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Boatmakers shore up Midlands manufacturing scene

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Falcon Boats employee Jonathan Gibson works on a boat in the company’s factory in Newberry. (Photo/Jeff Blake)

Two of the main players spearheading the revitalization of the Midlands’ marine industry share a trait crucial to the success of their businesses: Boats are in their blood.

Stephen Waller is president of Falcon Boats, an independent startup which started operations in Newberry in March. Jimmy Hancock is co-owner of Sea Pro Boats, which has been operating out of its 200,000-square-foot manufacturing headquarters in Whitmire since fall.

The new businesses represent a resurgence in a traditionally strong S.C. industry and an overall recovery in the state’s economy since the Great Recession, which hit luxury markets such as boating particularly hard.

“There’s definitely some pent-up consumer demand,” Hancock said. “Our industry is as strong as it’s ever been. In fact, I was reading an article a couple of weeks ago. They’re expecting the 2017 model year, which begins in July, to be as strong as the market was in ‘06, which was the all-time high.”

In 2006, U.S. retail spending on boating hit $37.6 billion, according to National Marine Manufacturers Association data. The economic decline that began two years later eventually caused a bottoming out in 2010 at $29.1 billion.

The recovery from that drop has been steady, with $35.4 billion spent in 2014 — including $445.7 million on new powerboat, engine, trailer and boat accessories in South Carolina — and $37.5 billion spent in 2015.

“We’re sold out for the year,” Hancock said.

That’s a good place to be, one Hancock couldn’t envision a decade ago. Hancock, a lifelong Chapin resident, and his brother, Tommy, started Sea Pro Boats in 1988, eventually selling the company to Brunswick Corp. in 2005. Three years later, Brunswick, citing economic woes and high fuel prices, shut down the Sea Pro line and shuttered the Midlands plant, putting about 175 people out of work.

“It was sad to see,” said Hancock, who considered many of those employees family.

After the 2005 sale, Hancock left the boating industry to dabble in real estate. But the boating itch never went away, and in 2015, he and longtime friend Preston Wrenn, who founded Lexington company Tidewater Boats in 2005, got back into the boat-building business.

The relaunched Sea Pro Boats invested $5.5 million in a new manufacturing facility, generating 238 jobs, and re-entered the market with The Next Wave, a line of bay boats and center-console offshore fishing boats made up of seven new models.

“It’s all I’ve ever done. I enjoy doing it,” Hancock said.

“I have a son (Jay) that graduated high school last year, and this is all he ever wanted to do. He’s out here working for us now.”

At the sprawling Sea Pro plant off S.C. Highway 121, saws whine and dust flies as boats are molded, gel-coated, fitted with fiberglass shells, demolded, and trimmed. Then it’s on to the assembly stage.

“The hulls have to get fuel tanks and wire harnesses and grill fittings and different parts and pieces, and then the decks get rigged with fleets and all the different parts and pieces,” Hancock said while navigating a golf cart around the production floor.

“We actually chemically bond the decks and hulls together, and we mechanically fasten them together as well. Then they keep moving forward, where they get the upholstery and the console and the motors.”

Tweaks are still being made to the plant, including the removal of ductwork left by the previous owner and the repurposing of some inherited steel. There are also plans to install a test tank, “basically an in-ground swimming pool,” Hancock said, in which boats will be tested for leaks before being shipped out to Sea Pro’s nationwide dealer network.

“I never imagined that I’d wind up with the Sea Pro name again,” Hancock said. “Just getting the Sea Pro name back — that was the most important thing.”

Waller, a Tennessee native, had made a name for himself in the industry, most recently while running Marine Pro, an Irmo company that specialized in boat repair and modification. Like Hancock, Waller, along with Falcon co-owners Tim DePriest and Jimmy Metts, wanted to make boats, not just fix them.

“We’re boat builders by trade,” Waller said. “Jimmy’s been in the boat business a long time. My father started a boat company in 1972, so I literally grew up in a boat factory. And Tim’s been in the bass boat business since the ‘80s. Our roots are really, really deep in the bass boat business.”

That’s the niche that Falcon is determined to fill.

The company, which purchased an existing building off Wilson Road with plans to invest $1.5 million and add 35 jobs, has begun manufacturing its first model. The F-215 is a 21-foot freshwater bass boat available in single- and double-console models. \

“There’s so many saltwater builders out there, not just in South Carolina, but everywhere. We said, ‘Hey, we ought to do bass boats. That’s what we know,’ ” Waller said.

“Through all the changes in the bass industry, we think that it plays to our favor. There’s not very many independent bass boat builders left. The corporations have gobbled up probably the big five or so. So we feel like we’re in a good spot.”

Waller said Falcon plans to add another model within the next few months, but the company’s growth is proceeding, by design, at a measured pace.

“We’re getting a lot more excitement about it, and new leads every day, but we’ve chosen a slow, methodical approach to this whole startup,” Waller said.

“We could have thrown a lot of money at this and been way ahead of where we are now, but we’ve chosen the slow, controlled, funding-it-as-we-go approach.

“We’re in a spot right now where we’re trying to get dealers. In this business, it’s a laborious process to get new models, and we know to get a real good grip in the market we’re probably going to have to have six to eight models. So we’re currently tooling another length, which will give us two more (single- and double-console) models, (but) we’re not going to say we’re going to have four models by the end of the year. It could be done, but not the way we’re doing it.”

Waller said Falcon’s experienced, knowledgeable staff is helping spread the word about the company in the community and beyond, as is John Hunter, a professional angler who recently made a Bassmaster Elite Series final in Georgetown while fishing in a Falcon boat.

Falcon’s manufacturing floor, which also includes boats being repaired for Marine Pro, features shiny, finished examples of both a single- and double-console F-215, destined for new homes in Virginia and North Carolina.

“People seem to be gravitating towards us because we are small,” Waller said. “We’ve got more stuff coming down the pipeline, and as that happens, we will be able to gain more dealers.”

The opening of the Sea Pro and Falcon facilities drew laudatory reaction from state and local officials, including S.C. Gov. Nikki Haley and Secretary of Commerce Bobby Hitt. Said Henry Livingston III, Newberry County Council chairman: “It’s great to see that the boat manufacturing industry is alive and well in Newberry County.”

Hancock and Waller are glad to be a part of a regional revitalization that also puts them back where they belong.

“We’re boat guys from way back,” Waller said. “So I guess it does kind of feel like it’s coming full circle.” 

Contact Melinda Waldrop at 803-726-7542.

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