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Edson retains its ‘old-fashioned’ values

Will Keene brings a hands-on approach to Massachusetts-based Edson International, whether he is testing out the company’s products on his own boat, visiting boat shows or talking to customers on the phone.

“If you’re an Edson customer, my cell phone number is on the Web,” says Keene, president of the 146-year-old company. “It’s not unusual for me to get a call at home at night, and that’s not a problem. We hear the good, the bad and the ugly [about our products] — and it’s not a lot of ugly.”

When customers call a lot of companies they get a voice mail or an automated menu, Keene says. If you call Edson, he says, you’re going to get somebody who’s intelligent, who knows the answer, or knows enough to get someone who will know the answer.

“It might be an old-fashioned way of doing business,” Keene says, “but I think it works. I don’t think you’ll hear an automated phone machine in here in my tenure.”

Jacob Edson formed the Edson Corp. in Boston in 1859 — more than a decade before Alexander Graham Bell would develop his telephone — to manufacture the diaphragm pump he had created. First used to pump the bilges of the Gloucester, Mass., fishing fleet, Edson’s diaphragm pump led to the horse-drawn “honey wagon” sewage removal cart.

By the turn of the century, Edson had expanded its business to include steering systems and other marine hardware. In 1949 the company moved from Boston to New Bedford, Mass.

Will Keene’s father, Henry R. Keene, bought the Edson Corp. in 1956 and began updating the product line with lightweight materials.

Will Keene concedes manufacturing in the Bay State is difficult.

“Massachusetts is a pretty tough environment for business,” he says. “[The government doesn’t] make it easy, but it’s where we live and where our workforce lives, so we’re kind of loathe to move.” Relationships with local suppliers mean a lot to Edson, he adds.

If the government wants jobs in the state, he says, it’s going to need companies. “Somewhere along the line they’ve got to wake up to that, and I’m confident they will one of these days,” says Keene.

Edson set all-time sales records in 2004, its 145th anniversary year, Keene says. He says Edson is one of the strongest brand names in the marine industry, and his job is to make sure it’s as strong as it was when he and his brother Hank, the company’s general manager, bought it.

“I’m just a steward,” Keene says of his role as president, a position he has held for the last five years. “It’s pretty unusual in this day and age to see a company last 150 years.”

Edson is probably the No. 1 seller of pump-out systems, Keene says, and its military business is becoming quite strong.

The product line covers steering systems and accessories, boat davits, radar towers, and marine pumps for sail- and powerboats.

Currently Edson’s sailboat catalog is bigger than its powerboat catalog, but new products are constantly added for powerboats, Keene says, including more affordable strap-on versions of its PowerKnob for existing steering wheels.

Many new products reflect advancements in other segments of the marine industry, such as helm pedestals designed to accommodate today’s smaller, waterproof radars.

Keene tells of navigating in a pea- soup fog, trying to find a channel across Bass Harbor in Maine. He took advantage of a Raymarine radar/chartplotter with a split-screen function installed on the Edson helm pedestal.

“The funny thing is I didn’t have to say a word to my wife,” says Keene. “In the old days you’d be screaming and yelling [down to your spouse] at the nav station.” He found eliminating the stress of shouting back and forth especially important with two small kids on board, he says.

As a boater, Keene says he tends to go from boat to boat. He fixes one up and moves on. He currently owns a Jarvis Newman 42 powerboat (Yes, he admits, he has made the change from sail to power), before which he had a Pearson 35 sailboat.

“It gives me the opportunity to put our stuff on board and see how it works,” Keene says. “When you’re actually hands-on you see what the boats go through. We’re hands-on owners here, for sure.” Edson better understands the needs of both boat companies and boat owners because of this experience, he says.

Keene says his brother Hank is a boater, too. The brothers use their products and visit people in anchorages who are using their products. Hank has had his boat for 15 years, and people know it when they see it. “We don’t run and hide,” Will Keene says.

Keene is involved with the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s Grow Boating campaign and is a board member of Sail America. Hank sits on the board of the Massachusetts Marine Trades Association.

The company also is very active at boat shows, sends an experienced staffmember, and gets new product ideas from customers at shows. “That’s where we look at where the openings are,” says Keene.

Keene says he received some interesting feedback at a Newport International Boat Show when a man told Keene he had made his search for a new center console boat easier. The man said he only looked at boats with Edson steering wheels.

When Keene asked why, the man said that way he knew it was a quality boatbuilder.

“What we’re trying to do is build something that lasts,” says Keene. A customer might blanche at the price of an Edson cockpit table, he says, but years later end up taking it with him when he sells the boat.

“You buy it once, you buy it right, and you have it for a long time,” Keene says, even if you have to save to do it.

Edson steering pedestals, he says, are still out there doing the job after 25 to 30 years.

“On a sailboat, steering is the difference between a vehicle and a shelter,” Keene says, noting also that the steering wheel is a boat’s connection point to its owner — “Is that the place you want to go cheap?”

Boatbuilders have to realize that customers are sophisticated, he says.

“People are copying us all the time,” Keene says, adding that even if a product looks like an Edson from 10 feet away, the customer won’t be 10 feet away.

“People know when they call us that they’ll get an honest answer,” says Keene. It’s not unusual for him to suggest a person buy from a competitor if Edson doesn’t make just the right product.

“If we don’t think we’re the right answer we’ll gladly send them to another source,” he says.

Keene says that, like company founder Jacob Edson, he will have to leave control of the company in someone else’s hands someday. “Am I going to live 145 years?” Keene asks. “Hell no. [But] if you set the bar high, make sure your principles and values are strong, and run [the company] as hard and as long as you can, then you’ve done what you can do.” When it does come time to move on, he says, the company will be strong and its people and customers taken care of.

Edson products serve people beyond boating. Keene expects Edson pumps will play a role in the tsunami relief effort in Asia, pumping wastewater from military and Federal Emergency Management Agency temporary shelters, he says.

Edson International, New Bedford, Mass. Phone: (508) 995-9711.