By: Craig Ritchie
Employees at Michigan, US-based Tiara Yachts bid farewell to boat building pioneer Leon Slikkers in early September, who retired following a 75-year career in the recreational boating industry.
Slikkers, 93, began building boats in 1946 when, as an 18 year-old, he took a job at the Chris-Craft factory in Holland, Michigan. Starting out as a carpenter making cabin tops, he advanced up the company ladder and learned everything he could about the business. When a 1952 strike left him without a paycheque, Slikkers and another employee named Jason Petroelje began building boats of their own.
Working from Slikkers’ garage, the pair built and sold 10 outboard-powered runabouts by the time the strike was settled. Although Slikkers was happy to return to the Chris-Craft plant for the security of regular wages, the seeds had been sown and by January of 1955, he left Chris-Craft for good to manufacture his own boats full-time, selling them under the new brand name of SlickCraft.
Business was brisk. By the end of the year, Slikkers had built and sold 35 boats – all 14-footers with molded plywood hulls.
Although it was the standard material used in boatbuilding at the time, Slikkers was never happy with molded plywood as a working material, being difficult to form into complex shapes and prone to rot no matter how much varnish was applied. A new product called fibreglass, however, intrigued him.
The Dawn of a New Era In Boat Building
“We were always trying to bend wood that didn’t want to bend, in order to form some of the curves,” said Slikkers in a 2002 interview. “I was thinking, if you could just lay this material in, you could come up with some fantastic shapes that are more conducive to a boat than to have to bend wood or cut wood or shape wood. Plus it didn’t rot the way wood did. The talk was that it would last pretty well forever.”
Slikkers began building boats with fibreglass hulls for the 1958 model year, including the very first models to integrate colour into the gel coat. The new material proved so successful that only two years later, Slikkers ceased building plywood hulls altogether and moved to fibreglass production exclusively.
“Leon was an early pioneer who led that transition,” notes son Tom Slikkers, who has served as Tiara president and CEO since 2012. “At that time boats were all made from wood. No one was really interested in fibreglass, nor did they want to invest the time or energy to figure it out. But Leon saw that as a way to help grow his business and give himself a distinct competitive advantage.”
SlickCraft grew steadily through the 1960s, as North American families enjoyed increased leisure time. Like any successful venture, it wasn’t long before SlickCraft attracted the attention of larger competitors. An offer from AMF Corporation in September 1969 seemed too good to pass up, and Slikkers sold the company, staying on as president of AMF’s new SlickCraft Division.
He remained with the firm for four more years as president, before departing to launch S2 Yachts in 1974. Still based in Holland, Michigan, S2 (which secretly stood for “SlickCraft 2”) established itself by building sailboats out of respect for a non-competition agreement that Slikkers had signed upon departing AMF. But once the agreement expired, it promptly introduced a new line of power boats under the name Tiara. These proved so popular that the company soon abandoned its sailboat business altogether.
The Launch of Pursuit
Efforts to introduce Pacific salmon into the Great Lakes during the 1970s had created an active sport fishery by the time Tiara entered the marketplace, so it was inevitable that plant engineers – many of whom liked to fish – began reworking one of the Tiara hulls into a fishing platform. The resulting model, named Pursuit, drew such strong response that it was quickly spun off as its own brand. By 1983, Pursuit had grown so popular that a second factory – located in Fort Pierce, Florida – was built to handle its construction, giving the crowded Michigan factory the space it needed to build a growing family of Tiara models.
Tiara Yachts currently employs more than 600 people at its state-of-the-art 800,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Holland, having sold the Pursuit nameplate to Malibu Boats in 2018.
Although Leon Slikkers passed the CEO baton to son Tom 10 years ago, he remained involved in the business long afterward. “He still comes in to the plant every day,” says Tom. “There are a lot of things he likes to participate in, and he wants to remain connected. It might be a little unusual in that he’s 93, and most people choose to retire earlier than that, but it's a natural segue and indication that we're officially passing the baton, even though the baton got passed internally a long time ago.
“This company, its rich history, and all that it has accomplished wouldn’t have been possible if not for Leon’s vision, passion and unyielding entrepreneurial drive. His dedication to excellence, and the translation of his passion for boat building across three generations, will be a lasting legacy as we continue to provide exceptional customer service and highly specialized products.”
Tiara Yachts currently offers inboard-powered vessels from 39 to 53 feet, along with outboard-powered models from 34 to 48 feet which are sold throughout Canada, the US and Central America. In February 2021 it unveiled its all-new 48 LS – the company’s largest outboard-powered boat to date – and is planning to introduce a new inboard-powered 55-foot model in 2022. The new Tiara 55 will feature long range, multiple seating configurations and luxury features such as a summer kitchen and al fresco dining.
Still an active member of the Tiara board of directors, there’s every indication that Leon Slikkers will be there for its launch – even if he’s supposed to be retired. As he noted in that 2002 interview, “it kind of gets in your blood.”