Subtle Signs

Spectator — March 2002

Selecting a Custom Boat/Yacht Builder, Part II.

Last month I explored 12 signs that your custom builder may be heading into trouble. ➤ This month, I look at 26 more.

1. The builder's boat show booth only displays sleek artist's renderings and models with no pictures of real boats. Quite often, believe it or not, this is because it has never built a real boat--at least nothing of the size it is aspiring to.

2. Management has hired efficiency experts to improve productivity. This may work fine in a widget factory, but it just doesn't apply to boatbuilding. Artists won't stand for an efficiency dork (who doesn't know a rabbit in a plank from Bugs Bunny) telling them how long it should take to craft a cabinet.

3. Your Italian boatbuilder suddenly doesn't speak English.

4. Your American boatbuilder suddenly only speaks Italian.

5. Pencil-necked, geek accountants make major design decisions. Everybody needs accountants, but full-time "bean counters" at custom boat shops don't cut it (see no. 2 above).

6. Nobody likes the general manager, including the outside contractors, the employees, the clients, and even the yard dog. When the employees give a name like "rat face" to their boss, expect trouble.

7. Yard employees have challenged the general manager to step outside for fisticuffs.

8. Attempts have been made on the life of the yard's general manager. Toolboxes "accidentally" drop from scaffolding as the manager walks by or his Coke is laced with antifreeze.

9. The facility has too many damned computers and not enough hammers. Sometimes builders forget that it's hammers, not PCs, that build boats.

10. The boatyard owner keeps telling you how much money he has. Beware! Guys who constantly talk about how much of anything they have usually don't.

11. Friday-afternoon beer parties at the shop become history. A yard needs employees full of enthusiasm and esprit de corps. Those who party together build great boats together. Robotlike employees with no energy, enthusiasm, or sense of humor do not a happy shop make.

12. Whenever you call the yard, everybody is in a meeting. Excessive meetings in any business are a sure sign of decay. The purpose of most meetings is to bolster the boss's ego. The fewer damned meetings, the better.

13. The facility is too upscale to have a mangey yard dog roaming around.

14. The yard employs more lawyers than laminators. When too many lawyers get involved, it is a sure recipe for disaster.

15. The client is billed for doughnuts consumed during a meeting he attended.

16. When you ask, "What's the price?" the builder responds, "What do you want to pay?" It happened to me. Believe it or not, a surprising number of major motoryachts are built for a price that has not been analytically nor scientifically arrived at.

17. When you ask the builder about his overhead, he points up to his crane. Is he joking or just plain stupid?

18. A government is subsidizing the yard. All it takes is an election (or a coup d'etat), and the yard could be a goner.

19. The builder has more boats on the bottom than on the surface, and it's not in the submarine business.

20. The builder is supplementing his income with a boutique selling high-end, monogrammed sweatshirts and skivvies with the builder's name emblazoned everywhere.

21. The builder is supplementing his income by taking on odd jobs like making fluted-fiberglass columns for restaurants or fabricating huge fiberglass Minnie Mouse shoes for a Disney display. (If the truth be known, some yards are more suited for making fiberglass shoes than motoryachts.)

22. Unsold 100-foot-plus spec boats are lined up behind the builder's shop like eclairs on a pastry rack.

23. The yard manager is as interested in fixing up his office manager with the yacht designer as he is in building the boat. Hey! That's how I met my wife, but in this case, the boat was finished and she was outstanding. (So was the boat.)

24. Periodically during the day, the builder drops trou in public and gives himself an injection. He says it's for his headaches, but who really knows?

25. The builder's favorite expression is "No problem." This often translates to "big problem."

26. The yard manager has a little book in his top desk drawer that he consults frequently as you are negotiating. Later you find that in it are definitions of words such as port, starboard, bow, and stern. This one is hard to believe, but I speak from first-hand experience. It happened in a Brazilian yard in Rio. The yard manager had previously run a washing machine factory and didn't know the back end of a boat from Isaac Stern.

As I said in Part I, if any of the above apply to your builder, it doesn't necessarily mean the firm is headed for trouble, but it does warrant careful investigation. If I make it sound pretty bleak, it really isn't. The fact is, with careful checking, good boatbuilders with track records in the business can be found worldwide. Over the years we have successfully built boats in countries like Brazil, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, Italy, Canada, and of course, the USA. Although I am not an advocate of "liars for hire" (lawyers), I must reiterate that it is very important to have a shark who knows and understands the marine business arrange the construction contract. These guys are invariably expensive but well worth the money. They can save the owner much grief and big bucks if something unforeseen occurs down the line.

In all the years I have been in the business of designing boats and having hundreds built (since 1966), only one client failed to take delivery of his boat due to builder problems. That would be yours truly (I knew it was a shaky deal going in, but I was working with my own bucks, so I took a shot).

Finally, eyeball the head muckety-muck carefully. Take him out to lunch "one on one," without his staff around to make him look good. What do you see? Can this guy be trusted? Does he have a nervous tick? Does he have darty Nixon eyes? Of course, if you can see scales through his shirt, or he leaves a slime stain on the carpet where he is standing, you should think about moving on.

This article originally appeared in the March 2002 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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