Craftsmanship is the game for this boatbuilder, and customers are willing to wait for it
Customers are often miffed when Ken Clinton tells them it will take at least a year to build their new Intrepid powerboat. But they understand completely after getting the company president’s two-hour tour of the boatbuilding operation in Largo, Fla.
“It is my opportunity to show them, this is why you have to wait,” says Clinton, 42, who started with Intrepid 21 years ago, building boats for $7.50 an hour. “When they see how we build boats — the difference in quality, the attention to detail — it becomes clear what we do takes time.”
Intrepid broke into the market in 1983, building motor-yacht tenders. “There’s no worse punishment you can put a boat through than to drag it behind a 120-foot Feadship,” says Clinton. “The other manufacturers were getting beat up because of the service and warranty issues. Most backed away; tenders were a loss for them. We figured out a way to build boats that can take that kind of punishment.”
Intrepid still builds tenders — eight of them in 2011. “We use the same build process, whether it’s a tender or not a tender,” says Clinton. “You overbuild and make sure you are not going to get that phone call from an unhappy customer.”
During the economic downturn, Intrepid, which employs 260 people, continued to introduce new models and find ways to better design and manufacture boats. “We realize we need to be improving all the time,” says chief operating officer Mark Beaver, who has worked alongside Clinton for the last two decades.
Intrepid’s newest model usually ends up being its best seller, and that has held true with the 327 Open and the 400 Cuddy. “This year we’ll build about 90 boats, and 20 will be 327 Opens and 25 will be 400 Cuddys,” says Clinton.
The 400 Cuddy — typically powered with triple 300- or 350-hp outboards — has been so popular since its debut two years ago that Intrepid created a fourth production line just for this model, he says. “It’s a perfect combination of just enough cabin and plenty of cockpit,” he says. “Many customers either want a sport yacht with plenty of cabin so they can use it for extended cruises, or an open boat because they’ll use it only as a dayboat. The 400 Cuddy actually gives you both.”
The average price of a rigged 400 Cuddy is around $435,000. Indeed, Intrepid boats are at the high end of the market, with a price range that starts at $115,000 for the 245 Center Console with a single 300-hp outboard and climbs to $750,000 for a 475 Sport Yacht with quad 350s. The fleet consists of 14 models in center console, cuddy and cabin configurations.
Outboards are the engine of choice at Intrepid, even for a boat approaching 50 feet. The builder has capitalized on the improvements in today’s outboards and their increased power. “Let’s face it — outboard engines have come a long way,” says Clinton. “They’re fuel-efficient, reliable and powerful.”
Will Intrepid continue to build bigger and bigger outboard boats? “I have drawings completed for a 54 that I already have six deposits on and will probably start [manufacturing] in 2013,” Clinton says. “That’s a three-stateroom boat — and an outboard boat.”
The boat will be powered by triple 557-hp outboards from Seven Marine, he says. Seven Marine introduced the behemoth 4-stroke at the 2011 Miami International Boat Show (www.seven-marine.com). Two of the 1,000-pound V-8 engines were mounted on an Intrepid 370 Cuddy, which also was shown last October at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show. Normally powered with triple 350-hp Yamahas, the boat hits 75 mph with twin 557s, Clinton says.
“We knew this was a direction we wanted to go in,” he says. “We’re really pleased that [Seven Marine] is getting ready to start production. We’ll have engines in the pipeline by summer. We have customers with boats on order with this engine package.”
The base price of the Intrepid 370 Cuddy is around $200,000, with an additional $180,000 for the twin Seven Marine 557s and rigging.
Pod drives have become a popular propulsion choice, and Intrepid has designed a pod boat, though it has yet to build one. Clinton is skeptical, citing more cons than pros — for his customers, that is. “Our customers have come to us wanting boats with a shallow draft,” he says. “Some of the input we hear is if you run aground in a pod boat it’s very expensive to repair damages.”
The engines are mounted under the deck in a pod installation and Clinton says that steals valuable space for fishboxes, live wells and other compartments. “I don’t understand where pods give you a benefit — you can dock easier?” he says. “I mean, is that really worth it for the cockpit space and draft?”
Intrepid does offer inboard and inboard-outboard power, Clinton says, and the builder recently completed a 40-footer with Volvo Penta diesel I/Os. The customer was so pleased, Clinton says, that he ordered a 24-footer with a single diesel I/O. “We are programmed to listen to our customers and give them whatever they want,” he says.
So when a customer requested a $100,000 gyro stabilizer for his 39-foot sport yacht, it was going to happen. Intrepid custom-designed the boat’s stringer system to accept the Seakeeper setup, says Beaver. “Nobody’s ever done this in a 39-foot boat,” says Beaver. “We’re the first and it works really well.” This Intrepid will serve as a tender for a superyacht — a gyro-stabilized 144-foot power cat.
‘I remember you’
Service after the sale is important at Intrepid, and Clinton, Beaver and vice president of customer service Joe Brenna maintain relationships with their clientele. “It’s not like I build a boat, send it to a dealer and don’t know who owns it until I get a warranty card in the mail,” says Clinton. “We build boats for the person, spec’d the way they want it, and we have a direct relationship with them.”
A customer phoned Clinton recently, identifying himself as the owner of a 356 Cuddy. “He said, ‘You probably don’t remember me. You built a 356 Cuddy for me a long time ago and I wanted to talk to you about another boat,’ ” says Clinton. “I said, I remember you. You’re the guy who had us install a 40-foot ham radio antenna on the port side.”
Without selling through a dealer network, Clinton says, Intrepid can build to higher standards than the competition. “I don’t have to have room for a 25 percent margin for the dealer,” he says. “I am able to take that money and put it directly into the product, with more man hours, better materials and research and development.”
Clinton backed up his words during my recent visit to the three-building complex (totaling 121,000 square feet) on 7.5 acres. He showed me solid strakes reinforced with Kevlar for stiffness and rigidity; the tedious split-molding construction for seamless, one-piece compartments; and the mirror finish of an Imron-painted hull that only comes with hours of hand-sanding. “We are control freaks,” says Clinton, who oversees the entire company, from production to marketing to design. “We want to make sure your experience … is exactly the way we feel it should be. You have spent a lot of money for a boat, and it should be a pleasant experience and it should be done with the care that it deserves.”
That care sometimes calls for inefficiency, says Clinton. A few years ago, he called in representatives from DuPont to analyze how his workers were applying and finishing the Imron. “I wanted them to show us a better way of doing what we do,” he says. “We were ending up with great product, but it was so inefficient because of the man hours.”
The Imron folks figured Intrepid may have been taking unnecessary steps, but when they saw one of the finished paint jobs they had no advice. In fact, they asked Clinton how he achieved such a brilliant finish. “I said, Oh no, don’t ask me that. I was expecting you guys to tell me how to do this without so much labor,” he says.
The process entails hand-sanding the entire hull twice — before and after it is etch-primed — and then applying multiple clear coats. The hull is then buffed by hand. “I don’t care how true your mold is or how well it’s built,” says Clinton. “It’s fiberglass. When it cures, it shrinks; it distorts. That’s why when you look down the side of boats you’re able to see what I call a washboard look, or it’s like looking in a circus mirror.”
Beaver showed me around the plant, too, filling in any gaps that Clinton had missed. Beaver, 50, a former offshore powerboat racer who once designed raceboats with designer Michael Peters, was eager to talk about the Intrepid’s new thermal- imaging building. A $40,000 FLIR thermal-imaging camera will be used to make certain the resin-infused hull cores are perfectly bonded to the fiberglass skins that sandwich them. “I want to be 110 percent sure that we have no voids or flaws in the infusion process in our hulls, and that’s what this technology will do,” says Beaver. “If there is an error in construction, you won’t see it without this. We want the technology to show us that there is nothing there, that the hull is solid.” Intrepid also uses resin infusion to manufacture its decks, cockpit soles, liners, hardtops and small parts.
We also looked at the electric Blue Sea Systems battery switches that will help boat owners avoid accidentally running down their batteries when connected to shore power. And then there’s the new helm switch panel with stainless-steel push buttons (instead of toggle switches) that illuminate with blue LEDs. “It’s five times the cost,” he says. “Each one of those switches is $80. And it’s a cost we’re absorbing.”
Intrepid builds everything in-house except the aluminum framing of the T-tops it uses. During my time with Beaver and Clinton, each made a point of stopping at the upholstery station to show me a meshed fabric called Textilene, which the company uses on the bottom of its coaming bolsters. “If somehow water does get inside the bolster, it has a way out,” says Clinton. “These little things give you resale value. You can expect your product to last longer and look better over time than other boats.”
Dr. Bob Payne’s 430 Sport Yacht, for instance, sold in about 10 days. “For a used boat, I did very well,” says Payne, a Naples, Fla., resident, who expects to take delivery of a 475 Sport Yacht in the spring. “Intrepids are in demand.”
Payne, a 55-year-old surgeon, upsized to gain a second stateroom so he and his wife could cruise with another couple to such destinations as Marathon in the Florida Keys. His 430 was powered with triple Yamaha 350s, and Intrepid will hang four 350s on his 475. The outboards get better mileage than a comparably sized inboard boat, he says. At about 35 knots, the 430 got nearly 1 nautical mile per gallon — pretty good for a boat of this size and horsepower — and he expects to do slightly better with the 475.
Payne also likes the speed of an Intrepid. “I want to go from Point A to Point B relatively quickly because time is something I don’t have a lot of,” he says.
Intrepid’s customer service has made Payne a repeat customer. Before the 430, he owned a 390. He has also owned boats from Grady-White, Boston Whaler and Cabo. “The only downside with an Intrepid is you have to wait a year,” says Payne. “But it’s worth the wait if you want a high-quality boat built exactly the way you want it. If you want a generic vanilla boat, an Intrepid is not for you because they don’t make vanilla.”
Contact Intrepid Powerboats at (954) 922-7544 or visit www.intrepidboats.com
This article originally appeared in the March 2012 issue.