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Columbia Business Monthly

Full Speed Ahead For Midlands Boat Builder

May 01, 2017 09:11PM ● By Makayla Gay

By Richard Breen

Photos supplied by Sea Pro Boats

Sea Pro Boats LLC has close to a six-month production backlog, according to company president Jimmy Hancock.

“We’re sold out and we’re building all that we can build,” he says. He expects to produce approximately 900 boats in 2017 and 1,200-1,400 in 2018. “We’re at six different models right now and getting ready to introduce the seventh.”

Working out of a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Whitmire, Sea Pro has more than 100 employees. Hancock says it is on target for the five-year goals of 238 workers and $5.5 million capital investment announced by the S.C. Department of Commerce in 2015.

“We really didn’t start production until January of 2016,” Hancock says. “It’s going well.”

30-year history

Hancock isn’t new to boat building, or to Sea Pro. He was one of the original owners of Sea Pro, which started in 1987 and grew to produce Sea Boss and Palmetto Custom models as well. The company was sold to Brunswick Corp. in 2005 for approximately $51 million.

“They purchased all three brands and they purchased all three facilities,” Hancock says.

Meanwhile, Preston Wrenn, who had once been a parts supplier for Sea Pro, founded TideWater Boats Inc. but had sold his stake in that company by the end of 2006. At the time, boat sales were peaking. Few knew what was lurking in the waters ahead.

“It actually started getting bad in the end of 2007, beginning of 2008,” Wrenn says.

Soon the entire U.S. economy was in its worst slump since the Great Depression.

“I’ve learned that the boating market is very dependent on the overall economy,” says Rick Farmer, economic development director for Newberry County.

As the recession worsened, boat manufacturers began to falter. In mid-2008, Brunswick announced it would shut down the brands they had acquired from Sea Pro.

“They closed the company and liquidated everything,” Hancock says.

Now fast forward a few years, to when Hancock and Wrenn began talking about starting a new company.

“Golly, if we could get Sea Pro back, it’d be like flipping a switch,” Wrenn recalls thinking.

“It was time,” Hancock says.

Then Wrenn discovered that Brunswick had abandoned the Sea Pro trademark.

“We knew the name still had consumer equity,” Hancock says.

So in June 2013, they applied for the trademark and eventually gained control, marking the resurrection of Sea Pro.

SUV of the sea

Sea Pro describes its Next Wave vessels as “mid-tier, center console, salt water, fishing boats.” Wrenn says a center console was originally attractive to serious anglers because if they landed a fish, they could walk the perimeter of the boat fighting their prey with less likelihood the line would get snagged.

Nowadays, outfitted with sunshades, cup holders and stereo systems, Wrenn describes the center console as “the sport utility of the water.”

“Families are more involved in making those purchase decisions,” he says. “It’s become a universal usage boat.”

A 17-foot Sea Pro with motor and trailer costs upward of $20,000, according to Hancock, while their 23-footer, the 239, goes in the mid $80,000s.

“Eighteen-foot to 21-foot used to be the most popular,” Hancock says. “Now our most popular model is the 239. It’s our largest model until we come out with the 259 (25 feet, nine inches).”

Cruz Bay Publishing, which tracks the industry, reports that 258,879 recreational boats were sold in the U.S. in 2016, the first time since 2008 that sales topped a quarter million. The National Marine Manufacturers Association reports that sales of outboard boats were up 7 percent in 2016.

“The boat-building business has been quite good the past few years,” Farmer says.

It’s been particularly good for Newberry County. Sea Pro has brought an economic boost to Whitmire, which suffered with the decline of the textile industry.

“It’s a big deal,” Farmer says. “If they were at 238 employees today, they’d probably be the second largest manufacturer in Newberry County.”

Sea Pro has been joined by Falcon Boats, a bass boat builder in Newberry. There’s also Pleasurecraft Engine Group in Little Mountain, which builds inboard engines.

That’s in addition to the numerous boat companies in Richland and Lexington counties. The Central South Carolina Alliance counts more than 750 boat manufacturing jobs in the Midlands.

“We feel we have the start of a boat manufacturing cluster,” Farmer says. He’s working with educators to create a curriculum to support local builders. “The marine industry in Newberry County is strong and we hope to make it stronger in the future.”

Among all those companies, there’s a lot of folks who have crossed paths.

“We just kind of branch off,” Hancock says. His brother, Tommy, is a founder of Sportsman Boats in Summerville, while 19-year-old son Jay works on the shop floor at Sea Pro.

“He’s a good boat builder,” Hancock says.

Both Hancock and Wrenn describe an industry where fathers, sons, brothers and friends constantly regroup at new companies. After all, boats are built to be launched.

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