Alton Herndon is the president of Bertram Yacht, the legendary sportfishing-boat builder. He took the helm in early 2010 and orchestrated the company’s historic move from Miami to Merritt Island, Fla.
Herndon, 66, spends time offshore fishing Bertram yachts in tournaments. He built his first boat — a 16-foot fish/ski runabout with an 80-hp Mercury — at the age of 23. He got his first marine industry job in 1969 at Hatteras Yachts.
Herndon grew up in High Point, N.C., studied business at High Point College and later graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s executive program.
He was president of Hatteras Yachts from 1985-1996 and held executive management roles at Palmer Johnson, Tiara Yachts and KCS International. He was co-founder and managing partner of Southport Boat Works, was chairman of the National Association of Boat Manufacturers and is a past member of the executive committee and board of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
Herndon plans to move to the Merritt Island area with his wife, Dru, as the company relocates this fall. He has three children ages 28 to 40 and three grandchildren. In this interview, Herndon talks about his most memorable fish, names his favorite Bertram model and explains how the company’s relocation will result in bigger and better boats.
Q: After more than 50 years in Miami, why is Bertram moving to Merritt Island and what effect it will have on your boats?
A: We’re moving for two reasons. One, we’ve outgrown the facility with the size of the boats we’re building. They are too large in beam and height to efficiently build in our existing buildings. The Bertram 80 is the best example. We can only build that model partially under cover, and then we have to move it outside and put a tent over it during the remainder of the construction. To launch the boat, we have to get a house mover to take it to our launch site and place it in the middle of the road. Then we launch it by getting a 500-ton crane that has the reach to pick it up and swing it over the marina buildings and into the waterway into the canal. That exercise costs us tens of thousands of dollars. Anything over 60 feet we have to launch at high tide because our Travelift slip is not as wide as the beam of these boats. Even some of these large enclosed boats must be completed outside. We could spend a lot of money to correct our situation, but investing to do that is not a wise choice.
The second reason for moving is we are across the street from Miami airport property and services. The entire community around us is being developed for high-end commercial use to service the airport and be serviced by the airport. It would be foolish to make that tremendous investment to raise roofs, to build new slips and put in the equipment for these bigger boats at a time when, simply put, we would be in the wrong spot for large boatbuilding. To be heavy industrial, which we are, in a high-end commercial district is not a good idea.
Q: What makes the new location ideal for Bertram?
A: The new location had to have certain requirements. We were looking for properties that were on navigable water and that preferably had large, tall buildings. We wanted property that had at least 30 to 40 acres. And it goes without saying we were looking for a community in which we could attract good employees and teach them how to build our product. After all the mileage we put on our vehicles and ourselves searching the Eastern Seaboard from Miami to Virginia for the new location, we found a home meeting all of the requirements: Merritt Island. We are extremely excited about getting there.
Q: The move will also mark the beginning of a new building process for Bertram.
A: We are going to start using resin infusion to build our fiberglass parts. With resin-infused parts, you have a lighter-weight laminate, due primarily to less resin, and a higher percentage of fiberglass in the laminate. You have a lighter, stronger fiberglass part. The icing on the cake: It’s environmentally friendly, not only to the employees in our plant but to the community. It is as close to closed-molding lamination as you can get.
Q: What makes a Bertram a Bertram?
A: Bertrams historically have been known as hardcore, kick-ass saltwater sportfishing machines. We’re going to build on that. We design and build our boats for our owner’s intended use. We don’t design them to leave the dock when weather conditions say don’t leave the dock. But the boat has to be built so that if you get caught in bad weather, the boat is going to get you home. And our owners fish enough that they do get caught in it. You’re going to see new Bertrams that are lighter and faster; they’re going to be designed to have a more streamlined appearance. But when you see one you’re going to say, “That must be the new Bertram,” not “What is that boat?”
Q: Are there new boats on the horizon that consumers can look forward to?
A: What we will be focusing on short-term — meaning two to three years — will be developing new and refining existing models within our 50- to 80-foot range. Every Bertram we build is better than the last one. We learn with each boat. What we are looking for in the future is certainly more efficient boatbuilding, but the boats themselves will change according to our customers’ input, who are looking for improved performance, which could be higher top-end speed, higher cruise speed, improved fuel efficiency. They want the boat, in appearance, to be longer, lower, sleeker. Engine suppliers will continue to make high-horsepower packages, but those packages are going to be smaller and more fuel-efficient and lighter in weight.
Q: Which Bertram is your favorite?
A: For my personal ownership, I would love to have one of the Bertram 31s that started this company. Also, our 80-footer is one of the best Bertrams we have ever built.
Q: What in particular do like about the Bertram 31?
A: The 31 is a classic in look and profile and an excellent choice for my family to use and enjoy primarily as a day boat. Keep in mind this is the Bertram that started the legend. The 31 has a large cockpit that’s ideal for a couple of removable sailfish chairs or additional chairs for cruising inland waters. A combined shower/head, dinette and V-berth with a small galley are well arranged in the cabin. Top it off with a flying bridge comfortable for two, a bow deck suitable for sunning and engine boxes large enough to house a pair of today’s diesels. Many others felt the same as me about the boat. It was so popular it was built from 1961 to 1982 and then built again as a silver anniversary edition in 1985 and 1986, with a total of just under 2,000 built. The 31 was built in six models and shipped worldwide.
Q: What are some of your favorite boats other than Bertrams?
A: The boats I respect certainly would include the ones we compete with. That would be Hatteras and Viking and the custom boatbuilders. If you drop down to the center consoles, I would go for the Southport, which I started with Frank Longino, and the top-quality boats that are designed for their use — brands such as Grady-White, Contender, Regulator, Intrepid, Yellowfin. For motoryachts, I believe we build some of the finest in the world from the Ferretti Group, like Ferretti, Riva or Pershing.
Q: Can you name a few of those custom builders?
A: John Bayliss (www.baylissboatworks.com) does a really good job. Mark Willis (www.willismarineinc.com), Paul Mann (www.paulmanncustomboats.com), Paul Spencer (www.spenceryachtsinc.com) — all of those guys.
Q: What about smaller express boats?
A: The S2 boats — Tiara or Pursuit. And you have to remember those specialty boats, like the ski boats — MasterCraft and Correct Craft, who design boats that do things we wouldn’t even think of in the past.
Q: How did you get into the business of building boats?
A: I was working as an industrial engineer in the textile industry and I learned there was an opening for an industrial engineer at Hatteras Yachts. This was back in 1969. I applied and the plant manager took me out in the plant and I stood under the bow of one of those big boats. It was like I was in New York City for the first time looking at a skyscraper. And I have that same feeling today when I go under the bow of one of our big boats. I took that job and have been boating and in the boating industry ever since.
Q: Do you remember your first boat?
A: Absolutely. I built it. I kind of stole the design. Me and a couple other guys had a hull mold that was made similar to a 16-foot Dixie — a tri-hull lapstrake — and we put a different deck on it for both fishing and skiing and built about a half-dozen of them, just for each one of us to have one. That was my first experience with laying fiberglass. I put one of the tall 80 Mercs on it, and it made a great fish-and-ski boat. Since then I’ve had just about every style and type of boat you can imagine — ski boats, center console boats, some of the cabin boats in the 28- to 30-foot size.
Q: Did you do any boating in your youth?
A: Sure, I played with a toy boat in a mud hole or a creek. No, I never got a chance to enjoy real boating in my childhood. My first experience with boating was in Florida, learning to water ski behind a 14-foot boat made of wood with a 25-hp outboard on it.
Q: Is Bertram interested in equipping its boats with pod propulsion and/or joystick controls?
A: We are interested in high-tech going forward and we watch it and study it. But we’re not being customer-driven to do it. We don’t get the requests for it.
Q: You mean pods and joysticks?
A: Yes. We have driven boats with this technology, but we are just not customer-driven to build boats that way right now.
Q: How have boats changed in the past 20 years?
A: I am a boater and what I see today is top-quality. The product is built with much-improved materials. I don’t care if it’s a paddleboard or a center console or a cruiser or a sportfish or a custom yacht — they’re better. It’s not just speed and performance; it’s the durability, the value and the value after you had it and want to trade it in or sell.
Q: What are designers and builders doing well these days — improving efficiency, smarter interior layouts, ride quality?
A: We understand that the boaters should be driving our businesses. How can that customer enjoy the boat more? For the guy who wants to go fishing, does he have the right height, beam, length to succeed on the water? But with a boat our size, when the customer wants to go inside into an air-conditioned space he needs to feel like he is being invited into a comfortable place. Same thing with eating and sleeping — they’re looking for the comfort as well as the durability and that hard-core kick-ass fishing machine. There is one other consideration: What does the crew think of it? Is it a boat that is easy to maintain? Is it efficient? They’re playing a larger part in today’s boat purchases.
Q: Are boatbuilders doing a good job providing access to engines, pumps, generators and other components that need service?
A: The engine rooms are tighter because of the increasing amount of technology and equipment, but it should not reach a point where the equipment is inaccessible. With boats our size — and with our lifespan — at some point equipment is going to need to be replaced. Can you get to it? Can you get inside? Can you replace it?
Q: And vice president of manufacturing Ken Beauregard says that’s one reason Bertram builds its own fiberglass fuel tanks as integral parts of the boat.
A: That’s right. Those tanks are meant to last the lifetime of the boat, and they do.
Q: Do you see anything that’s wrong with today’s boats?
A: I’m struggling coming up with something, and here’s why. Depending on what you want to do on the water, there’s a good boat out there for you. Someone has thought it through and designed a boat that fits you. There’s more thinking and planning going into the design phase of boatbuilding with boaters in mind.
Q: What are consumers looking for in a new boat these days?
A: People are cost-conscious but also time-conscious. People want to get on a boat and have all the buttons do exactly what they are supposed to do. Customers don’t want problems. The more trouble-free, the better. Time is more important than ever. Simply put, the boat needs to do what it is supposed to do.
Q: What part of the boating experience do you enjoy most?
A: Being with my family and enjoying what they enjoy, whether it’s fishing or cruising or just going from point A to point B. I also like the sportfishing, being offshore fishing.
Q: What has been your most memorable catch?
A: Probably the first billfish I caught, which was a white marlin off Ocean City, Md., in the canyon. We got in this tournament and didn’t realize there was a handicap — a barbless hook, 25-pound test tournament. We had no equipment to fish that tournament, so we had to borrow equipment. Lines went in at 9 o’clock, and at 9:15 I had a white marlin on, which was great and exciting. Of course, then the reel quit winding, so I was thumbing the line in and the fish was just behind the boat, tired and ready to be brought to the boat. And then the reel starts coming off the rod because it was borrowed old equipment. That was memorable — first time, first billfish, first tournament and it didn’t take long to get it to the boat, and here I was about to lose the damn thing!
Q: And did you lose it?
A: I got it to the boat.
Q: How else do you spend time on the water?
A: It depends on where we are. But most of our boating is off North Carolina. The kids have gone their separate ways — one north on the beach and two of them inland. So we don’t get to boat as much as in the past. But they’ve experienced fishing and boating, believe me. Freshwater fishing, water skiing and tubing and hydra-slides and all of those activities — we did all of these things while the kids were growing up. Right now my boating is more just with my wife or me fishing the tournaments that we attend due to Bertram.
Q: What was the last boat you did own and what do you have now?
A: A 26-foot Southport center console was the last one I owned. I currently own a dugout canoe from Pinjas Bay but, fortunately, have access to the Bertrams we build.
This article originally appeared in the September 2012 issue.