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Commentary: Fountain Became the Game

Skip Braver’s first high-performance powerboat was a 42-foot-long Fountain. On its own, that fact is completely unremarkable. It just makes him one of the thousands of people who purchased new Fountain boats—to a collective tune of a reported $900 million—in the company’s 30-plus years in business.

But unlike all the other folks who bought a new Fountain, Braver is the only one who, several years later, purchased Cigarette Racing Team, the builder of the vaunted Cigarette line in Opa-Locka, Fla.

“I actually liked the Fountain,” Braver told me during an interview several years ago. “But I was doing all my boating on Lake Michigan, and anyone who boats there knows how rough it is. I needed something a little stronger for that water, so I sold the Fountain and bought a Cigarette.”

The rest, at least for Braver, is well-documented history. But the point is that the current owner and chief executive officer of Cigarette Racing Team started his boating career—not sure why we like to call our hobbies careers but I’ll go with it—with a Fountain. And he liked it. It hooked him on performance boats in a way that eventually sucked him into the business.

The point here is that so many roads in the high-performance boat industry lead through Fountain.

Another example? In 1996, Formula swapped out its conventional V-bottom hulls for stepped hulls across its sport boat line. The people there, most notably chief executive officer Scott Porter and designer John Adams, didn’t go to all that big-buck design and tooling trouble out of boredom. They did it to compete with Fountain.

Formula had a more luxurious product than Fountain. Formula had a better-built product—and I can just feel the love that will be coming my way from the Fountain faithful—than Fountain. But Formula wanted a faster product, and the people at the company were hearing that their product was, foot for foot with the same power, not as fast as a Fountain. And they believed they needed to step things up, so to speak, to compete.

I am not saying Fountain invented stepped hulls for V-bottoms. Nor, by the way, did Reggie Fountain ever say that, at least during the dozens of interviews I’ve done with him in the past 16 years. I am saying he popularized stepped hulls during last 20 years in a way no one could have imagined.

Performance gains alone can’t explain it. Nor can simple marketing. So how did it happen?

Reggie Fountain. Reggie was everywhere.

Reggie in offshore race boats. Reggie sponsoring offshore races. Reggie at poker runs. Reggie at boat shows. Reggie singing the praises of his products, if you happened to find yourself trapped on hold, when you called the Fountain plant. Reggie advertising in every magazine from Powerboat to Yachting. Reggie himself, posing in those magazines ads wearing spandex—foot up on the bow of one of his boats—with an adoring young woman lying on the deck and staring up at him.

Subtle, he was not. Genius, he was not. Relentless and effective, he was.

Reggie became the brand, just as Elvis Presley, his lifelong hero, became the brand. Elvis wasn’t just a unique voice and catchy music. He was the hair and the jumpsuits and the rhinestones and Graceland and all the rest. He wasn’t selling music. He was selling Elvis.

Reggie became a public figure in the high-performance powerboat world, which in combination with his often over-the-top style made him a popular target. But that comes with the territory. When you use yourself to sell your product, when you become the brand to court consumers, you open yourself up to public dissection—praise, ridicule and everything between. Fair or unfair, you asked for it when you stepped into the public spotlight. Merciless yes, but once again you asked for it.

So Reggie Fountain will never get my sympathy when it comes to public critique in the performance boat community. But what he does have—and will always have—is my respect and admiration. He made big mistakes, for sure. He certainly wishes, at least he’s told me so, that he wishes he’d saved more money from the glory days of Fountain. Reggie also used to have harsh words for boat companies that had gone bankrupt. I imagine he might like to have some of those words back.

That’s the problem with being a public figure—your successes and failures are, well, public.

On the other hand, Reggie Fountain built a brand the likes of which have not been seen since Don Aronow—another industry icon—built Cigarette, which is now owned by Skip Braver.

Who started performance boating, as it happens, in a 42-long Fountain.

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