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 6- Orin Edson & Bayliner Boats
In this Part 6 of the series we explore John Orin Edson, entrepreneur extraordinaire, founder of Bayliner Marine, mega-philanthropist, and perhaps the only self-made billionaire resulting from pleasure boat building. Born in Bellingham, Washington in 1932 and known by his middle name, Orin grew up boating with his family on Lake Washington in Seattle. Using money from his paper route, at age 13 he built his own boat, and in his teens, joined the growing interest in boat racing on Lake Washington.
He served in the Signal Corp of the US Army in Korea, returned, got married, and enrolled in the University of Washington. To raise a bit of money, he started selling off his racing boats and paraphernalia on weekends from a parking lot in Seattle. He also built a few wooden sailboats and then motorboats at his home and starting selling those too along with help from his brother Walt.
He sold boats for his friends too, and also bought unfinished plywood boats then painted and equipped them to order with motors he purchased from local dealers. Soon, realized he had a business going and dropped out of university to pursue it full time. It was 1955. Edson was twenty-three years old. He dubbed the business Advanced Outboard Marine. He erected a small wooden office and began selling used boats. Business flourished and, with a line of credit, he picked up a couple new boat lines including a local plywood brand called “Bayliner,” along with a Mercury outboard motor franchise.
In 1958, Edson moved Advanced Outboard Marine into a proper storefront in Seattle. Before long it was one of the largest retail marine operations in the Seattle area, with over one million dollars in retail sales in 1960. He quickly expanded to six locations in the Seattle area, and within a few years also opened retail stores in Dallas, Houston, and Clear Lake in Texas, plus one in Miami, Florida.
To feed his growing retail business and what he foresaw as the demands of first time boat buyers, Edson began building his own line of boats. He needed a snazzy name, and in 1961 purchased the brand name “Bayliner” for one hundred dollars from the local boat builder in Tacoma, Washington. His vision was to build low-cost but quality boats with lasting value.
He first contracted with local boat builder Glas-Ply Boats to build for him, but within a couple of years decided to do it himself. In 1966, he set up manufacturing the first Bayliner boats in a barn on a berry farm in Marysville, Washington. To keep costs down in opposition to other builders at the time he focused on a limited choice production line methodology with few available options, fewer engine and colour choices, and fewer upholstery and layout choices.
The result was consistent quality, reduced labour costs, reduced material costs through bulk purchasing, and in the end, lower retail prices. Edson had achieved his goal of creating a reliable, affordable family boat for the new middle class boat buyer. He opened dealerships across the US and into Canada, and by 1968 had one hundred such dealers. Sales were booming and he moved production into a former World War II hanger and airstrip complex in Arlington, Washington.
Reducing production costs became the paramount objective in achieving increased value to the end user. Edson set up well paid incentive programs with production line workers to not only increase production rates but also maintain levels of quality and reduce warranty costs. His engineering team strived to develop new production techniques.
The gasoline crisis of the early 1970s presented Edson with another challenge. As sales of boats with motors stagnated, he responded with a line of sailboats from twenty to forty-two feet called Buccaneer. The name was eventually changed to US Yachts. They caught on in some markets, and less so in other markets, and were eventually dropped altogether in the late ‘70s when the fuel crisis subsided. But, they did help keep the production line busy and the company profitable.
From the time he started selling boats, Edson visualized simplifying the buying process for first time buyers who, up until that time, had to select a boat, a motor, a trailer, and then get the whole package put together before it could be put in the water. Up until then, engine manufacturers would not sell outboard motors to boat manufacturers.
His plan came together in the early 1980s when, as part of the bailout package, Chrysler Corporation was forced by the US government to divest itself from its non-automotive divisions. Bayliner’s newly formed US Marine division snapped up Chrysler’s outboard motor division along with its manufacturing facility in Hartford, Wisconsin which it had originally purchased from West Bend in 1965. In fact, Chrysler then became the first boat builder to sell its boats packaged with an outboard motor.
The outboard motors were re-branded as Force and, together with a newly acquired state-of-the-art Escort trailer facility, in 1982 the Bayliner Capri lineup became the first integrated boat, motor, and trailer package in the marine industry. It would be sold to consumers as “The Total Value Package.” Influential Powerboat magazine named the new Capri the Boat of the Year calling its packaging concept as “a major breakthrough in boat manufacturing.”
The early 1980s saw massive expansion in production and retail sales growth to where Bayliner surpassed Sea Ray to become the largest pleasure boat manufacturer in the world. At this point Edson, still an avid boater in his free time, treated himself with a custom-made yacht for his private and entertainment use. It was eighty-five feet, and he told me personally at the time it was the largest composite fibreglass boat ever built.
Bayliner eventually produced up to one 1000 boats per week from 24 hour manufacturing facilities across the US, generating upwards of a reported $750 million in annual sales and represented by 750 dealers in over 40 countries. In 1986, Bayliner Marine sold an unprecedented 43,000 boats in one year!
(*A little personal side story*- As a dealer in the early 1980’s, the Bayliner sales numbers generated from boat shows were simply staggering. I took the opportunity to observe the selling techniques of one of Bayliner’s largest dealers at a winter boat show in a bordering state. I watched their fully stocked booth for a couple of hours from across the aisle. It was production line selling. The lineup to get into the booth was always long, and every person in line first talked to a “greeter” who’s job it was to separate “buyers” from “lookers” and pinned a badge on each person accordingly.
The ”lookers” were left to wander and were not allowed to go on any boat. Each “buyer” was then “qualified” as to size, style, and price range for the boat they wanted, then had another badge pinned on them. They were led to the appropriate boat occupied by a sales person who was dedicated to that vessel and never left the boat. That salesperson handled any objections and asked for the sale.
If the answer was yes, a “runner” escorted the customer to a line of a half dozen closing booths with clear plexiglass walls along the main aisle. The purpose was that anyone walking by would see that Bayliners were being sold and written up in droves in order to create a buying frenzy. Each booth was occupied by a talented “closing” specialist. This whole process worked, as the tally from that show demonstrated Bayliners were sold at an average of four per hour – yes four per hour – for every hour the show was open! It was a ten-day show. You do the math. Now back to our story.)
In 1986, Edson sold the business to Brunswick Corporation for $425 million, just a few months before Brunswick also purchased Sea Ray. At only fifty-four years of age, Orin Edson was able to take a breather and enjoy the fruits of his labour. He refreshed his pilot skills, including his helicopter rating, and spent lots of time on the water cruising through the Pacific Northwest.
Perhaps it was because he was thinking of buying a larger yacht, who knows, but for whatever reason in the early 1990s he purchased majority ownership in Westport Yachts of Westport, Washington. Westport specialized (and still does) in composite fibreglass construction said to result in lighter, faster, and more fuel-efficient commercial boats and yachts. Edson applied his principles of creating more value at less cost to the superyacht industry, and Westport Yachts flourished.
Edson subsequently took delivery of a 161-foot superyacht and then later had a 164-foot custom-made model built to order. It included an internal elevator, extra wide decks, a large tender garage, and a helipad with re-fueling capabilities. He named both yachts Evviva. Edson and his wife Charlene cruised the world in their new yacht for six months of the year at a stretch. He sold his interest in Westport Yachts in 2014, then sold Evviva in 2015.
However, back in early 2013 the changing retail marketplace caused Brunswick to limit all Bayliner cruiser production and sales to South America, leaving its North American and European cruiser market to Sea Ray. At the same time, Bayliner introduced an all-new lineup of bowriders, deck boats, and jet boats to the North American market as its newest concept in affordable boating. Founder Orin Edson’s vision of affordable family boating was reborn to a new generation of boat buyer over fifty years later.
In their later years, both Edson and Charlene also donated millions to foundations funding mainly health and education, leaving behind an impressive legacy for philanthropy. Orin Edson died in Seattle in 2019 at age 87. His legacy now under Brunswick, the business has thrived with their two largest boatbuilders, Bayliner and Sea Ray (and many others) helping create one of the strongest portfolios in recreational boating.