Just got off the phone with Scott Porter, the chief executive officer of Formula Boats/Thunderbird Products, for a feature I’m writing about the company for Boats.com. (I’ll let you know when it publishes later this month.) Without question, times have been difficult for the Decatur, Ind.-based builder, which made its name on performance boats but expanded to offer day boats and cruisers. Three years ago, the Formula had 600 employees. Today the company has 300—and in a small town such as Decatur that hits hard. Yet Porter, whom I’ve known for 15 years and has always been candid with me, was surprisingly upbeat and optimistic—though realistic—during our interview. Here’s some of what he had to say.
The last couple of years have been tough for performance-boat companies, and particularly hard on production-builders such as Formula. How’s it going now?
You know, things have been looking up since the first of the year. I have to admit that before that, especially in 2009, it was a pretty tough sled. But in the winter boat shows this year we went from people being interesting and looking to actually ordering new boats for the season.
Is one of Formula’s model lines—FASTech, Sun Sport, Super Sport and Performance Cruiser—driving the increase in orders?
We’re seeing activity across the board. It pretty much fits with our model offerings. The cruiser business has started to come back to life, and we’re actually even seeing some life come back in the performance-boat area. It had gone pretty quiet there for a while. We’re definitely encouraged with what has gone on this spring and summer.
What’s the key to reviving the overall high-performance boat market?
Better times. I think we’re headed there. I think it will come back some. To what point? I don’t know, to tell the truth. I do think we’re serving some of that market with our Sun Sports. They may not run as fast as a FASTech, but we’ve continued to work on their styling.
Formula has a loyal customer base, but what about first-time buyers. How does Formula attract them? Is that still a major challenge for high-performance builders in general?
You know, we’ve always relied on other builders to do that and, unfortunately, some of those manufacturers have had major challenges. We’ve always catered to buyers who already owned a performance boat and wanted to move up to a better product. I am not sure who is catering to the entry-level market right now.