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Talkin' Boats with Ken Clinton president, Intrepid Powerboats

Intrepid Powerboats builds high-end open boats from 24 to 47 feet that are packed with innovation. But company president Ken Clinton wants you to know that Intrepid prides itself on customer service as much as on the premium boats it builds.

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“Good customer service is invaluable,” says Clinton, 45, who started at Intrepid in 1991 and has been president for five years. “That’s why people keep coming back to us.”

The Largo, Florida-based builder made a big splash last year with its new Panacea 475 — the first recreational boat with quad Seven Marine 557-hp outboards.

That’s a whopping 2,228 horses on the transom of a center console. And Clinton has rigged another Intrepid with a hybrid propulsion system that can use natural gas to power its outboards.

During his years with Intrepid, Clinton has seen the company change hands a few times, but it remains a strong brand. Customers include such celebrities as Major League Baseball player Alex Rodriguez and pop music artists Enrique Iglesias and Gloria Estefan. The company, which employs 350, will soon move into a new 7,400-square-foot headquarters that will include a new customer design center and a larger engineering facility. “It will be beautiful,” Clinton says. “It will be an Intrepid, but a building.”

Clinton and his wife, Krysti, live in Odessa, Florida. He has a 24-year-old daughter, Amanda, and a 20-year-old son, Kenneth.

Q: What can you tell us about the new Panacea 475?

The Panacea 475, which debuted last year, is Intrepid's largest center console.

A: It is indeed a panacea — a solve-all boat. It’s a boat you can fish on, cruise on and entertain on. You have a cabin below with all the amenities. People want to be outside and have lots of seating, but they still want a small cabin to be able to spend a night or to get out of the weather. And we are giving them that without sacrificing on-deck space. There is no compromise — you have a totally open center console with lots of seating and a cabin.

Q: You made big news when you installed four Seven Marine 557-hp outboards on the Panacea 475. How many have you sold with this configuration?

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A: We have sold and delivered two of them. Top speed is 73 mph, and cruising speed is about 60 mph. The typical setup would be quad Yamaha 350s, which gives you a top speed of 63 mph and cruise at about 47 mph. We have done about 10 other boats, as well, with different marine engine packages.

Q: You’re developing a gas/natural gas hybrid propulsion system. Is natural gas a practical alternative fuel for boats?

A: The system was developed by Blue Gas Marine. This is a legitimate fuel alternative, and there are so many benefits that come with this system that I don’t see why it wouldn’t take off. If you look at any innovation — electric cars, for instance — someone had to buy into the technology and start that innovation. You have to push through skepticism. I’m the guy who installed four 557-hp outboards on a boat because a customer wanted them. So we owe it to everyone to look at the green avenues. Once we saw the benefits, not only the fuel economy but also the cleanliness of the system, I was sold on it. We have retrofitted a 2013 Intrepid 327 CC powered with twin Mercury 300-hp Verado 4-strokes. I wanted to go through with this in the most challenging situation, and that would be taking an existing boat and adding the hybrid technology without removing or changing the existing fuel system. It would be much easier to build a new one from scratch.

Q: Intrepid also is known for its on-deck innovations. What features are you really proud of?

Intrepid is known for its innovative deck features, such as this dive door with steps and handrails.

A: I would start with our dive doors. This is something we innovated before anyone else. They have evolved a great deal, too. Now we have a fold-in dive door that takes up no cockpit space and rests against the gunwale; it has a flip-out ladder. We also build actuating backrests and sliding console doors. We add innovation even when certain companies might not be ready to come to market with that innovation. We built a quad-outboard control on our own before the outboard manufacturers. We built our own 35-inch outboard shaft. If we need more horsepower, we find it. We are able to act on our own.

Q: So innovation has played a pretty big role in the success of Intrepid Powerboats?

A: Innovation plays a huge role. When you come out with something new, sales just go crazy. That’s why we’re always coming up not only with new boats but new helm seats and arches and towers. That’s what people want. If you own a 370 Cuddy and you come to see the new 375 Walkaround that just came out to replace that, not only does it give you everything the 370 did, but it has a bigger head and a separate shower and a bigger cabin, and we put a windscreen in the front. It’s all these things that make people think they want to trade up to the newer model.

In comparison, if you settle and only change the white vinyl to a tan vinyl and put a backrest on the fore seating and call it an LX model and you’re going to be satisfied with that as a manufacturer, you’re going to lose. You have to stay cutting-edge. You have to lead. You have to be first out of the box with something.

Intrepid builds express and cuddy models, too. This is the starboard helm and cabin of the 475 Sport Yacht.

People ask me if we get frustrated that so many people copy what we do. First of all, I take it as a compliment. But I also put the pressure back on the people here so that by the time [others] copy the last thing we did, it doesn’t matter because that’s old. Now we do it this way.

Q: Will we see boats from Intrepid that eclipse the 50-foot mark?

A: Yes, but not right away. I already have a 54-footer drawn, but I have other demands for other boats. Right now I am working on refreshing our fleet. The boat I am working on now is not over 50 feet, but it is going to be in our sport yacht series. And it might make its first appearance at the Palm Beach International Boat Show this spring. But that is a maybe.

Q: How did you get into boatbuilding and work your way up the ranks at Intrepid?

A: In Connecticut as a young adult, I worked at General Dynamics, building submarines. My father built submarines at General Dynamics, or Electric Boat, for 30-plus years. So when I moved to Florida and was looking for a job, while being interviewed they asked me, “What makes you think you can build boats?” I said, “I built submarines, so if I do everything opposite it will float instead of sink.” That is how I started in the marine industry.

With 2,228 horses, the Panacea tops out at 73 mph.

My first job in the recreational arena was with Triumph Yachts, which was owned by Genmar. We were at a plant in Tampa, right on the water. Our job was to build a line of premium yachts. We started with 34-foot sedans and were in the middle of producing a 38 when the luxury tax went through. It decimated our industry. Genmar consolidated and moved to Sarasota. I was at Wellcraft for a while. Intrepid ended up at the former Viking Gulfstar facility in St. Petersburg. I got let go from Wellcraft as Intrepid Powerboats was moving into the St. Pete location. I joined them in 1991. I started as a boatbuilder, making $7.25 an hour. I was doing all the hull prep — setting liners, glassing liners in, decking boats — I worked my way up from there. I was a line supervisor, plant manager, VP of manufacturing, COO and then president.

Q: Did you get into boating as a youngster?

A: I grew up in Danielson, Connecticut. We used to go Jamestown and Newport, Rhode Island, when I was kid. We would go to Jamestown and go eel fishing and quahogging. We had small skiffs, but we never had big boats. Our family didn’t have that kind of money.

Q: Is there one strength of Intrepid that you really want people to know about?

A: The biggest point I want to make to customers is that we are a factory-direct builder. We have no dealership network, so we don’t have to leave room for a dealer to make his money, whatever that percentage may be. Therefore I am able to put that money into the product with better materials, more man-hours and better support. There is a margin there that I get to use instead of a dealer. If you say to people you are using better materials and offer better customer service than other builders, they are going to ask how you are able to achieve that. And it boils down to the absence of a dealer network.

Q: Intrepid is known for its customer service. Why is this so important?

A: Good customer service has more worth than any sexy ad in a magazine or any TV commercial. It is imperative to take care of your customer. And most times we take care of our customer for something that might not be warrantied. We have this situation so frequently that we now count our warranty expenses, but we also keep track of “customer-courtesy” expenses. In one year we might spend $100,000 in warranty expenses, but close to $500,000 in customer-courtesy service. Even if a certain component, such as a generator, fails and is not being handled properly by the manufacturer, we will take care of it. We have replaced the generators on our tab. That is just one of the reasons people keep coming back to us.

Q: How important has Mark Beaver been in the company’s success?

Clinton is quick to point out that Intrepid would never have achieved its success without chief operating officer Mark Beaver (left).

A: Intrepid would not be where it is today without the partnership we made those many years ago. We have worked together for over 20 years. I wish I had a dollar for every night I looked over and the only other person in the shop with me was Mark. He essentially built the entire quality-control process from scratch while I ran manufacturing, and now together we run all aspects of the business together, from design to the day-to-day issues. His value to Intrepid is immeasurable.

Q: Intrepid is all about taking care of the customer, but what if a customer asks for an unwise feature or design?

A: If it’s something just a little off the wall that I’m a little concerned about … I’ll say, “Look, it’s not that I can’t do it and that I won’t do it, but you have to understand that one of the biggest advantages to having an Intrepid … is the resale value.”

Q: How does brainstorming with customers about design lead to better boats?

A: I have customers that want to meet me or my business partner, Mark, the chief operating officer, and talk to us about their design. We enjoy this part of the business tremendously. I’ve had more helm seats drawn on cocktail napkins than you can shake a stick at. Or someone will say, “I’m a diver, and nobody makes good combinations for a diver. It’s a mess.” And they’ll draw you a little chicken-scratch drawing of a dream they have. There’s nothing more fulfilling than them coming back a year later, and you watch them look at this helm seat you’ve designed based on his cocktail-napkin drawing and watch their eyes light up and say, “That’s it. That’s exactly what I had in my head.” And the best part is, “Oh, wow, you took it a step further. I didn’t think of that. This is fantastic.” You always want to not only give a customer what they’re looking for — there’s nothing better than putting a little twist on it and surprising them with something they weren’t expecting.

When people take delivery of their Intrepid, they’ll show up with their family and often a few friends. They’ll walk on the boat and say, “I had them put this here, and I had them make this 2 inches taller because I thought it was too low.” They are describing it like they designed it, like they engineered it. It makes it theirs. It’s not going to a dealership and picking out the red one or the blue one. We ask them how they use the boat. Do you sleep on it? Do you dive on it, or fish? We dial it in for them, and it’s a blast. It’s really a good gig.

February 2015 issue


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