The Sea Ray founder built his company on a foundation of ‘superior products’ and customer appreciation
Cornelius Nathaniel “Connie” Ray III, founder of Sea Ray Boats and an influential figure in the growth of the market for fiberglass boats, died Nov. 12 after a five-year battle with colon cancer. He was 84 and had been living at his ranch near Santa Ynez, Calif.
Ray founded Sea Ray in 1959 in Oxford, Mich., and built it into one of the world’s largest boatbuilders. He sold the company to Brunswick Corp. in December 1986 for $350 million. Sea Ray sold about 14,000 boats from 17 to 60 feet — $1 billion worth — in both 2007 and 2008, according to “Commanding the Waterways: The Story of Sea Ray,” Jeff Rodengen’s 2008 company history.
Ray started humbly enough, building family runabouts from a small fiberglass shop he had bought. The shop also fabricated golf cart bodies and coffins. Dropping the side lines, he turned to building boats exclusively and modeled some of his approaches to building and selling them on the Detroit automakers.
“Styling was very, very key to him,” says Pete Beauregard, an Algonac, Mich., Sea Ray dealer since 1964 and a friend of Ray’s. Sea Ray brought in General Motors designer Harley Earl to help design the early boats. Fins didn’t sell very well, but Earl’s application of auto styling to Sea Ray interiors — to the dash and upholstery — and some of his other auto-inspired design ideas helped put Sea Ray on the map.
Ray was adamant that a good dealer network would be critical to his success. “Distribution was king,” Beauregard says. That meant finding dealers who could show the boats, and service the boats and customers, well. “[Ray] really did have a personal relationship with all of his dealers.”
Sea Ray president Robert J. Parmentier, who worked under Ray in the early 1980s, agrees. “He believed … that you built a good quality boat, backed it up, delivered good customer service and got the best dealers,” says Parmentier.
In the introduction to Rodengen’s book — written for Sea Ray’s 50th anniversary this year — Ray says he already knew what he needed to do to succeed when he exhibited for the first time at the Chicago National Boat Show in 1960.
“We were already setting ourselves apart from our competition with strict attention to the basics: superior products, superior dealers and a sincere appreciation of our customers,” he wrote.
He also paid a lot of attention to his dealers and workers, often flying himself around the country to visit them. “Boy, he was loyal to his people,” Beauregard recalls. “He wanted to be with his employees and his dealers. His company, his employees and his dealers — they made life tick for him.”
Parmentier describes Ray as one of the marine industry’s icons. “He helped develop the fiberglass boat business,” he says. “He was always a step ahead of his time.”
After retiring from Sea Ray, Ray turned his attention to his other love, raising thoroughbred horses. He spent time at his Evergreen Farm near Paris, Ky., and at a small farm near Bradbury, Calif., and a training center in Camden, S.C.
Born May 14, 1925, to Charles H. Ray and Virginia Bryant Ray in Detroit, Ray attended the Detroit University School in Grosse Pointe, Mich., joined the Army Air Corps during World War II, and graduated from UCLA in 1949. Known to his friends as C.N. or Connie, Ray was “passionate about enjoying life, boating, aviation and animals, especially thoroughbred horses,” says his son C.C. Ray.
Ray is survived by a daughter, five sons and his wife of 28 years, Carol. A sister and a sixth son predeceased him.
This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue.