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Builder alliance helps Maine thrive

Group spreads the word about the state’s $355-million boating industry by banding together to get exposure

Maine is the grandfather of boatbuilding in the United States. As far back as 1607, clipper ships were being built to bring supplies back from Europe.

Maine Built Boats offers smaller builders a strength-in-numbers approach to marketing says alliance president Jane Wellehan.

Now the state has 2,500 industry workers and is responsible for $355 million in sales — topping the well-known lobster industry by $80 million.

With an eye to substantially increase jobs in the boating industry, an alliance between smaller companies in the state emerged in the form of Maine Built Boats in late 2005.

“It all started with the idea that we wanted to go to high-profile boat shows, but we couldn’t afford to do it individually,” says Jane Wellehan, president of MBB. “When we thought about collecting smaller businesses together to go to a show, we realized we were onto something.”

The group began with a “soft start,” with such groups as Hinckley Yachts and Sabre Yachts. Expenses were funded by member dues and sponsors, but recent outreach efforts have been funded by a $1.9-million Workforce Innovation in Regional Economic Development grant that Maine’s North Star Alliance Initiative won 2-1/2 years ago to help the boatbuilding industry.

Maine Built Boats member Rockport Marine launches Bernice - a P Class Sloop built in 1916 by Hodgdon Brothers Boatyard - after completing a restoration last spring.

MBB is going into the third year of this grant, which helped fund the group’s trip in September 2008 to the Monaco Yacht Show, Wellehan says. The show attracts more than 25,000 international visitors each year.

“We are the third-largest manufacturer in the state and we are poised for growth,” says Wellehan. “A lot of this grant has developed advertising, meeting press and learning how to promote ourselves.”

Wellehan says the grant has given them a good base and she is fully confident MBB will be able to sustain its outreach efforts on its own.

MBB has 58 members, 20 to 25 of whom joined in 2008. Wellehan hopes outreach to Europe will offer a membership boost as well as another customer base.

“We have a part of our Web site translated into French, so we’re taking steps,” says Wellehan. “They are starting to realize there’s a high quality of boatbuilding in the States.”

Fifteen percent of Sabre Yachts’ sales were international in 2007, says Bentley Collins, vice president of marketing and sales, and rose to 20 percent by the end of 2008. Bentley hopes to reach 25 percent by the end of 2009.

“Boatbuilding is a passion. I think you’ll find more people with a passion for boatbuilding in Maine than any other state,” says Collins.

Wellehan, who came on board as president in October 2007, has sailed out of Portland since she was a kid and says she always admired the craftsmanship of boatbuilding.

“There is so much history here; it is a craft that has a high level of tradition,” says Wellehan, who also helped establish the Maine Boatbuilders Show in 1988.

It’s also an art, she says, and one the alliance works to cultivate. A display in the MBB booth at the Newport (R.I.) International Boat Show featured a man working diligently on the hull of a vessel, with the caption “Michelangelo had his paintings.”

“It’s all historic craftsmanship, but some are too little to go it alone,” says Wellehan. “That’s where we come in.”

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This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.