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Innovators in Boating - CN 'Connie' Ray & Sea Ray

By: Richard Crowder

The pleasure boat industry is chock full (no pun intended) of the most interesting of people, hard working totally dedicated individuals and families who have often put their life’s savings and full-time energies to fulfilling their dreams of creating the boats we know and love. These then are their stories. Many of them I have met and personally chatted with and to a person, they are focused and driven and totally confident in their realities and in their dreams.

Part 5- Connie Ray & Sea Ray

In this Part 5 of the series, we explore Cornelius Nathaniel Ray III, referred to as C.N. by some but to most as “Connie,” the founder and creator of arguably one of the largest and most respected brands of pleasure boats in the world. Born in 1925 in Detroit, Michigan, Connie Ray attended Detroit University School in upscale Grosse Pointe and immediately joined the US Army Air Corp during World War II where he developed a passion for flying. After his discharge he attended and graduated from UCLA in 1949.

Ray eventually bought a small business operating out of a garage which specialized in the utilization of the relatively new technology of fibreglass to make golf cart bodies, coffins, and small runabouts. Ray had no interest in golf or coffins, so he dropped those two items and concentrated on what he thought had a bright future – family pleasure boats. It was 1959 and Ray Industries quickly expanded to a production facility in Oxford, Michigan, just slightly northwest of metropolitan Detroit.

He called his new line of boats Sea Ray, a name some say derived from his first initial and surname, C. Ray, but there is no definitive proof of this. Having been brought up in 'The Motor City' under the massive influence of 'The Big Three' American automobile giants, where styling and marketing was everything and dealerships crucial to success, Ray developed his business methodologies.

He wanted his boats to be different and look different and be superior in all aspects including construction, design, and materials backed by the best in customer support. Harley Earl, the General Motors styling king of the late fifties and early sixties was engaged by Ray to assist in design. Even though Earl’s tailfins were not a hit in boat design, he did introduce leading hull and deck designs along with automotive style interior, seating, and upholstery upgrades, as well as automotive-style steering wheels and dash designs with wood inserts.

Connie Ray was more than hands-on in every aspect of his boat production and took a personal hand in dealer selection and development. He travelled the country determining the best boat dealerships in any area and then used his natural charisma, business acumen, leadership, and intellect to convince that dealership to be a Sea Ray dealer. As opposed to other manufacturers that often established as many dealers as possible, Ray gave each of his dealers la distinct territory.

He worked with his dealers. He listened to his dealers. He asked for and welcomed comments and suggestions for improvements in his boats and his methods. He developed personal friendships, relationships, and trust with his dealers and would occasionally even help them out in tough times. He was a motivator and an innovator.

He would offer sales incentives to dealers and when he made a commitment to solve a problem, he would personally follow up to make sure it got done. As opposed to many other manufacturers at the time, every Sea Ray was shipped to a dealer fully assembled and ready to sell immediately. Later on, as Sea Ray flourished, he would treat his dealers to exotic trips and often flew them there in his personal Learjet that he piloted.

Connie Ray was hands-on with his customers, too. He would personally mail out comment cards after each boat was sold asking about the boat, the dealer, and the sales process. He would personally review each response and send each back to the selling dealer showing approval or disapproval, the latter response meaning the dealer must take corrective action. Any call from a customer to the factory had to be dealt with right then by whoever answered the phone. His boats were first class, his dealers were first class, and his organization was first class. Sea Ray’s reputation grew and sales prospered.

The combination of all of the above put Sea Ray on a pedestal as the boat to own. As their cruiser series developed, their design with curved foredeck and oval portlights with off-white gelcoat plus overall sleekness, quality of construction, materials, and components set them apart from others. In 1974, the SRV 240 Sundancer was introduced and revolutionized the express cruiser market. The inclusion of a mid-cabin with increased sleeping accommodation in moderately sized boats at a moderate price point opened up a whole new market and became an industry standard while replacing the traditional boxy express cruiser.

The Sundancer model lineup has increased in size and numbers (and importance) to Sea Ray over the years until it reached its zenith in 1996 with the 63-foot 630 Sundancer powered by Caterpillar diesels turning Arneson surface drives. By the mid-seventies, the Sundancer took the boat market by storm and led to Sea Ray opening a new manufacturing facility in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1978-79. Eventually Sea Ray headquarters and manufacturing would move from Oxford, Michigan to Knoxville and two more facilities were later opened there.

Sea Ray grew through the seventies and eighties, surpassing Glastron as the largest manufacturer of family pleasure boats in the world. They also boasted the largest and broadest model lineup with worldwide manufacturing and distribution and dealer networks. In 1986, less than one month after purchasing Bayliner Marine, Brunswick Corporation, the world’s largest marine engine maker through its purchase of Kiekhaefer Marine and Mercury outboard motors in 1961, bought Ray Industries for $350 million. At the time, Sea Ray offered a lineup of forty models from seventeen to forty-six feet with estimated annual sales of 28,000 boats totaling $400 Million.

As Sea Ray grew and prospered, C.N. Connie Ray was able to indulge in his other personal lifestyle passions aside from boating and aviation. In 1983, he purchased the noted 400-acre Kentucky thoroughbred breeding facility, Evergreen Farms. After Brunswick purchased the company, he stayed on for another five years, finally retiring from the boat business in 1990 at age 65. After that, he devoted much time to horses where he became a successful breeder and champion. He bought more breeding farms over the years where his other passion for animals was also nourished.

C.N. Connie Ray died in 2009 at age 84 following a five-year battle with cancer. Following the economic downturn in 2008, which drastically hurt all leisure industries including boating, his beloved Sea Ray survived a later attempt by Brunswick Corp. to sell it, but in 2018 the fallout necessitated the discontinuance of the Sea Ray sport yachts. Today, Sea Ray offers twenty-four models from nineteen to forty feet, including four Sundancer 32-footers. Connie Ray would no doubt be pleased with the legacy he built as Sea Ray still enjoys that unique aura of respect and admiration from customers and dealers alike.

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