Since he was a young boy, Ben Speciale has wanted a career that would keep him around boats and marine engines. And as president of the Yamaha Marine Group, he has certainly found his dream job.Speciale, 47, grew up working on boats and outboards at his family’s marina on the Tennessee River in eastern Tennessee. He hooked up with Yamaha in 1987 after graduating from Ohio State University and held positions in marketing and promotions. Speciale left Yamaha in 1992 to work for Fenwick Fishing Tackle in Huntington Beach, Calif., where he delved into saltwater boating and angling. He returned to Yamaha in 1996, and in 2005 he became vice president of operations and planning. In May 2010, he was promoted to president.
Speciale directs the Yamaha Marine Group (www.yamaha-motor.com), an outboard supplier to 120 independent boat brands in the United States. He also oversees Yamaha’s boat companies and subsidiaries, including Skeeter bass boats and Precision Propeller Industries. Yamaha has about 2,000 marine dealers in this country.
During Speciale’s tenure, Yamaha has captured several innovation and customer-satisfaction awards. Speciale has owned many boats, including a 32-foot Century walkaround, houseboats and pontoon boats. Today, he and his family enjoy houseboats and a 25-foot pontoon — powered with Yamahas, of course. He lives in Kennesaw, Ga., with his wife, Kim, and their daughters, Natalie, 15, and Abigail, 12.
In this interview, Speciale talks about his childhood at the marina, outboard developments and offers preliminary information about Yamaha’s upcoming joystick steering system.
Q: So much innovation has been introduced to outboard engines in the past decade or so. What is the next big development in the outboard?
A: Over the past 15 years we went from carbureted 2-strokes to advanced 4-strokes — very high-tech. Based on the success of our 4.2-liter V-6 engines and SHO engines, I have to say the lighter, more fuel-efficient engines will continue to be a trend for some time as we move through this next generation of 4-stroke engines. We plan to introduce in the next 12 months a new platform engine to match up with some of the boats in certain weight classes.
The improvement in acceleration will continue to be a trend, making sure the engine can hold the boat better in the midrange power. We saw this with the four-valve-per-cylinder F70 that we launched 24 months ago. That engine has really taken off … because it has acceleration like a 2-stroke 90-hp engine and it has good holding ability in that midrange, so it really fits nicely on a lot of boats. So you will continue to see the advancement of the engines from fuel efficiency to lighter weights, but also acceleration.
I also think there will be more integration of boats with engine systems, making it easier to use the products. Years ago, to start an engine, you would push the throttle forward and grab a button and choke the engine and then turn the key. You don’t do that anymore. You simply turn the key and start the engine. So I still think the integration of those systems will continue to advance.
Our goal will be to make things easier to use and more efficient to use, and I think that’s a key part for boaters and fisherman so they can spend more time boating and fishing, as opposed to dealing with the product. We also want to advance technical service training with our schools. We have great dealers in the U.S. and we want to help dealers support boaters. We train over 1,200 students in our school in Atlanta per year, and they become certified Yamaha technicians.
Q: Yamaha is on the verge of introducing a joystick helm control. When is that going to happen?
A: We’ve been working with Volvo Penta on a system that will
really integrate the steering system, the throttle, the shifting, engine information and the overall piloting of the boat. It will give twin-engine boats and triple-engine boats better docking capabilities, like you see with some of the other joystick products with pods. In about 12 months we’ll start rolling out our system. Initially we will start rolling it out with the larger outboards — the 350s and the 300s. You have to have some advancements inside the engine, as well as the control systems, for the lower horsepower. It is different than with an inboard or pod system — you will have a lot more capabilities.
Q: This must be an exciting time at Yamaha.
A: Yes, indeed. The great thing about product development is product development — coming up with technology like this. Products like our Command Link gauges are exciting for us because we are controlling the information, how we present it and how it’s used so the boater is satisfied. The concept of “efficiency” will grow in its theme and design elements. It will flow into the engines, the propellers and the boat designs. You will gain that efficiency with more concurrent engineering of boats and propellers and engine platforms. That is one reason we bought Precision Propellers in Indiana, as well as expanded our testing center in Alabama for engines and propellers.
Q: Your most powerful engine is the F350. Will you be coming out with higher-horsepower outboards?
A: Larger engines are always considered. The question we have with horsepower is whether the change is a minor one or a major one. And that’s challenging when you are above the 350- or 400-hp engine. You have to really understand what the applications are going to be, what types and sizes of boats and their uses. We plan to continue to work on the next generation of outboards, with focus on the power-to-weight ratios and the fuel efficiency and the reliability. We are working on designs where we know there are — for lack of a better word — holes where we can do a better job. I am speaking about new engines that will integrate better with different boat sizes and shapes.
Q: Are you focusing on updating in a particular horsepower range?
A: We think there is some room for refinement between 150 to 225 hp. I could even argue there is some of that in the 20- to 40-hp range. Both of those classes need more refinement in the product to better match up with boats.
Q: What was it like growing up around boats?
A: I was fortunate to have been raised by wonderful parents who owned a small resort and marina on Watts Bar Lake in east Tennessee called Rhea Harbor Resort and Marina. I was basically raised working at the marina and resort. Our house was on the property. After a few years, my parents started a boat, outboard and service dealership to support our rental fleet of boats. My brothers and I did all sorts of jobs there, everything from cleaning fish to showing people how to operate the old houseboats, to repairing engines or repairing cabins. My younger brother, mother and I still own the property, which includes the original 12 cabins and we have around 75 boat slips. My younger brother, Joe, oversees the property and also has a marine dealership in Madisonville, Tenn. My older brother has been a marine mechanic most of his life. We’ve all been in the business forever.
Q: Did you always want to get into the business of boating?
A: Yes, but I also wanted to complete my formal education. I wanted to understand business, marketing and finance to help me run that business or any business. I just truly like being around the water. I’m a water rat, for lack of a better term. I’m also sort of a wannabe tech engineer. I went to service school when I was young and turned wrenches for some years until after college. I really like the technical aspects of products and their design.
Q: What are some of the boats you have owned over the years?
A: We went through a lot of boats when I was a kid at the marina. I grew up bass fishing in what I called the mini-generations of bass boats. In those years there were 30 to 40 boat manufacturers in Tennessee — you would have seen boat brands like Monarch, Stottcraft, Norris Craft, Bass Hawk, ProCraft, Skeeter, Ranger and Stratos. But we also always had a houseboat. Before we had the marina, my parents had a small houseboat that we lived on most weekends. When we moved to California I bought an inflatable boat and had access to a 30-foot Century center console fishing boat, which really got me started saltwater fishing. I wouldn’t say I am good at it, but I learned how to fish living out there for 12 years and I can hold my own.
Q: Do you own a boat now?
A: I have several boats. Around 8 years ago, my wife and I bought an old houseboat that I helped build when I was in high school. We completely remodeled it and upgraded the systems. I sold that boat and now I have a used 1999 Sharpe houseboat. We like it because we can spend time on the water in the winter, also. We like to take long river cruises, so the houseboat works well for us. I also have a 25-foot G3 pontoon boat that works well for us because of my girls and my brother’s two girls. I would like to get a little bay boat to do more fishing.
Q: Who are some of the boatbuilders and designers you admire?
A: Leon Slikkers, of Tiara, would have to be at the top of any list because his designs have withstood the test of time. He has always been leading-edge and creative in the way he has brought styling into the boats or designs into the boats. The owner of Scout Boats, Steve Potts, is really good at bringing those yacht features into traditional saltwater boats. I have been amazed at how he can tie in those components — the styling, the design lines, the colors that really reach out to a much classier taste of product. His new 251 XS with a single engine is just a beautiful boat. Another guy I became amazed with when I was with Fenwick and was learning about fly fishing and saltwater fishing, especially redfish and bonefish out of boats, is Scott Deal at Maverick. I admire the way he ties that technical aspect into very small boats — the hulls, the designs to keep them quiet and stable when you’re standing on a platform on the boat with a fly rod. That appeals to my wannabe engineering side. I’ve always been impressed with that stuff.
The development of aluminum pontoon boats amazes me, too. When I was a kid, pontoon boats were made sometimes with barrels, a small engine, and you put cheap chairs on them. Now you look at pontoon boats from Bennington or Nautic Global and I would say they are nicer than my living room. And you can run across the lake or down the Intracoastal at 40 mph — that’s cool stuff.
Grady-White really did a good job with that Freedom series, which consists of dual-console boats. I had a 32-foot walkaround for a while when I first moved back from California. I liked the boat a lot. It was fun to have with young kids, but that dual console series with a cabin and a head, to me, is just an interesting alternative to walkarounds.
Q: How can today’s boats get better?
A: I tend to think boats need to be more multipurpose in their designs, and some of that is flexibility in the layouts for fishing, family or what I call the aging-population features. I will use this example: My father lives in Oriental, N.C., and has a 22-foot Century bay boat, and he also has artificial knees. He loves to fish. It’s hard for him to step over gunwales or stand on a high deck of a bay boat. At the same time, he wants to take my kids fishing. Then he’ll turn around and do a harbor cruise. So boats still have to fill their niche, but need more flexibility in their overall uses. I truly believe that women and wives will drive more of the final decision on a boat design. They have always been important in the process.
Q: What will boats be like in 10 to 20 years?
A: I think there will be more rationalization of the size of boats. I don’t necessarily mean boats will get smaller, just rationalization on size and keeping that balance of performance at cruising speeds. I think cruising speeds will become more important to people; less important will be the high-end speed. Consumers will be more mindful of that midrange operation and fuel usage. You will always want to know the top speed, but you will be really aware of that three-quarters throttle or two-thirds throttle operation and how the boat runs on plane.
I think boats will get simpler to maintain. When I was a kid, you worked a lot on boats. Today you need to do less of that so you can spend more time on the water. They’ll be more consumer-friendly, whether it is quick-connect flush kits for your outboard or more integration of electronics or easier access to wire harnesses to add electronics.
Q: What issues are important to the future of boating?
A: Ensure access to the water and support reasonable regulation for the environment. It has to be reasonable. I like to fish. I am proud of the fact that fish are protected. When I was a kid, you caught bass and threw them up on shore. You don’t ever see anyone kill a bass anymore. That is not to say you can’t eat fish. That’s one of the reasons you go fishing, but you can manage it with reasonable regulation. The best people to protect the environment are the people who use it.
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.