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Passionate owner drives Roth Bilt boats

After years working for start-up companies in the marine industry, Tom Johnson says he was looking for a new business opportunity.

He was also looking for a new boat for his family, and became enamored with a center console from Mass.-based Roth Bilt Boats, but couldn’t buy one because of the company’s extremely limited production, he says.

Unable to buy the boat, he ended up buying the boat company. It’s made for a very happy family, he says.

“It’s totally cool to have a dad who owns a boat company,” says Johnson, 42, who is married with two children. “[The kids] get more and more popular every summer.”

Johnson became friendly with the Roth family, who started Roth Bilt Boats on the South Shore in the 1970s, while trying to purchase a boat from them, he says.

“I was trying to help them out with some issues to increase production,” he says. “[It became apparent] the owners were losing interest, and I was gaining interest.” The previous owners had worked hard to make a jump in production from six boats per year to 20 boats per year, and new energy was needed to take the company to the next level, he says.

Johnson has a start-up mentality, he says, and taking a company from 20 boats per year to 200 boats per year is similar to starting a business.

The company’s level of production has steadily increased since Johnson bought Roth about three years ago. He initially shut down production for four months to make some improvements to the 18-foot model.

The company built 14 boats in 2003, 36 boats in 2004 and is forecasted to build 60 boats this year.

“We’d really like to build 100 boats in ’06,” says Johnson, who recently took on a business partner, Tomas Bergstrand, to help realize the company’s goals. Bergstrand, 36, has a master’s degree in business administration from Columbia University and a background in finance, banking and sales.

The semi-custom boatbuilder, with headquarters in the Boston metro area, is expanding its lineup of traditionally styled center console and cabin boats.

Roth, based in Chestnut Hill, Mass., currently builds an 18-foot center console and a 21-foot model available as a center console or with a cabin. Production of a 16-foot center console is on hold. The company will build a “sport model” version of its 18-footer — a laminate boat with no teak — starting this year, and plans are in the works for a 24-foot center console.

The 24-footer will be more of an offshore boat, Johnson says. It will have a full transom with an engine bracket, and will be powered by twin 150-hp 4-stroke outboards, and hit speeds of about 50 mph, he says.

All Roth boats are built in Poland and sent complete to the United States. Some options, such as electronics, are installed here.

When Johnson bought the company two European companies were building the boats, he says. He looked into moving production back to the United States, but he found the quality of the work high and the boats popular in Europe, he says.

So Johnson consolidated construction under one roof with the Polish builder, including woodwork and metalwork, and focused on making the business as efficient as possible.

“We’ll ramp up [production] in a very metered way so we can continue having everything under one roof,” says Johnson.

On the U.S. side, Johnson streamlined the business by eliminating outside distributors, he says. Roth now is increasing its number of dealers in both the United States and Europe. Currently it has dealers in the Northeast and Florida, Johnson says, and is looking to expand to more Atlantic coast states and the Midwest.

Roth also might distribute a line of cruisers, called Habers, of which the Polish outfit builds 50 per year, Johnson says.

Johnson and Bergstrand, who is Swedish, spend a week at the boatbuilding facility in Poland every four or five weeks, Johnson says.

“I’ve been over 21 times in the last 26 months, so it’s a big commitment,” he says.

Roth’s cabin boat models are particularly popular in Europe, Johnson says, where the company has two dealers and plans to add two more this year. A 24-foot cabin model will follow the 24-foot center console, he says.

In the United States a lot of Boston Whaler owners, reminded of the fit and finish of Boston Whalers from the 1960s and 1970s, are buying Roths, Johnson says.

In addition to a pair of Roths, Johnson himself owns a 1969 Boston Whaler 16 with a mahogany center console.

“I get a lot of inspiration from that boat,” says Johnson. “Don’t get me wrong, I love my Roths, but that’s just a classic. And we predict these Roths will be too; that’s how special we think these are.”

Roths have stepped-hull bottoms, hand-laid lapstrake hulls, and bronze and brass hardware. Classic models have custom teak trim.

The Classic 18 has a base price (less rigging and power) of $22,500, while the teak-free laminate version has a base price of $19,900.

Base price of the 21 center console is $35,900, the 21 cabin model has a base price of $50,900, and the 24 center console is estimated to have a base price of $75,000 to $80,000.