Renaissance Marine Group Inc., Armstrong Marine USA Inc., and recently acquired Daigle Marine Inc. Since 1992, the Bolton Marine Group has developed KingFisher, Northwest Boats, Duckworth, Weldcraft, Armstrong, Daigle and EagleCraft into leading heavy-gauge aluminum boat brands. This broad portfolio focuses on recreational boating, commercial use, law enforcement and military applications — all well-established in multiple marine sectors. Combined, these brands represent the Number One market share of heavy-gauge aluminum boats in North America.
Byron has attended executive development programs at the Ivey School of Management, Stanford University and Harvard Business School. Byron has also participated on many industry and not-for-profit boards.