Sea Ray is making boats for the future

It’s been more than a year since Brunswick Corp. backtracked on selling Knoxville-headquartered Sea Ray and decided to instead make significant product changes to retain it.

  • With the elimination of yacht production and new boats on the way in 2020, Sea Ray is poised to retain its place as a top-tier brand.
  • And as the brand celebrates its 60th anniversary this year, today most of the parts and boats bearing the Sea Ray brand are manufactured right here in Tennessee.

Eliminated yachts

When Brunswick elected to retain Sea Ray, one of its largest boating brands, in June 2018, the 600-employee Vonore plant was left intact.

In order to streamline and focus on its core competency, Sea Ray announced at that time it would discontinue its line of yachts.

The decision allowed the manufacturer to narrow its scope to match the capabilities of its sister Brunswick company, Mercury Marine, which supports engine development of smaller crafts, director of marketing Shelby Kirby said.

It was a move that has reduced complexity and emphasized a less risky part of the market, she said.

Sea Ray has since ceased yacht production, and in the next few months, dealers will sell the few models remaining in inventory.

The elimination of yachts affected only the Florida facilities, she said.

The Vonore plant, operational for 36 years, employs more than 100 people who have more than 25 years with the company and recently produced its 160,000th boat. Brunswick employs about 200 people in downtown Knoxville.

Brunswick did receive offers during the sale process, Kirby said, but those offers didn’t match the value of the brand, in Brunswick’s opinion.

The canceled sale offered an opportunity to get Sea Ray back to its origins.

“The best opportunity really was to rethink Sea Ray and really refocus the business on sport boating and cruiser product portfolio, and then wind down the sport yacht and yacht models,” said Lee Gordon, director of Brunswick Marine communications and public relations.

“And it’s been a really good decision, I think, for all of us.”

The brand has new boats under development that will “embody the new look and feel and design direction for Sea Ray moving forward,” Kirby said.

At least one new boat will launch at the end of 2020.

What’s selling now?

Kirby said the brand’s most popular boats are currently the SLX 400 and the Sundancer 320. The largest boat in Sea Ray’s fleet, the SLX 400 is a recreational boat with sleeping for four below. The boat is currently sold out.

“We’re trying to add additional manufacturing capacity just to keep up with the demand,” she said. The elimination of yacht production has allowed some of the Sea Ray Florida facilities to add capacity to produce this model.

The Sundancer 320 is Sea Ray’s famous Sundancer boat – one of the first recreational cruisers with a lower cabin and known for its long bow profile – but reimagined. On this updated version, the deck space offers seating in the bow area in addition to sleeping for four below.

“It seems as though the demand for luxury goods is still quite strong, while you may hear nods to concern about the economy for other markets,” Kirby said.

Shift in customer preferences

There’s been a major shift in customer preferences, and Sea Ray has adjusted its offerings, Kirby said. These two boats offer what Sea Ray considers the best of both worlds – great interior accommodations and maximum outdoor space.

“People are wanting more space outside,” she said. “There was a period of time where the fully enclosed boats were really, really popular and people wanted more interior cabin space. But we’re seeing the consumer demand around more exterior space.”

Customers also are more interested in outboard power on fiberglass cruisers thanks to technology advancements making outboard power quieter and easier to maintain. Nearly all the boats in the fleet have the option of outboard power now.

The company has focused on making boating easier through technology advancements – it’s something experienced and new boaters desire, Gordon said, and Sea Ray is working to make intuitive technology that mirrors what consumers might have in their homes.

“It’s not your grandfather’s pontoon anymore,” he said. “You’ve got this beautiful boat with a joystick in some sense that you can maneuver.”

The company is formally integrating Sea Ray Connect into its boats, a technology that allows consumers to monitor key information like diagnostics on battery health and and GPS tracking remotely.

The uncertainty of a potential sale gave Sea Ray an opportunity to re-evaluate the business and its goals, Kirby said. Since then, Sea Ray has been focused on workplace culture. The company is always hiring skilled and nonskilled workers and offers training.

“We’ve got a great team of people that are passionate about the company and making great boats,” she said.

Source: Knoxville News Sentinel

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Published November 22, 2019