Williston's Monterey Boats has taken off in the past 20 years
Published: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 23, 2005 at 3:41 a.m.
From its beginnings in an 18,000-square-foot shed in LaCrosse to its present home in a mammoth climate-controlled aluminum building in Williston, Seabring Marine - doing business as Monterey Boats - has seen a world of change.
When brothers Charles and Jeff Marshall started building small speedboats in 1985, they no doubt had little idea how big their dream would become.
Over the next two years they produced three models in the 18- to 20-foot range. Each year since, they added four to five more models of deck boats and cruisers. Today, 20 years later, they produce 24 models of pleasure boats in the most popular range: from an 18-foot bowrider for wakeboarding and water skiing to a 38-foot sport yacht that features three flat-screen televisions, a main salon, two sleeping cabins and a fully electric galley: refrigerator, smooth-top stove and microwave.
Monterey Boats is the eighth-largest manufacturer of stern-driven and inboard fiberglass boats in the country, company officials say. According to president Robert "Bobby" Pita, the company did approximately $80.4 million in gross sales in 2004, and aims for $100 million this year. Boats - all of which include an inboard-outboard motor - range in price from $20,000 to $225,000.
In 2004, the company received the National Marine Manufacturers' Association award, which is based on an NMMA survey of retail boat owners, and is presented to boat manufacturers whose customer service scores exceeded 90 percent, Pita explained.
Why a major boat plant in landlocked Williston, with barely 2,500 residents? It's more than 30 miles from the nearest ramp on the West Coast, and a good 100 miles from a protected deep-water slip on the East Coast.
Pita said the decision was pretty simple: a ready and available work force, decent connections to the interstate, 40 acres of open industrially zoned land that accommodated expansion and a lucrative partnership with the city.
Over the years, Monterey Boats has grown considerably. Part of that growth was forced, though.
Plans were well under way in April 1999 to consolidate operations in LaCrosse, Archer and Williston to a central Williston location. Negotiations included moving to the industrial park near the airport. The company had planned to keep about 190 workers doing lighter work at the Archer plant on State Road 24 just west of downtown.
A late-night fire on Aug. 31 of that year all but destroyed the entire operation in Archer. Boats and equipment were charred and melted. Fortunately, most of the administrative offices were saved from destruction. Most of the town of Archer was evacuated because many of the materials turned toxic when burned. Monterey continued paying the displaced workers during cleanup and reconstruction.
Pita, who has been with the company for 13 years, said the cause was determined to be a faulty electric meter near a resin tank.
Monterey no longer owns the Archer property.
A research and development operation remains near downtown Williston, where a collection of boats and some molds are stored.
Since 1999, the main Williston plant has undergone several growth spurts. Over the years, the original 110,000 square feet of space has grown to about 300,000, which includes intermediate expansions and a new 110,000-square-foot plant built last year. It was completed Dec. 22 and was fully operational last week, with dozens of boats in various stages of completion moving down the line toward the exit doors.
The buildings' interiors are kept virtually dust-free and there are numerous bright yellow exhaust fans hanging from the ceilings, as well as yellow controls for boat lifts snaking down like so many jungle vines.
The new cruiser plant includes two swimming pool-size testing tanks where any leaks could be discovered. Boats are lifted into the tanks to run the engines and check the bilge pumps. The testing includes horizontal blasts of water about 4 feet above the surface to determine that the portholes (which open from the inside) do not leak under high wakes or hurricane-force winds.
Curtained bays keep the potentially messy fiberglass grinding work separate from the cleaner operations of hardware installation and interior work.
When Monterey moved to Williston, the city offered one year's free rent for every 10 workers the company employs. This means Monterey will have free rent for at least a half a century.
Pita said there are currently about 480 employees at the plant, from laminators and gel-coaters to hardware installers, designers and office personnel. It is the largest private employer in the Levy County. Employees also come from Marion, Gilchrist and Alachua counties, Pita said.
With the recent expansion, there are currently 25 openings. Applicants do not need to be experienced boat builders, even though that is a plus. "We train them here. They start somewhere on the line and work their way up," Pita said.
Michael Biskie, director of human resources for the past four years, said almost all workers are cross-trained, so they know more than one job. While some may prefer to do the same thing day after day, it's more productive if they know several jobs, so they can help one another out, he said.
Employees - most of whom are full time - enjoy benefits such as 401(k) pension plans and insurance.
Shortly after the Marshalls began their boat-building, they switched to a swoopy "European" design for their hulls, featuring convex decks and virtually seamless one-piece interiors. This smooth design facilitates cleaning, and is more comfortable, with no sharp edges, the builders say.
Shatterproof curved windshields, stainless steel hardware throughout and top-of-the line electronics - including GPS, radar, depth finders and stereo systems - come standard.
Amenities include wet bars, cedar-lined closets and a stand-up or sit-down shower in the roomy head in the larger craft; hide-away coolers, swim platforms and wakeboard towers in the smaller craft. Customers are given a choice of canvas, from biminis to full camper covers with side curtains. There are five hull colors: black, blue, yellow, red or white. Interior fabric choices are all muted. Upholstery is sewn by Emerald Coast Interiors in Milton, Fla.
Pita said the designers "have a good eye, and are on the leading edge of styling." He said Monterey boats' popularity stems from the quality product and a competitive price.
Biskie - himself a boat owner - said while the price of the bigger boats may seem steep to some, "you have to remember, this is the boat owners' recreation," not unlike having a cabin in the woods or a cottage at the beach.
While retail is busiest during the spring and early summer, production continues unabated all year. Pita said the goal is to turn out about 60 boats a week. It takes two to four weeks to complete a boat, depending on its size. Each is then encased in shrink-wrap plastic and delivered to more than 100 dealers worldwide - including Europe, Mexico and Japan - via the company's own trucks, and then to freight-forward ports for overseas delivery.
The closest dealer to the Gainesville area is Miller's Boating Center on U.S. 441 north of Ocala, Pita said, and Julington Creek Yacht Sales in Jacksonville and Fort Walton Beach is the largest Monterey dealer in the Southeast. The No. 1 dealer in Monterey boats is in Los Angeles, he added.
Boating is big activity. According to the Florida Sea Grant, Florida accounts for one-fourth of the nation's recreational boating, and the number of boaters plying coastal waterways has increased at a rate that eclipses overall population growth.
NMMA figures for 2003 (the latest available) show U.S. manufacturers sold 20,300 inboard boats and cruisers for a total of more than $3.86 billion. That same year there were 3.53 million inboard and sterndriven boats in use the Unied States.
Marina Blomberg can be reached at (352) 374-5025 or email@example.com.
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