Sell what we’ve got….not what we’ve not got! I was stopped in my tracks when I heard this clear order from the production manager to the marketing department of the competent manufacturing company I worked for in my early 20’s. And the absolute wisdom of those words has rung in my ears ever since a project I embarked on in the early 1990’s.
The mantra works in a number of ways, but fundamentally it says deal with certainties, not possibilities.
In the early days of my own boatbuilding business we had few orders, but it was immediately clear to me I should use my time to produce boats, solid products that had a value that could, sooner or later be realized. If a day passed with no product, a day was lost that could never be regained. We duely started to turn a profit.
Without a sample available, winning a customer is much more difficult, so a substantial part of each day was spent creating new boats. For the first few months these were capitalized by a bank loan of £500, sufficient to cover the material costs of 4 small dinghies in those days. Within 6 months the loan was repaid, and we never used credit again, preferring to re-invest the proceeds of sales in more tools and materials.
After 10 years trading this model was providing a steady if unremarkable income for a few faithful helpers and me. A flow of orders flowed from the distinguished house-style of our product, which was clearly different from anything anyone within hundreds of miles of our sales pitch was offering. We were building beautiful race-winning yachts.
Then the catastrophe happened. I was lured into a contract to build two racing yachts, just a little larger than those we had been turning out regularly for a few years. Armed with hundreds of photographs and drawings of typical and contemporary 5-5metre class (34ftLOA) racing yachts I gave a fixed price, and set to work.
CAD machine printing was a new innovation at that time, and in lieu of a bulky envelope of sweet smelling dye-line construction drawings, the first package from the designer was a roll of drawing plastic showing the sections, neatly and accurately printed full size, followed by many feet of fax. Precise in some ways, but not a firm base for a contract I later realized….
Time being of the essence (the yachts were to be delivered six months hence to Norway for the World Championships) we set to with little other than a small scale profile drawing showing the station locations and the luxurious, full size, planking-reduced sections to work from. To save time and money the designer’s proposal was that we would remove the decks and cockpit soles from 2 old 5.5’s and install them ready fitted out to the new hulls and keels. Retaining the old sailnumbers would also avoid the substantial payment of a building fee to the IYRU, an organization to which one of my customers was a past chairman!
The new hull building proceeded apace, with slight delays occuring with the delivery of the designer-specified non woven tri’axial glass cloth, a material I had no previous experience with. (In the event this material needed so much epoxy to fill its interstacies its doubtful it was, in practice, any better than a conventional flat weave low-crimp cloth).
At this point line drawings for a bulb keel arrived… at the last possible moment, with some further details later by fax. A pattern had to be built and delivered to the lead keel foundry, Henry Irons in Cornwall some 388 miles distant. The shape was significantly more complex than anything seen in the 5.5 class before, and so the pattern took twice as long to make. Apart from superior hydrodynamics the designer was aiming to place the CG lower than conventional, which meant that a hollow stub keel had to be built into the hull.
The fabrication and installation of these elements took way longer than the usual 5.5 arrangement (which was simply to bolt a fin onto a flat on the bottom of the canoe body using big washers and ten or a dozen bolts ready cast into the keel). Apart from the enhanced difficulty of ensuring perfect alignment, many hours of extra manufacturing were involved in this ‘new’ layout.
Did I mention a call from the foundry? The lead castings turned out significantly heavier than designed, and so had to have the top 4″ removed, to be replaced by deadwood. Another small job in itself that multiplied the time needed to fit the keel. At this point I had to move the yacht hulls to other premises with the benefit of an overhead crane… the finished & painted hulls could not be simply lifted onto their completed fins standing on a trailer. This also complicated the painting process… each boat took 8 hours of almost continuous paint spraying. I climbed on and off 2ft high benches to reach from deck edge to keel sole, round the boat 6 times. Painting just a hull or keel is very easy by comparison.
Fitting the keels did not bring the job to completion… another first for these yachts was the inculsion of a trim tab. As all yachtbuilders know, fitting, fairing, flapping and pivoting a tab or rudder to the trailing edge of a keel is a highly skilled job. The final sting in the tail was a call for existing rudders to be modified. These would be extended in depth to almost the full draft of the yachts, with a modified foil section. Sometimes its easier to start from new!
Further delays were encountered when special chainplates had to be manufactured… the fabricators did a great and prompt job, but I was frustrated that the drawings were not available at the outset of the contract. Off-the-shelf parts also caused frustration… specified stock rudder bearings from an American manufacturer with a UK agent arrived only after much chasing on the telephone. What a waste of time. At a late stage new masts from an untested alloy were specified, and when the tubes were drawn they proved almost impossible to drill to mount fittings! Fortunately this was outside the scope of my contract.
In the last month before delivery another insideous, unforseen factor grew out of control. With time slipping away one owner started to call on their newly invented mobile phones, not just once but many times a day, each time with another good idea. I estimate I took over150 calls, 75 hours, during that last month, with no positive benefit to the yachts.
Even loading a yacht on a trailer into a container sounds simple… in the event it would have been easier to tow the yachts to Norway behind the trusty Scimitar!
I learned very painfully that I should always keep a diary of additions and variations to contract, however insignificant they might appear at the time. In this instance each variation from the conventional seemed almost trivial, but collectively they would have been my downfall had it not been for other trade. From that time onwards, customers were welcome at the yard after 4 on Friday afternoon to inspect progress, meet or phone to agree variations to the contract. All other time was ringfenced for constuction.
The ability to build a beautiful boat is not sufficient to ensure a fruitful future in boatbuilding. Skills in sales, estimating, accounting, purchasing, man management, planning, contracting and transport are equally important elements; ignore any one at your peril.
Sell what you’ve got…. this does not necessarily have to be something you have completed, it could be a skill or experience you have already acquired, but whatever, it should be something of which you are in complete control of every last detail, from drawing to finished specification. Something you have in stock. The most reliable sub-contractors will sometimes be unable to deliver, but then its your head on the block, not theirs.
Happily 20 years on, the yachts have new owners, are re-named and sailing in the Netherlands :