Sea Hunt builds top-selling family-friendly boats in Columbia
By Leigh Savage
Father and son Vic and Bubba Roof started Sea Hunt Boats in a small one-room shop outside of Columbia in 1995, and in just a few years, they were building the No. 1 selling saltwater boat on the market. And they did it by focusing on what they love most about fishing—spending time with family and friends.
Robbie Coates, national sales manager, says a huge reason for the success of the company is the way it has innovated to help more families enjoy fishing and boating together. “We’ve taken the center-console boat and made it a family-friendly fishing boat,” he says. “We satisfy dad, mom, and the kids.”
Sea Hunt was the first company to offer center-console boats with extra bow seating, back rests in the bow for family comfort, and extra leg room. Some boats have full rear-bench seating. “Everything we build is built with family in mind,” Coates says.
Now the company has 220 employees who build each boat at its 170,000-square-foot facility on Shop Road in downtown Columbia. Vic Roof retired, and as president and CEO, Bubba Roof comes in each day at 5:30 a.m. and inspects every boat before it leaves the facility. Coates says the company has held steady at around 2,100 to 2,200 boats built per year, and doesn’t want to stray far from that.
“We don’t want to jeopardize quality,” he says. “This is our sweet spot, at full capacity, where we run one shift, and keep our quality as high as we can keep it. Things change when you try to add more boats, so we build about eight boats per day.”
Sea Hunt sells to dealers, who rarely have any inventory left over. “Every dealer would love to have more boats,” he says. The company focuses on relationships with just 28 dealers, ranging from Rhode Island all the way down the eastern seaboard to the Florida Keys and then around the Gulf of Mexico to Texas.
The company does not sell on the West Coast because of one problem—shipping. “It just ties them up too long,” Coates says.
Vic Roof had owned the successful Sunbird Boat Company, which he sold to Outboard Marine Corp., but when Bubba graduated from college, he realized he too wanted to build boats. Sea Hunt began as a small saltwater line with a 15-foot boat, later venturing in 17-foot boats and then 19-foot boats.
The company took on the challenge of taking two popular types of boats—a pontoon or deck boat for family fun and a center-console boat for fishing—and combining those into one boat that can do it all.
“Fishing is a small part of what families do on the water,” Coates says. “They are out there to build memories—visit islands, go to restaurants, visit a sandbar. Bubba saw that families and children wanted to get more involved in boating.”
Then a 23-foot boat put Sea Hunt on the map, Coates says. Now, the company builds four lines of boats ranging from 18 to 30 feet, and in that size range, it is the No. 1 retail registered center console boat in the world. The Gamefish line is designed for offshore fishermen, but it still includes the creature comforts families want. The Ultra series is the most family friendly series, with a full backseat, as well as the most popular line. Triton boats are a little more fishing-focused, but still have a bow backrest for family, and the BX series, or Bay Extreme series, is made for shallow-water fishing but with extra seating.
As the first boat company to add many features, Sea Hunt team members are always looking for small upgrades that can make a big difference to boat buyers. New innovations include pop-out footrests for passengers. “We have an engineering team, but Bubba also comes up with a lot of the ideas himself,” Coates says. “A lot of it comes from listening to customers and hearing about their experiences and what they want.”
In its 14th year as No. 1 in its category, Sea Hunt is not looking to grow and expand, but wants to maintain its quality and innovation while keeping its workforce about the same size. Finding employees can be a challenge, though Coates says many employees have been with the company for years and the team is always ready “to train people to build boats the way we want them built.” He also cites a lot of upward mobility, as the company often promotes people from within.
Sea Hunt is also making a mark on its hometown by giving back to a variety of causes, including area schools, the Harvest Hope food bank, and the Coastal Conservation Association.
“This is a great location for us,” Coates says. “We’re proud that our logo has become a national symbol that people recognize as the best boat they can buy for the money.”