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Grady White

What makes a Grady a Grady?


What makes a grady a grady

Walk up to the fiberglass molding lines at the Grady-White factory in Greenville, N.C., where the venerable family fishing boats are laid up, and you’ll likely notice easels and flip pads set up at various stations.

On these large notepads, employees jot down problems encountered on the job and then chart the solutions. The problem might be a broken pair of scissors used to cut fiberglass cloth, trouble with a new type of drill bit, or a scheduling problem involving some tooling. The fix: new scissors, better drill bits, and rescheduling a forklift operator to move a mold.

Read the other stories in this package:   Grady White - What goes into a Grady?    Grady White – JD Power  

If a week goes by without an entry on one of these so-called problem/resolution boards, located throughout the plant, a manager insists employees in the department come up with something to report. Why? Because part of the corporate philosophy at Grady-White is there’s always room for improvement — even for one of the best in the business.

A case can be made that Grady-White is the best at what they do: building family fishing boats from 18 to 36 feet. J.D. Power and Associates recently recognized the builder a fifth consecutive time for earning the highest ranking in the coastal fishing boat segment of its annual customer-satisfaction survey. And those five awards just happen to represent every year J.D. Power has ranked boatbuilders ( ).

Grady-White isn’t alone in this respect. Cobalt Boats of Neodesha, Kan., has ranked highest among large runabouts (20 to 29 feet) in each of those five years, and Sea Ray and Correct Craft are four-time winners among express cruisers and ski/wakeboard boats, respectively.

Grady-White also has been recognized alongside other boatbuilders for excellence in customer satisfaction by the industry trade association — each of the four times the award has been given.

“You have to do just about everything right to reach your potential profitability as a boatbuilder,” says Eric Sorensen, director of the marine practice at J.D. Power and Associates. “Look at Grady-White. They build a thoroughly refined, nearly problem-free boat. They have an excellent hull design — essential since ride quality is so important to boat owners. They’re powered by high-quality, high-horsepower EFI 4-stroke outboards. Finally, Grady has a truly superb dealer network that delivers on the sales and service end of the business. This formula for success is similar for all our award recipients.”

In February, Soundings paid a visit to Greenville to try and find out why Grady-White is so perennially successful. Or, to put it another way, what makes a Grady a Grady?

What we found is a company that places a premium not only on customer satisfaction but also on customer input and involvement, as well as on the satisfaction of its own employees. We found a company that is meticulous in the testing of materials, products and processes, one that subscribes to the philosophy that if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. We found a company that pays its workers to read books. And lastly, we found a company president who sounds more like a passionate advocate for her customers and workers than she does a stereotypical boatbuilder.

When you add it all up, you get a company that builds a boat that has become a standard of quality in the production powerboat industry.

Customer relations

Grady-White is all about feedback — good, bad and everything in between. When it designs a new boat, the builder calls current owners with similar boats for input. “Our customers design our products,” says Kris Carroll, the energetic 54-year-old company president. “A lot of people can say that, but we bring them into the plant.”

The company holds four owners’ forums a year, each attracting 30 to 40 Grady-White customers plus all of top management. A whopping 400 boat owners visit the plant each year, Carroll says, and the engineering department and customer relations spend a lot of time on the phone with Grady-White owners. So does Carroll, who has worked for the company for 30 years.

“We want to know the truth,” she says. “If the president is involved, it holds the whole organization accountable. I can’t imagine anybody goes to the lengths that we do.”

Grady-White has been administering its own customer surveys for nearly 20 years, says director of sales and marketing Joey Weller. And Carroll insists on reading every warranty claim herself. She says that going through them one by one raises her “compassion” for her customers. “We’re an incredibly customer-intimate company,” says Carroll, who also reviews each in-house customer survey. “Sometimes we’ll make a design change because one customer said something … and it makes sense.” The placement of a grab rail, for example, where one previously didn’t exist.

The company doesn’t discriminate between its new- and used-boat buyers. They are all part of the same family. A used Grady-White customer gets the same “hug” as someone who just bought a new 36-footer, Carroll says. “I love them all,” she says. “They’re all royalty.”

So just who is the typical Grady-White buyer?

“Our customer is the L.L. Bean family,” says Carroll. They are outdoorsy, successful, family-orientated boaters, blue- white- and gray-collared. There are more than 70 owners events each year and many active owner’s clubs.

A mannequin named Bob represents the Grady-White customer, and appears in different places around the plant to remind workers who their “real boss” is, Weller says. There is even a Bob Day each year, complete with parade.

“We’re a customer-driven, customer-focused company,” says Weller. “We’re not about trying to sell the most boats or build the most boats in our segment.”

Chairman and CEO Eddie Smith doesn’t want Grady-White to be the biggest boat company, Carroll says; he wants it to be the best. Before the company will increase production levels, it makes sure the higher levels are sustainable.

“We limit our manufacturing to a level that we’re comfortable having our arms around,” says Carroll. “We don’t want to be Wonder Bread; we want to be the corner bakery.”

Happy employees

Glenn Grady and Don White founded Grady-White in 1958 in Greenville. (Owner Eddie Smith took the helm in 1968 at age 26, when his family bought the company.) The city of about 60,000 is home to East Carolina University, world-renowned heart surgeon Dr. Randolph Chitwood, and a dwindling number of tobacco farms. The ocean is a two-hour boat ride from Greenville, via the smooth waters of the Pamlico River and across the chop of Pamlico Sound to the Outer Banks and Hatteras Inlet.

Grady-White headquarters, home to all major boatbuilding operations, resides in a 350,000-square-foot modernized plant near the Pitt-Greenville Airport. The plant includes a recently added 50,000-square-foot fabrication area that not only improves the company’s ability to produce boats — 1,500 to 2,000 per year, or about seven or eight a day — but also takes into account worker well-being, according to the company.

About three years ago Grady-White turned its focus inward to improve employee satisfaction. The entire plant has either air conditioning or evaporative cooling, Weller says. The operation is kept neat and clean; if she could, Carroll would make it like a laboratory, Weller says.

The company gathers most of its talent locally, and all 475 employees are on one shift. A full breakfast and lunch are served in the break room. Reward programs include the Captain’s Club, for employees of 25 years, and Master Craftsman status, for workers with more than five years on the job and high grades in areas of commitment, attendance and craftsmanship. In October, the profit-sharing checks for all workers come in. To keep the work force reading, employees are reimbursed $35 or more for each relevant book they finish.

Carroll’s philosophy is pretty straightforward. “People who are happier at work are going to build higher-quality boats,” she says. To that end, the company has a list of “what makes us look forward to coming to work” posted throughout the facility. It includes such items as a clean and organized work environment, a clearly understood and reasonable work schedule, and the respect of leaders and co-workers.

“If all those things happen on that chart, they’re going to have a pretty nice day,” says Carroll. The company even has a full-time “associate satisfaction manager” who is responsible for seeing how employees are doing at home, personally and emotionally.

Inside the plant

A pair of state-of-the-art overhead cranes high above the new fabrication area can pop a hull or deck from a mold, rotate it, and send it down a center aisle toward one of seven grinding booths. Inside temperatures used to soar above 100 degrees on hot summer days, but thanks to the evaporative cooling system put in place two years ago outside temperatures are reduced by nearly 20 degrees, says Weller. With evaporative cooling, even respirators are optional, he says.

The grinding booths have evaporative cooling and a dust-control system. Cooled air blows in from the top of the room on one side and flows across the grinding booth into a bank of dust-collecting filters that make up the opposite wall. The plant also has a new temperature-controlled resin system, important for maintaining an even cure and avoiding finish problems. The resin is stored in tanks and, on its way to the fabrication area, is routed through a temperature-control unit.

During our recent plant tour, we saw clean floors and large work areas, and breathed air that did not overpower us with the smell of fiberglass boatbuilding. When the workers came back from their midmorning break, the plant really came to life. The floor got louder, filled with the beep-beep-beep of backing lift trucks, and the sound of quality-control workers tapping and rubbing hulls with polyethylene sticks to find defects, and grinders attacking fiberglass. The laminators cracked jokes as they sprayed resin on the deck mold of what would be a Marlin 300.

While hulls and decks are laid up by hand in an open mold, Grady-White uses closed-molding for some components. Lids and hatches, for example, are nicely finished on both sides, thanks to the resin transfer molding process.

As the boats make their way through the plant, hulls and decks are joined, cabins are custom fit, hardware and components are installed, and final assembly and engine rigging is completed. Fuel tanks are pressure-tested and all boats are soaked in an oversized shower to check for leaks. To keep the work force manageable, some work is outsourced, but the core assembly processes and engineering are done in-house.

Lastly, the boats are buffed, shined and otherwise touched up, and cushions and Grady-White’s signature striping are added. A final systems check is done before the boats are loaded onto trailers for delivery to dealers.

Highly effective people

Grady-White is very systematic in its hiring, and as a result turnover is low, according to the company. Carroll says the builder hasn’t laid off a worker in a number of years. “The idea is to be less than 500 people so I can remember everyone’s name,” she jokes.

The management team’s average tenure is 17 years, and Carroll says there are a number of talented young leaders waiting in the wings. Carroll herself started at Grady-White as a production control clerk 30 years ago. She also worked in the accounting department, moved to the engineering department as a clerk, and became vice president of engineering in 1987. She has been company president since 1993.

Getting in the door at Grady-White is not just a matter of filling out a job application. Extensive profiling and testing are part of the hiring process, Carroll says. For a typical hire on the manufacturing floor the company will go through 35 candidates to find one employee. It might take a year or two to fill a leadership position.

“We take a very long time to find the right people,” says Carroll.

To work at Grady-White, employees must read “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” by Stephen R. Covey (Free Press), says Weller, who has been with the company for 18 years.

Once a month, all employees gather in the shipping bay for a PowerPoint presentation and update on a variety of topics, from health and safety to customer communications. “It’s kind of a state of the union discussion of topics,” says Weller. “The key thing is that everybody gets together, and the lines of communication are open.”

Sales and service

The customer-is-king mantra is one that touches everyone from the assembly line worker to the company president to the dealer, who is a key player in the satisfaction equation.

“You can take a high-quality boat that doesn’t have any problems,” Carroll says, “and if you have a crummy dealer that doesn’t give them any warmth, the customer is not going to value their experience.”

Remarkably, Grady-White has received dealer and service customer satisfaction marks as high or higher than those of Lexus, the gold-star automotive model. “Their sales and service scores are as high as anyone in the automobile industry, which is just phenomenal,” says J.D. Power’s Sorensen.

“It’s very good business to improve the customer’s experience,” says Carroll. “We told our dealers five years ago, if your three-year average CSI [Grady-White customer satisfaction index] wasn’t over 90 percent, you will no longer be with Grady-White. We only lost one dealer.”

The company is fortunate to be in a position where it mostly competes against itself in terms of quality rather than other builders. And Carroll says she believes that businesses focused solely on profit reach a lesser degree of success than those that also take care of their employees.

“It’s our desire to bring great value to all people that are involved with Grady-White boats,” says Carroll, “because we love people more than we love making money.”

Building boats to make a difference in people’s lives gives the work meaning, she continues. “This is what motivates us,” she says. “We all get to use our talent. I believe God puts a talent inside everybody and a purpose in every life.”

If Carroll comes off sounding warm and fuzzy, it’s because she truly cares about people. But at the end of the day, she still has a business to run. And her goal is to make sure that the success Grady-White has achieved continues.

“Do I have to fire people? Yes,” she says. “We’re all held accountable every day, including myself, for unhealthy business practices. I have a very high-performing company, but it doesn’t just happen naturally. It happens from encouragement, and it happens from consequences. And people have to work here. But it’s satisfying, hard work.”


There are detailed procedures and work instructions for all tasks at Grady-White, rather than a system of passing down individual styles. “We want to catch a bad habit before it becomes a bad product,” says quality assurance manager Dale Brantley.

Each boat has a “birth certificate,” a record of everyone who worked on it and when. Fiberglass cloth kits for each boat are precut in a separate room to ensure that no piece is missed. The labeled and mapped kits make it easier to train new workers.

Inspection is systematic, and data is comprehensive, so the company can turn around and implement improvements quicker, says Brantley. Less rework leads to higher quality.

“Every defect that happened today in this plant, I could tell you by 11 o’clock tomorrow,” says Brantley, who came from the automotive industry and has been with the company 4-1/2 years, making him a youngster by company standards.

In an automated setting like car manufacturing, almost every process can be made error-proof, says Brantley. But boatbuilding, he continues, depends on people knowing what to do and wanting to do it. Grady-White, he says, excels at motivating employees.

Carroll talks about the large amount of labor that it takes to build a boat, and the necessity for quality labor to build a good boat. “We’re not building cars; this is like building homes,” she says. “Who wants to buy a manufactured home? It matters who builds your house. You can spend a gazillion dollars on materials. The biggest difference is who puts those materials together, because it’s labor intensive.”

She could have been talking about production team leader B.J. Eakes, who completes pre- and midshift safety checklists each day, checking for safety goggles, ear plugs, obstructed fire extinguishers, fire risks, and other potentially dangerous conditions.

“Eddie Smith has got a company here that can’t be beat,” says Eakes, an employee of 33 years. “I think it’s all about how you treat people.”

Eakes, who is 64 and has lived in the Greenville community her entire life, is certain the company will continue to win J.D. Power awards. “I think when you get a company that cares about its people like this company does here, it makes the people want to do good, too,” she says.

Grady-White has worked to build in quality before actual construction begins. The company says it uses proven materials and methods, does its own product testing, and works with vendors to make the best components. It tests 316 stainless steel hardware in a salt bath, for example, and checks pumps and tests gelcoats, resins and catalysts in an on-site laboratory.

The company has worked with C. Raymond Hunt naval architects since the 1989 model year, and continues to tweak its hulls with each new introduction. Weller and vice president of engineering David Neese work together to test the boats, running them hard, fishing them hard, and spending time on the water with customers. The pair logged something like 3,500 miles aboard the new Express 360, the largest boat in the builder’s stable.

Design, like strong customer relations, doesn’t happen overnight, Carroll says. She considers the new Express 360 and its predecessor, the Express 330, home runs. “Because we have a system, getting that home run is easier,” she says. “We’re not perfect, but we’re shooting for perfection. We’re not mad because we’re not perfect, but we’re enjoying the journey.”

The future

While boat aesthetics will change as style trends dictate, the real innovation in the next 20 years is what people can do on board, Carroll says. Who would have thought a decade or so ago, for example, that 28-foot boats would have televisions, VCRs and DVD players on board?

Carroll sees a time in the not-too-distant future when a fisherman miles offshore might hold up a big fish to his family boat’s videophone and exclaim, “Hey honey, look at my fish!” The future will bring new ways to make the boating experience easier and safer, especially for those venturing farther offshore, she predicts.

Not surprisingly, Grady-White intends to be there.

For more information on Grady-White’s history and its lineup of center console, dual console, walkaround and express-style fishing boats from 18 to 36 feet, visit or contact Grady-White Boats at (252) 752-2111.