Wall Street Journal 8 Dec 1999 By Robert Johnson
ASHLAND CITY, Tenn. -- Earl Bentz is living the fantasy of many frustrated corporate managers: Leave a behemoth and start your own operation. Before long, you're eating your former employer's lunch.
"I had ideas about boats that I wanted to put into action," says the 47-year-old entrepreneur, who resigned as president of Outboard Marine Corp.'s fishing-boat division three years ago. Since then, those ideas and Mr. Bentz's personalized approach to marketing have helped propel his privately owned Triton Boats to the top of a $500 million industry.
While many talented mavericks have made it big by striking out on their own in high-technology industries, such cases are rare in manufacturing, where start-ups who challenge entrenched competitors usually end up on the scrap heap.
Triton, however, has quickly managed to pull alongside OMC as a leading maker of bass boats, the high-powered sport-fishing vessels that are the aquatic answer to the muscle car. The boats typically range from 16 feet to 21 feet in length, retail for tens of thousands of dollars and come loaded with such amenities as padded bucket seats, built-in beverage coolers and large storage compartments where fishing gear can be kept ready for action. Although named for the bass, a species prized by anglers for its fight and its tasty flesh, the boats also appeal to status-conscious stalkers of other freshwater game fish.
The Triton boats' unique design, aimed at producing a more-durable hull, has scored a hit with fishermen, who have proved willing to pay a premium for it; the company expects its sales to rise to nearly $100 million this year. Triton also has become a favorite among dealers, several of whom say the brand routinely fetches retail prices that are about 15% above wholesale cost, compared with 8% to 12% for competing lines.
"Triton has basically doubled my bottom line since I took it on last year," says Jeff Priester, owner of Nixon Marine in Walla Walla, Wash.
Such enthusiasm appears to have bred resentment in some quarters. In January, someone smuggled a mud-caked and gutted Triton into the Raleigh, N.C., Bass Expo, leaving it where it was certain to attract crowds of gawkers. Mr. Bentz says he hasn't solved the mystery of who cut up and dumped the $34,000 vessel. Nor has he discovered the source of a video, widely circulated among boat dealers, that shows a Triton bass boat sinking. But, he suspects both are the work of a competitor.
"He has made Triton the hottest thing in the bass-boat industry, and that makes him a target," says Sandi Loganadan, co-owner of Angler's Choice, Martinsville, Va., which sells both Tritons and Rangers, a competing line.
Triton isn't Mr. Bentz's maiden voyage into bass boats. The beefy outdoorsman, a onetime professional boat racer, joined OMC, of Waukegan, Ill., in 1987 after it acquired his first venture, Stratos Boats Inc., for an undisclosed sum. OMC, which also makes marine engines, put Mr. Bentz in charge of its fishing-boat operations. But his goal, he says, was always to design the best bass boat on the market, and he eventually came to feel that OMC was stifling his creativity.
'A Different Agenda'
"Some big companies are more interested in what Wall Street thinks of their quarterly numbers than what the customer thinks of their product," says Mr. Bentz, who chafed when OMC assigned him to design an assembly line nearly as long as three football fields. It also rejected some of his pet ideas, such as combining the day and night shifts, "so we would all know each other and feel closer while making something we're proud of." At OMC, he says, "It was always, 'Cut costs.' "
"Earl had a different agenda," recalls Richard Teerlink, then an outside director at OMC.
By early 1996, Mr. Bentz was frustrated by what he thought was the boat division's -- and the industry's -- excessive reliance on discounting and its lack of new products. He offered to buy OMC's bass-boat operations, but the negotiations broke down over price. Then, he offered to design what would become the Triton line and let OMC manufacture it for him. OMC rejected that proposal, too.
"I took two weeks off to fish and hunt, and figure out what I was going to do next," Mr. Bentz remembers.
It didn't take him long. Turning to a cadre of well-heeled sportsmen he had befriended over the years, Mr. Bentz quickly raised enough capital to bankroll a new $6 million factory. He left OMC in April 1996 amid a financial restructuring that had left the company strapped. It was an ideal time to launch a marketing campaign against his former employer -- although he insists the timing was coincidental. But he readily admits to capitalizing on industry contacts he made at OMC -- including its best dealers, many of whom he had cultivated for years.
In June 1996, he set up shop temporarily in an abandoned Nashville-area shoe factory, and hired 25 people, including designers, engineers and production-line workers -- most of whom he had lured away from OMC. "I told them we couldn't just make boats that were a little better than OMC; we had to come up with new bells and whistles that would entice fishermen away from the established brands."
For its part, OMC spent an anxious few months waiting to see what its new competitor would come up with. "Earl knew all about us, but we didn't know what he was designing," says David Lumley, a former OMC vice president who now runs a Colorado vitamin company.
Some at OMC fumed as Mr. Bentz raided his old employer's fishing-boat division for talent, including the presidents of both of its bread-and-butter lines, Javelin and Stratos. OMC fought back, retaining Paula Rummage, Mr. Bentz's longtime financial sidekick, and promoting her to succeed him as president of the fishing-boat division.
Mr. Bentz hustled his first Tritons to market in September 1996, just five months after leaving OMC, and before ground was even broken for his new factory here in Ashland City. He says he feared dealers wouldn't take a chance on his boats. Instead, he says, about 600 dealers phoned to inquire about distribution rights.
In response, OMC went on the offensive, cutting wholesale prices and providing other incentives to discourage dealers from taking on the new brand. Some say that OMC even threatened to stop supplying them. However, current and former OMC officials say that if such tactics were indeed used, they were instigated by independent wholesale distributors, not ordered by company management.
Nonetheless, Sheryl Watson, a former OMC dealer in Bluff City, Tenn., says he tired of the tactics used by his OMC salesman after he decided to carry the Triton brand. He says he told OMC to "keep 'em all." When the salesman cautioned him to reconsider, Mr. Watson says he retorted, "I don't need to."
Mr. Watson, who has since become an exclusive Triton dealer, says the clincher came when Mr. Bentz took him on a fishing trip to a remote Canadian cabin. "Four beautiful days, and he cooked for me the whole time," says the dealer.
By January 1997, Triton -- still using its temporary shop -- was selling 50 boats a month. When the company's new plant opened that July, Mr. Bentz says he seized his chance to "do some new things." He configured his assembly line so boats could move through their molding, lamination and painting stages in one trip -- without being detoured to separate work areas, as in many marine factories. In addition, he made his Tritons the first sport-fishing boats to be built entirely from man-made composite materials, rather than partly from wood, in a bid to make their hulls last longer. His improvements added about $1,000 to the cost of a typical bass boat.
OMC countered by cutting prices, particularly on its Javelin line, which now lists for about 20% less than the Triton. It also pulled its Hydra-Sports brand out of its bass-boat lineup, repositioning it as a saltwater vessel.
Battle for Share
But none of those moves seem likely to halt Triton's momentum. The company presently is in a tight race for market share with OMC, Ranger Boats Co., of Flippin, Ark., and Tracker Marine LP, Springfield, Mo. The four companies each account for 11% to 13% of the fiberglass bass boats sold in the U.S., according to Statistical Surveys Inc. And Triton may be on track to emerge as the market leader in the next year or so, says Dick DuMont, president of the Cincinnati research firm. Triton's sales jumped 27% to 2,526 boats in the first six months of 1999, compared with a 1.2% increase in volume for the industry as a whole.
That growth partly reflects the personal efforts of Mr. Bentz, who haunts trade shows to chat up shoppers and persuade professional bass-tournament anglers to use and tout his boats. He also hawks them personally to fishing guides around the country.
True to Mr. Bentz's plan, guides such as Danny Mosley, a recent >Triton purchaser in Orlando, Fla., have joined the growing ranks of his company's unpaid sales force. "All my clients and everybody else that sees my boat wants to look it over, and then they want one," says Mr. Mosley.
This past January, Mr. Bentz also moved quickly to recruit bass-fishing icon Ray Scott as a Triton spokesman. Landing Mr. Scott, 66, who had just retired after 31 years of building the nation's leading tournament-angling circuit, was something of a coup. OMC was among several competitors that tried to recruit Mr. Scott, and he says most offered him more money than did Mr. Bentz. But, says Mr. Scott, "Earl is the future of the industry. And besides, he's fun. I like to sing and dance with him."
Turkey and Biscuits
Fish and hunt is more like it. Mr. Bentz regularly invites Mr. Scott, Triton dealers and the guides and pro-tournament fishermen he sponsors to Wolf Creek, his 1,200-acre estate 50 miles west of Ashland City. At Wolf Creek, which features a main house, a guest lodge and a cottage for his gamekeeper, Mr. Bentz and his associates stalk the white-tailed bucks and wild turkeys that flit among the oaks. His manmade lake is stocked with hybrid bass, and a Triton> is docked on its shore.
"This is where a lot of new ideas for the boats come from," he says. For example, Mike Witt, a Houston dealer, recently suggested a special hull design to provide more clearance for the outboard engine of boats cruising his region's shallow inland waterways. Mr. Bentz quickly designed a Triton
Mr. Witt's reward: a 5 a.m. breakfast of fresh wild turkey and biscuits prepared by Mr. Bentz at Wolf Creek, followed by a day of deer-hunting. "Earl treats his dealers like they're family," Mr. Witt says.
That's the kind of personalized marketing that once put Mr. Bentz at odds with his former bosses at OMC. "They never would pay for me to bring people here," he says, referring to his estate. "So I just did it on my own. What's one more steak or a bottle of Scotch?"
In retrospect, Mr. Bentz's parting with OMC may have been inevitable, says Robert Romano, OMC's general counsel and spokesman. "It's probably impossible to keep an entrepreneur happy forever in a big company," he says. And it hasn't been a total loss for OMC. Although Triton has hurt its boat business, Mr. Bentz equips about 50% of his vessels with the Johnson and Evinrude brand outboard engines OMC manufactures. "He's one of our biggest customers," adds Mr. Romano, one of the few top managers left at OMC whose tenure includes the Bentz years; that reflects Mr. Bentz's predations as well as a corporate restructuring and subsequent ownership change.
These days, Mr. Bentz, too, is philosophical about the split. He even sees a bright side in the case of the vandalized Triton at the Raleigh trade show: "I'd rather see our competitors spend their energy doing that than building something to frustrate us that much," he says.
Copyright © 1999 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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