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Talkin' Boats with Steve Potts CEO Scout Boats

I look forward to new models from South Carolina builder Scout Boats. The company consistently introduces well-thought-out fishing and day-cruising platforms. They typically are handsome, with impressive workmanship and fit and finish.

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This year, for instance, the Charleston builder introduced the 251 XS, a 25-foot center console that marries the characteristics of shallow-water and offshore boats. The man behind the company is president and CEO Steve Potts. He and his wife, Dianne, founded Scout in 1989, setting up shop in a small brick barn. Their first boat was a simple, quality skiff.

Scout Boats has grown steadily for the last 22 years and now builds fishing and day-cruising boats from 14 to 35 feet. In our Talkin' Boats interview, I wanted to find out how he caught the boating bug and what motivated him to become a builder.

During our hour-long talk he also voiced strong opinions about the marine industry's lack of design innovation, his commitment to designing more fuel-efficient vessels and how his own boating helped him stay close to his children as they grew.

Potts lives on the water in Charleston with his wife. His son, Stevie, is Scout's vice president of research and development, and one of his two daughters, Sherrie, is the human resources manager and his assistant.

Q: Did you grow up around the water and boats?

A: Yes, I did. My father was in the Navy, so I've always lived on the coast. I was born in Groton, Conn. - at the submarine base there, actually. I have always been infatuated with ships and boats. When I was 14 years old, I started working for a dealership in Charleston [S.C.] called the Outboard Shop. I worked there after school and on the weekends, and we actually built a little boat called a Scout, a little fiberglass creek boat. This was in 1967. We sold Boston Whaler, Bertram, Thunderbird and Ranger Bass boats, so I kind of learned the characteristics of quality boats. Plus, at the Outboard Shop we also built our own raceboats. At an early age I learned what made running surfaces effective. That    really helped me. I was one of the guys who tweaked bottoms to gain a mile an hour or two.

Q: Did you continue working in the marine business as a young adult?

A: Yes. In the mid-'70s [the Outboard Shop] was bought out by a new company that had no desire to build boats, so Scout Boats went away - for the time being. I continued in the boat business with a couple of different companies. One was General Recreation, which had headquarters in Albuquerque, N.M. They were in direct competition with AMF. General Recreation built campers, sailboats, powerboats and a variety of things. It was a recreational conglomerate like AMF. I worked my way up and became a manager.

Q: When and how was Scout Boats started?

A: In the mid-'80s, I knew I wanted to do my own thing and I always had an affection for the Scout, and in particular the name because it was an in-demand and a quality fishing boat in the Charleston area that everyone knew about. But the name had faded away. I started developing a 14-, and a 15- and a 17-foot boat in '88 and '89, and started the company in 1989. I was 37.

Q: Describe that first boat, the 14.

A: It was a relatively simple creek boat - a saltwater fishing boat. It was all fiberglass. It was an inner-liner boat and foam-filled. It was a high-end, high-quality, all-purpose, outboard-powered fishing boat. The 15 was a wider and longer version of it. The hull designs were very distinctive. I had set out to create distinctive enough appearances and features and styling that separated my brand from others. That was really important to me - I wanted people to know it was a Scout, even without seeing the name on the side.

Q: What features or styles do today's Scout boats have that were present on those first boats?

The latest boat from Scout is the 251 XS center console, designed for both shallow-water and offshore running.

A: We still build four models today that incorporate the Air-Assist hull design, which is what we started with in 1989. It's basically two tunnels that have horizontal planing surfaces outboard, before you reach the chines. We still incorporate the Air-Assist design in our 15, 16, 17 and 18.

Q: Other than Scout boats, what boats do you admire?

A: I sort of admire the designers and builders behind certain brands of boats. I have a great deal of respect for - and I want my company to emulate - some of the pioneers that did things that were different, like what Dick Fischer did with Boston Whaler. There was nothing else like it at the time. I was impressed with the designs of the Moppies and Bertrams. Thunderbird/Formula - which is the Porter family - I have admired what they have done. Some of these family-founded and operated builders who have succeeded over generations, like the Slikkers and Tiara/Pursuit, and the St. Clairs with Cobalt. They're passionate boatbuilders.

Q: Do you remember your first boat?

A: Yes. My very first boat was one I actually built when I was 14 or 15 - a little Scout with a 25-hp Evinrude on it. And one of the first boats that I had was a Critchfield. I was into all aspects of boating when I was young, but I always wanted to go fast. The Critchfield was a long and skinny pointed-bow boat with a lot of horsepower - 150 hp, which was the biggest anyone made at the time. It was a pretty aggressive vee-bottom hull that would go fast. It was kind of like a racing boat that I used as a pleasure boat. I would ski with it, run around and fish with it. I had this as a teenager.

Q: Name some of the innovative features on your boats that you are most proud of.

A: Having distinctive features and styling that differentiates us is extremely important. We really work hard on this. The Nu-V3 hull design is a running surface that we've spent a lot of time on. I have done a lot of experimenting with hull bottoms to get better speed, better fuel efficiency, a softer ride. These are all things that are important to the boat. Everyone talks about deeper vee hulls and larger outboards and bigger fuel tanks. How many outboards can you strap on a transom? It seems to me that is one of the things as an industry we have to change. Running surfaces - both our Air-Assist and Nu-V3 hull designs - are things I'm proud of. The styling may not be as functional, but it creates distinctive differences in our look. For instance, our reverse-angle transom is aesthetically pleasing. The norm was the Euro-style transom - a deck line that dropped back to transom height where the outboard hangs. That is a great design and easier to build than the way we do it. But we want to be different.

Q: Is there a lack of innovation in the marine industry?

A: I can only speak about the coastal fishing boat market. I think 60 percent of the brands are homogenous - a blend of what a handful of companies do in creating trends and looks and design and function. We need to create designs that don't exist. ... I don't know if there's enough of that type of boatbuilding today. People don't see enough good reasons not to buy something secondhand. That has been a real challenge for boatbuilders - to develop new product, especially in the past few years.

Q: Your T-top/windshield design really opens up sightlines on your center console boats. How did this develop?

Scout's flagship center console is the 345 XSF, introduced for the 2010 model year.

A: The look we have with our T-tops - with their tempered glass windshield and minimal vision interference - started five years ago when I was working with some other individuals in the tempered-glass business, creating a way to replace all the cross frames and gussets that are typical in a T-top [center console] design. It was something we spent a lot of time on. We ran a number of boats. We shattered a few windshields. We did a lot of homework. It was a pretty bold move for us. We wanted to do something that really jumped away from the pack. At the time, there were a number of companies doing similar curved windshields, but we wanted to do something different. And we did it. We dialed it in and incorporated it in our boats. It's a very clean, stylish look that functions very well. We knew that it was unique enough, so we protected it with a patent.

Q: You recently wrote a letter to marine publications about unnamed companies copying Scout's T-top/windshield design. What prompted you to write the letter? Did something stoke your fire?

A: What pushed my button was I knew over the past couple years there were some things going on with companies developing the same concept [with tempered glass]. I know this because they happened to go to the same vendor that I was working with at the time. ... One of the magazines last summer published a feature on one of the competitor's designs. They had several paragraphs saying what a clever design this was, that [the builder had] incorporated tempered glass and the boat has this beautifully shaped T-top. That was a poke in my eye. It's one thing to go out and emulate something that you like and looks good, but it's another thing to promote it like it was your clever design. I looked at this from a lot of different angles. I know we're in a litigious society. I am not the kind of person who hires lawyers. I'm a boatbuilder and focus all my energies on building boats. But in that instance I knew I had to do something. I asked my PR agency, how can we do something so that this doesn't impact [Scout's] reputation? My biggest concern is that some of these brands are bigger and have a larger chest of money to promote their product than we do. It can be perceived that we've copied somebody else. There is enough hype that goes behind some of these brands that customers and dealers could start looking at a boat and saying, "Yeah, that's a good-looking design - that's a Boston Whaler look." That really concerned me. The purpose of the media campaign was an effort to get the media to understand that if you're going to write features, understand the history - and be accurate - before you publish such powerful statements.

Q: What is today's consumer looking for in a boat - fuel economy, value, customer support?

A: Long-term value. Consumers need to start hearing the message that we're doing things with running surfaces, with building materials and with other design aspects so that when a boat's a few years old it doesn't look like it's falling apart. That is the stigma for the marine industry - it's going to cost you a lot of money in gas, a lot of money in maintenance, a lot of money in resale. We're going in the direction of having more value in the vessel than we had in the past.

Q: Are you working on any other new boats?

A: We always have a minimum of four new boats going at a time. We currently have six. We have our own R&D facility and we do just about everything as far as design and tooling. We have a new 17, two new 22s, two 27s and a 31 and a 38 - that's what we're developing.

Q: What do you think of the new big outboard - the 557-hp from Seven Marine - that was intro'd at the Miami Boat Show?

A: It's a fascinating piece of machinery. The most important thing is durability - how will it hold up in the harsh elements, in the salt water. I am sure these are things that will be addressed. It will be interesting to see where that goes. It seems like it's going to be very expensive, very specialized. I don't know if it's going to be the common motor that you'll see every day out on the water. But I think it has its place.

Q: I've seen the Scout 251 XS. What is this new boat is all about?

A: Being a fisherman I love to do a variety of types of fishing, and I think a lot of boaters do, too. It is a little adventurous to take a bay boat and run 30 miles offshore. The 251 is the best multispecies saltwater fishing boat on the market. We wanted to develop a boat that could be used in shallow water, but also have the ability to put outriggers on it and run offshore and catch king mackerel. This is more than just a big bay boat. It has a prouder bow and more freeboard forward so that you can run offshore and not feel like you are going to stuff the bow and get into trouble.

Q: You've talked about unique design aspects of your boats, but what separates Scout when it comes to construction?

A: One of the things is our methodology. We use a reverse shoebox hull-deck joint. I am going to go back again to my days as a teen working at the Outboard Shop. I repaired a lot of boats and I learned what not to do. I saw rotten transoms, rotten stringers, separated hull and decks. Every one of those things I knew we needed to get right. Our hulls and decks are bonded with methacrylate before they ever come out of the mold. Our deck goes inside of the hull, which is different from most builders. It's a strong, durable building method. The importance of uniform thickness is critical to our methodology, too. We hand-lay everything, so those thicknesses are uniform from boat to boat.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.