By Richard Breen
Everyone loves that scene from “Jaws,” where Chief Brody says, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Well, sometimes bigger boats mean you’re gonna need a bigger boat factory.
“We’re completely out of space,” says Jimmy Metts, president of Tidewater Boats LLC. The Lexington company announced an $8.3 million expansion earlier this year that would create 100 jobs.
Not only is demand for boats driving the expansion, but also the types of boats that buyers want. While yesterday’s consumer might have been content with a 17-foot runabout, today’s skipper is looking at ever-larger models.
“We’re predominantly a 19-to-32-foot company,” Metts says, adding that the expansion allows for design and production of models bigger than that. He says Tidewater currently has to rotate boats around the shop floor in mid-production to have enough workspace for their largest models.
Tidewater has begun renovations on a building near the intersection of Interstate 20 and U.S. Highway 1 in Lexington. It’s a couple miles from Tidewater’s existing facility, near I-20 and S.C. Highway 6.
By the time renovations are complete – the goal is January 2019 – Tidewater will have 120,000 square feet of production space, up from 67,000 in the current facility. The site sits on 24 acres, so there’s also room for future growth.
“We’re currently landlocked where we are,” Metts says.
As for the 100 new jobs, Metts believes he can find the workers, despite the fact that Lexington County’s unemployment rate was 4.2 percent – second lowest in the state behind Charleston – when Tidewater made its announcement in January.
“We probably get 10-plus applications a week,” he says. “We have choices.”
Otis Rawl, president and chief executive of the Lexington Chamber and Visitors Center, points out that borders don’t matter much in a region where workers cross counties daily to get to work.
“There’s capable workers all over the Midlands,” he says. “If it’s a good job, people will come to work for them.”
And Metts believes his jobs are good.
“This is a better opportunity for them,” he says. “We think we’re good guys to work for. We’re going to treat them nice.”
Room to grow
Tidewater is on pace to produce approximately 1,500 boats this model year. Metts believes he could have built several hundred more if he’d had the production capacity.
“We’ve been growing at about a 20 percent clip for the past five years,” he says.
Tidewater builds center console saltwater boats. Metts touts the fact that his company can get a new model to market in six months, whereas others might need to spend six months in research and development alone.
“We’re more efficient,” he says. “We can make changes on a dime.”
It takes quite a few dimes these days to purchase a boat. The package price (motor and trailer included) for an 18-foot boat is around $28,000, according to Metts. He says Tidewater’s best-selling model, a 23-footer, retails around $72,000.
U.S. boat manufacturers have enjoyed a decade’s worth of annual sales growth. In an interview with industry publication Trade Only Today, Jim Coburn of the National Marine Lenders Association estimated 2018 sales would approach $38 billion, a 5 percent increase from 2017.
“The economy is better than people think it is,” Metts says.
In South Carolina, the recreational boating industry has an annual economic impact of $3.7 billion, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
“There are five saltwater (boat) companies in South Carolina in the top eight in the country in sales registration data,” Metts says.
Several Palmetto State boat builders have announced expansions in recent years. The S.C. Department of Commerce says it’s evidence the state is good for advanced manufacturing in general.
“Companies of all sizes are choosing to call our state home because, among other things, they recognize that we have a capable workforce and are able to supply critical, necessary business services to help them be successful,” says Commerce spokeswoman Adrienne Fairwell.
The Midlands in particular has a significant cluster of boat builders. Rawl mentions other brands such as Bentley Pontoons and Sea Pro.
“We’ve almost been like a little mecca for building boats,” he says.
Metts launched Tidewater in 2006 after having worked at Sea Pro in jobs ranging from boat building to sales to management. He says the local workforce, with its boat-building knowledge, is a plus.
“We all know each other,” he says of nearby boat manufacturers. “There’s no secrets.”
Lexington Mayor Steve MacDougall is excited Tidewater decided to stay home to grow its business.
“They build a quality product,” he says. “‘Lexington, South Carolina,’ is going to be on every boat they sell, and we’re proud of that.”