In February, the Canadian brand FortNine acquired Connecticut-based Defender Industries, which, since 1938, has been a go-to shop for boaters seeking reasonably priced gear, inflatables and outboard motors. The deal may seem odd to boaters at first, given that FortNine is a leading online supplier of gear for motorcycles, dirt bikes and ATVs. But the internet retail prowess that FortNine has established since it was founded in 2009—by a guy who couldn’t find an affordable motorcycle helmet in his local stores—is expected to become like a rocket booster for Defender.
Until now, Defender’s marketing plan has been based around a printed catalog that company founder Sheldon Lance created in 1960. The first catalog was about 35 pages; the last one came out in 2019 with about 60,000 products.
“Up until two years ago, other than that catalog mailing, we really didn’t do any marketing,” says Stephan Lance, the founder’s son and president of Defender. “Today, we’re at roughly 85,000 active SKUs and over a million special-order SKUs. We’ll order anything from our vendor partners that anybody needs.”
FortNine plans to combine Defender’s position as the largest independent marine-supply firm in the U.S. with its own expertise in providing a smart shopping experience online. Boaters can expect to see an expanded ability to order a significantly increased number of products. The company also intends to reduce Defender’s shipping charges and delivery times for U.S. boaters through some logistics investments, according to Eric Cadorette, FortNine’s chief operating officer.
That kind of online access for boaters is something Sheldon Lance could not have imagined when he founded Defender. He never could afford a boat of his own, but he enjoyed being out on friends’ boats. In the postwar years of the 1950s, he figured out something that helped his company grow.
“He was a Brooklyn native who came up with the idea of selling Army surplus materials for people to use on boats,” Lance says. “He would take things like old parachute material and buy it in bulk. He had seamstresses. Anything that anybody wanted for a boat, he would make. He later got into vinyl and canvas. That expanded into inflatable boats purchased on surplus.”
The company continued to thrive after Sheldon Lance died in 2011. He was remembered as a pioneer in the mail-order business. Today, Defender’s tens of thousands of products span the spectrum of power and sail, and lean toward economical prices that give boaters affordable solutions to problems.
“We’ve always had a bit of a bend toward sail because my family is all sailors,” Lance says. “I went over to the dark side and bought a Leopard 43 Powercat. I’ll always love hoisting sails, but my family really didn’t have enough time to go sailing.”
Lance will remain president of Defender, which has 120 full-time employees and a 150,000-square-foot headquarters. He’s eager to see how FortNine, which has dabbled in boating, can take the company into its next era.
“They are passionate about being in the industry,” Lance says, adding that this is the first time in nearly a century that someone other than a member of his family will own Defender. “I’m excited—and a little bit nervous.”
This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue.