Boat industry ‘golden age’ leads to growth in Lebanon
If you’ve been thinking about buying a boat this summer, you’re not alone.
Boat sales this year are the strongest they’ve been in nearly a decade. That’s led to a high tide in Lebanon, where the manufacturing economy rises and falls with the popularity of aluminum boats.
“Just this year alone we saw several expansion projects,” said Brian Thompson, president and CEO of Lebanon Regional Economic Development Inc. “The last couple years have just blown me away as far as how our boat manufacturers continue to invest in their facilities and add jobs.”
Lebanon is known as the aluminum fishing boat capital of the world. This status is easily visible to anyone passing through town on Interstate 44. Rows upon rows of new boats sit along the interstate, waiting to be shipped to dealers across the nation and around the world.
The story of the boat industry’s genesis in Lebanon is a uniquely family affair starting with the late J.B. Appleby, who established a boat company in Lebanon in 1960. Though the brand no longer exists, Appleby’s company was, for a time, the world’s largest aluminum boat maker.
Appleby’s daughter, Diane Lowe, later followed in her father’s footsteps, founding Lowe Boats here with her husband, Carl Lowe.
Their son, Brent Lowe, would later set up his own boat manufacturing company, Generation 3 — named for the fact that he was the third generation in his family to set up a boat company in Lebanon. The name was shortened to G3 when the company was sold to Yamaha Motor Corp. in 1997.
Over the decades, Lebanon also became home to manufacturing plants for Tracker Boats, Landau and Osagian Canoes. Several boat parts suppliers set up shop in town too.
Thompson said Lebanon’s location along I-44 and the community’s low cost of living have helped it thrive as a boat manufacturing mecca. He said residents here understand their place in the global boat industry.
“It’s a big point of pride that we turn out the products that we do,” Thompson said. “There could be a CEO in Europe with a boat that was made in Lebanon.”
Across the board, the nation’s $36 billion boating industry is thriving. Americans bought 247,800 new powerboats last year. Outboard boat sales — a category encompassing most models produced in Lebanon — grew more than 6 percent nationally last year, with 160,900 new boats sold. That pace of growth has continued this year. It’s expected to stay strong through 2018.
“Economic factors, including an improving housing market, higher employment, strong consumer confidence and growing disposable income, are creating a golden age for the country’s recreational boating industry,” said Thom Dammrich, president of the Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturers Association.
Since 95 percent of boats purchased in the United States are built here, strong boat sales equate directly with strong manufacturing growth, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
This positive trend is felt at G3 Boats, which employs 312 people and manufactures all its fishing and pontoon boats in Lebanon. The company has added more than 50 manufacturing employees since last fall.
“Sales have been increasing every year since the end of the recession,” said Roger Bills, G3’s director of marketing. “We have seen a real resurgence in sales of both G3 fishing boats and SunCatcher pontoons.”
Bills said the G3 brand is known for being a “step up” from competitors in quality and performance. The company offers more than 100 models of boats covering all price points, from a 10-foot johnboat that retails for less than $1,000 to a top-of-the-line 26-foot SunCatcher pontoon boat for $85,000.
The company’s most popular boat is the Sportsman 17, which is advertised at $18,995.
From Lebanon, G3 ships its boats to 250 dealerships across the U.S. and more than 30 in Canada. The company also has dealers in Australia, France and Russia.
Bills said one of the selling points for new G3 boat models is the technology on board. Buyers often want GPS mapping on their fishing boats, which allows anglers to mark their favorite fishing spots. Many fishing boat customers also want advanced sonar units that can locate schools of fish.
Technology is important to pontoon boat customers as well. This includes boats with high-end speakers and wireless technology that give boaters the ability to play music from their smartphones.
“There does not seem to be a ceiling to the high-end pontoon market,” Bills said.
The growth in the boating economy has been great news for workers in Lebanon, where unemployment has nearly bottomed out.
However, the dried-up labor pool is making it difficult for local manufacturers to find enough workers to fill job openings.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Thompson said. “We celebrate low unemployment, but then we also have to look at the other side. Employers have jobs they need assistance to fill. We need to find more people to come work.”
Ryan Zachary, head of accounting and human resources at G3, said he is currently looking for welders and boat assemblers. He advertises job openings on the radio and social media. He uses his company’s benefits package to attract candidates.
“We are pleased to see our local economy thriving, with unemployment near 4 percent,” said Zachary. “This does create unique challenges to attract the very best boat builders. While the local employment pool is currently small, we pride ourselves on being an attractive company to work for, offering amongst the best, if not the best, employee benefits.”
Knowing there are limited options to attract workers from other regions or states — unemployment is low almost everywhere — local industry leaders are playing the long game and working alongside regional educational institutions to develop programs that will prepare local students to help fill workforce gaps, Thompson said.
“There are a lot of wheels turning. It’s just not an automatic fix where you flip a switch and the light comes on,” Thompson said. “We have some great numbers to tout, and we’re proud of that. On the other hand, we have some gaps to fill, and we’re doing our best to combat that. We didn’t get here overnight, and we won’t get out of it overnight.”