MANATEE -- In 1978, brothers Bill and Richard Porter took over a small fledgling sailboat manufacturing operation. Now, after 35 years, the pair are still making sailboats -- and their company, Precision Boat Works, has evolved into a recognized player in a niche recreational boating industry market.
As Bill Porter remembers it, Precision Boat Works was born when the Porters joined Steve Belack in a small manufacturing start-up.
"He had bought a set of parts for a boat and he wanted to finish it," Porter said. "We bought some (sailboat) molds and eventually bought him out."
Since then the firm has gone on to compete in markets in the United States, Canada and Japan, by focusing specifically on the small but significant sailboat segment of the recreational boating industry.
According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, sailboats account for just 3 percent of the overall recreational boating market. In 2011, 4,600 new sailboats were purchased in the United States, compared to 143,000 new power boats sold, said NMMA Director of Marketing Communications Ellen Hopkins.
"But it's a very active niche," she said. "People who sail are passionate about it."
The Porters and their team of employees produce about 200 boats annually from a 15,500-square-foot facility in Palmetto. Models range from the 15-foot to 23-foot Precision sailboats to the 26-foot Colgate 26, a model specifically made for the Colgate Offshore Sailing School, a Fort Myers-based firm that provides sailing instruction for recreational sailors, Porter said. The U.S. Coast Guard Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy also use the Colgate 26 to train their personnel.
"Everybody has to know how to sail now at the Naval Academy," Porter said.
In fact, 30 Precision-made Colgate 26 sailboats are currently in service at the U.S. Naval Academy, said
Academy Director of Media Relations Jennifer M. Erickson.
"These boats are used primarily in our Basic Sail Training Program, which provides basic sail training to all 1,200 incoming fourth-class midshipmen during Plebe Summer each year," Erickson said. "When the boats aren't in use for training, qualified personnel may check out the Colgate 26 sailboats for recreational sailing in the vicinity of the U.S. Naval Academy."
The majority of Precision's clients, though, are recreational sailors -- from young families just discovering the sport to long-time enthusiasts like Peter Macler, who purchased his Precision 23 in 2007. Since then, Macler, a veteran sailor with 40 years' experience to his credit, has put his boat to use cruising, but mostly to indulge his passion for sailboat racing. Macler gives both the boat and the manufacturer high marks for performance.
"The Precision is a fast cruiser and very competitive in Club Racing," Macler said. "And factory support is top rate."
Porter credits the firm's longevity to that commitment to customer service along with a flexible business plan and a hands-on approach to manufacturing. Every Precision sailboat is made and finished by hand by a crew of employees, some of whom have been on the job for more than 20 years.
"It's like a family," said 26-year veteran Precision employee Kimberly Scholl. "We do whatever we have to do to get the job done."
Meanwhile, the Porters have worked to keep their operation nimble enough to respond to lean economic times. According to Bill Porter, Precision's annual sales generally tally around $2.5 million. In recent years, the intractable recession slashed those figures to $1 million annually.
"A cut like that can put a company out of business," Porter said.
But Precision has stayed in the game by being adaptable enough take on special projects including fabricating parts for other boat builders, Porter said.
"It's part of the survival plan," he said.
Now Bart Bleil, Precision's sales director, sees better times ahead. And with price tags between $10,000 to $35,000, Precision's products are poised to respond to buyers' pent-up demand.
"People are tired of worrying about what the economy is going to do next; they're getting ready to buy," Bleil said.
While that happens, Bill Porter takes stock of the past three decades.
"It's been 35 years without a boss, taking the credit and the blame," he said. "It's been something."