Talkin' Boats with Tom Slikkers president and CEO of S2 Yachts

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Tom Slikkers has been the CEO and president of S2 Yachts, builder of Tiara and Pursuit boats, since June 2012, leading the 41-year-old company’s effort to modernize its fleet while maintaining the luxury, durability, value and quality for which both brands are known. Slikkers began working for his father, S2 founder Leon Slikkers, at age 13, doing odd jobs around the boatbuilding plant. He was in the accounting and sales departments before becoming president of Pursuit, where he worked closely with his father to create new boats.

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In Slikkers’ first year as chief of S2, Pursuit introduced its “next-generation” boat — the SC 365i Sport Coupe with concealed outboards (www.pursuitboats.com). S2 in 2014 debuted six new models from 32 to 50 feet between its two brands: the Pursuit DC 325 Dual Console and Offshore, the Tiara 44 Coupe and 50 Flybridge, and updated versions of the 3100 and 3600 Tiara Open. The Tiara 50 Coupe, the benchmark for the modern Tiara designs, was introduced in September 2013 (www.tiarayachts.com).

“For the past 18 months to two years of design and new model development, I think we have been more dialed in to what customers want than at any time before,” says Slikkers.

In addition to boating, Slikkers enjoys fly-fishing, golfing, snow skiing and biking. He grew up in Holland, Michigan — where S2 is based — and has never left. He lives there with his wife of 31 years, Barb, and two children — Alex, 23, and Samantha, 25.

Q: Tiara and Pursuit are injecting modern styling and design into their boats. Can you explain the new generation of these brands?

A: When you look at the progression of many successful luxury products, you see a balance among new innovation, styling and features while always maintaining classic design elements that are timeless. I think Cadillac, BMW and Audi are good examples of luxury manufacturers that have adapted and in some cases reinvented some of their models to be more competitive. Tiara and Pursuit are striving to deliver that same kind of experience. The idea is to offer a brand that appeals to new markets and maintains an intimate connection with our thousands of current owners. Our demographic, particularly on the Tiara side, is aging out of Tiara and of boating.

Q: What are some characteristics of the next generation of Tiara and Pursuit boats?

A: On all of our boats, you’ll find a tremendous amount of light, especially natural light, throughout. On the lower deck of the 50 Coupe, for instance, you have two staterooms and two heads, and in each of those spaces there’s natural light and fresh air. Our engineering team built in skylights, large hull-side windows and great ventilation to achieve these features. Our windshields offer tremendous visibility, incorporating very large, single panels of tempered safety glass with no structural or visual obstructions. For as long as I can remember, boaters have complained about the cave-like cabins on boats. These spaces on our boats are anything but cave-like, with lots of light and ventilation. You’ll notice that we’ve located the galley aft in the saloon area so it’s socially open to everyone.

Q: What are some trademark design elements that remain in the Tiara of today?

The 44 Coupe represents the next generation of Tiara Yachts.

A: There is a lot of DNA that is buried in the boat that you’ll never see — lamination techniques, manufacturing and assembly processes that we have perfected over 60 years of boatbuilding. There are some design lines that we needed to include in order to stay true to the Tiara heritage. For instance, the sheer line — the aesthetic line — that is built into the hull sides. If we looked at the 44 and 50 Coupe in more of a skeletal line-drawing manner, I would be able to highlight the carry-over of those lines. And it can be a subtle similarity. There are certain curves and lines that remain. You still see a Tiara when she is at anchor or gracefully underway.

Q: How has the Pursuit SC 365i Sport Coupe been received, and are you going to come out with another concealed-outboard model?

The Pursuit SC 365i conceals its outboards in a compartment at the transom.

A: The model has been received very well. We’re exceeding our closest competitor in terms of retail sales. We have got great performance numbers, and customers with the boats have been happy with the performance. We have a larger one on the drawing board, and at some point we feel there is room for one that is smaller. The larger boat would be roughly 45 feet overall, and at this point we know that it will be a triple-outboard package. And we would still have the concealed-outboard design.

Q: What separates Tiara and Pursuit boats from other brands?

A: We are purpose-built to a higher standard. We have passion for quality, and it is not idle chatter for marketing purposes. It is a legitimate passion inside our company that can be seen on the shop floor every day. We strive and execute to a higher standard than what most people will find out there. We get confirmation of that through customers who end up having great experiences with their boats. They tell us that we’ve exceeded their expectations. These qualities are hard to convey in a sales pitch because you can’t tell someone what owning a quality boat like ours is going to “feel like.” When we hear the positive feedback, it inspires us to continue to do as much as we can to deliver the absolute best boat in each product category we compete in.

Q: Is balancing a boat’s form and function challenging?

A: I think you can’t carry out one at the expense of the other. They have to be worked on in tandem. We have a “scope” of wishes from the sales and marketing department; we also know what we want our boats to look like. It is the marriage of the two from the get-go — if not, you end up with an unbalanced design.

Q: What is today’s consumer looking for in a new boat?

A: People’s lifestyles have changed, and their product preferences and expectations have changed. As a boat company, we are very aware of that. Yes, people are doing more day boating, but our intention with the coupe and flybridge designs is not to cater just to the day boater. We developed designs that cater to day boaters and cruisers alike. With the price of fuel going down, I can imagine a lot of our customers saying, “Hey, we’re going cruising this summer and extend our time aboard.” The Coupe series can handle that just as well as the day trips.

Q: What is your favorite Tiara?

A: The 31 because I worked on hull No. 1 — the classic Tiara 31 we introduced in 1978. I was actually working in the engineering department during that boat’s creation. I personally sanded on the first hull mold; I helped build the first prototype, went to the water for the first sea trials. I was intimately involved with that first Tiara 31. This boat will always hold a special spot in my life. It obviously is a very successful boat in the Tiara lineup. The 31 has been a critical vessel for us, and that first model was extremely successful.

Q: Is the 31 the most popular and best-selling Tiara of all time?

A: Yes. It is the boat that put Tiara on the map, the one that helped build a good foundation for Tiara as being more than just another boat brand. It pulled us up the ladder quite quickly and gave us a “Top 10” boat. People started taking notice of us and giving us more recognition, and we had more presence.

Q: What is your favorite Pursuit?

A: It would have to be the 24 Denali. That was a boat that I engineered and designed with my dad. It was built in 1994 and introduced at the New York Boat Show. That was one of the first Pursuit projects I worked on with my dad closely. We referred to the boat as the first SUV for the marine industry. It was phenomenally successful for Pursuit.

Q: You come from a family of avid boaters. How has that helped you become a better boatbuilder?

A: The entire Slikkers family has enjoyed Michigan and boating in Michigan. We used to take five or six Tiaras and go up into the North Channel; we did that for many years. We experienced boating as we expected our customers to experience boating. We would make it a point to live on board, cook and use the galleys and the heads, drive the boats in different conditions. We wanted to make sure that what we thought we were delivering to our customers was what we expected it to be. Early on, there were disappointments, and it drove us to come back and work very hard to make improvements as a result of those trips.

Q: Your father built S2 sailboats. Did you do much sailing?

A: Not really. I went off to boarding school when the sailboats were coming out. But my brothers David and Bob did — they were involved in the business at that time. David did a lot of sailing, a lot of racing with the S2 sailboats. Bob did a lot of competitive sailing with David. The S2 7.9 is probably the most famous sailboat we made because it was a one-design racer. That boat has gotten a lot of recognition. It was a fun boat — it was trailerable and came with a fixed keel or retractable keel. It could daysail. It could race. It was versatile.

Q: When did you know you would follow in your father’s footsteps?

The Slikkers family is a boating and fishing family.

A: I knew when I was in high school that I clearly wanted to work for my dad. If I consider what he has been able to accomplish and the scope of his career and the different technologies he has been able to transition through, it’s pretty incredible. I knew I always wanted to be in the boat business. I knew I wanted to be part of his company. And I wanted to be a part of carrying on the legacy that obviously he has built. I still feel strongly that way today.

Q: Did you feel pressure to live up to your dad’s standards?

A: I felt the pressure — an implied pressure, not a pressure from my dad directly. My father is one of those unique individuals who grew up with his company and wore all the hats. He was at times the HR guy, the manufacturing guy, the sales and marketing guy, the engineering and design guy. My dad had the “saddle time” in all those positions, so he has a good appreciation of the raw elements of what has to be done. The world is more complex, but he still has great value in weighing in on all those areas and is still a viable part of the company today.

Q: What was your dad’s initial reaction to some of the design changes being made to modernize your boats?

Slikkers and other family members would cruise aboard Tiaras to be sure the boats performed as expected. This raft-up is in the Benjamin Islands area of Lake Huron.

A: I think there was a part of my dad that was OK with the changes. He understood — and still does — that change is a necessary part of life. He certainly has preached that inside our corporation for many years in many areas — in design, engineering, manufacturing. But I think there is a part of him that dislikes change in some areas. Some of the designs we have incorporated into the boats over the years have been there a long time, so he thought removing them were risky moves. And I would agree. But I think now today he feels much more comfortable because he has seen the thumbs-up customers have given us.

April 2015 issue