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Innovators in Boating - The Winn Family & Four Winns Boats

By: Richard Crowder

The Four Winns family
The Winns family- (L to R) Bill Jr, Charlie, & John. Seated- Bill Sr.

The pleasure boat industry is chock full 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 8- The Winn Family & Four Winns Boats

In this Part 8 of the series, we explore the family of Bill Winn Sr. and his three sons, the founders of Four Winns Boats of Cadillac, Michigan. John Winn, the middle of three sons of Bill Winn Sr, with Charlie the oldest and Bill Jr the youngest, grew up with boating in his blood in a small town near Grand Rapids, Michigan. He built hydroplanes in his basement in the winter and raced them in the summer.

After university, John worked as a factory rep for Starcraft Boats and then, along with Bill Jr, set up a company to represent a number of boat manufacturers who were selling to dealers. One of the companies they represented was a small regional outfit, Saf-T-Mate of Cadillac, Michigan. Cadillac is a small town on Lake Cadillac in upstate Michigan, about sixty kilometers inland from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. It was named after the French explorer and colonist, Sieur de Cadillac.

John and Bill Winn Jr, with their knowledge of the expanding boat market of the 1970s, started urging changes to the eighty-year-old owner of Saf-T-Mate, George Spicer. Eventually, Spicer asked the two Winn brothers to buy him out, offering they could make whatever changes they wanted if they were owners.

Being in their late twenties and seeing the potential in the opportunity, they jumped in. There was only one hitch: They needed a co-signer for the business loan so they asked their father, Bill Winn Sr to get involved. At that point, Bill had been, since 1971, President of North American Sales and Marketing for the British-made iconic BSA and Triumph motorcycle brands. He agreed to join his two sons.

Oldest brother Charlie was in finance in Lansing, Michigan and, figuring that four Winns were better than three Winns, decided he would join in, too. The four male members of the Winn family were now in the business of building boats. It was 1975, and they each moved their families to the Cadillac area. They started building out of the Saf-T-Mate facility, calling them Saf-T-Mate by Four Winns. At the time, Saf-T-Mate offered six outboard runabouts from fourteen to nineteen feet and three sterndrive models from sixteen to nineteen feet.

In 1976, the company became Four Winns Inc. and the Saf-T-Mate name was dropped. All four worked to build the brand over the next few years and sacrificed a lot personally, including taking very little out of the business. They all lived modestly, and all of their wives continued working to keep the families afloat.

Then disaster struck. A fire in early May 1978 wiped out the entire factory including materials and inventory in progress. Only tooling was saved. Technically they were bankrupt, but because of their past results and employment history in the community, a local bank and their suppliers extended credit allowing them to continue.

A new state-of-the-art production facility was built on Frisbie Street in Cadillac’s new industrial park. They worked to re-establish the brand and paid back their suppliers, but were set back again two years later when President Jimmy Carter and US Congress proposed a ban on weekend boating to conserve gasoline during the fuel crisis. That was followed up with a proposed ten percent surtax on pleasure boats. Even though the proposals never came to fruition, boat loans became hindered by twenty percent interest rates and sales plummeted.

The Winns worked through the hardship and continued to build the brand through product quality, dealer support, and an employee profit-sharing program. They also added a corporate subsidized cafeteria and lunch program, which helped build strong relationships among employees and boost morale. The profit-sharing program was credited with generating outstanding cost reductions and operational efficiencies company-wide.

By the early 1980s, Four Winns was starting to flourish but was still another brand among hundreds of regional boat manufacturers throughout North America. At the time, there were only a handful of truly national brands, and the Winns embarked on a strategy to join them. Instead of taking well-deserved dividends out of the company, they pooled their resources and established a satellite manufacturing facility in Athens, Texas.

Hard work again paid off and by 1986, Four Winns was not only a national brand but the third largest boat manufacturer in the US. They began producing over ten thousand boats per year and exporting to over fifty countries. In that same year, Four Winns introduced the value-leading 170 and 180 Freedom Series to great success. I personally remember arriving at that year’s dealer meeting at a resort on Lake Cadillac to see a new Freedom floating in the resort’s indoor swimming pool. It commanded serious dealer attention and praise, along with substantial follow-up orders.

By the mid-1980s, engine manufacturers were busy buying up boat companies as a strategy to guarantee transoms for their outboard and sterndrive engines. Once Bayliner and Sea Ray, Four Winns’ major competitors, were purchased by Brunswick Corporation, the Winn family saw the writing on the wall. It would be difficult for an independent manufacturer to acquire the guaranteed supply of engines, not to mention compete with the growing engine giants.

In 1987, Four Winns sold out to Outboard Marine Corporation, which had already added several boat brands to its portfolio. While the other three Winns retired, John Winn stayed on to manage the Four Winns operation, on the condition that the employee profit-sharing plan and subsidized cafeteria remain in place. Over time, John became frustrated with outside corporate governance and retired in 1995. Both employee programs were quickly disbanded following his retirement.

Meanwhile, Four Winns kept growing and developing new products to satisfy the growing pleasure boating market. In 1993, Four Winns introduced its revolutionary and proprietary Stable Vee® running surface which remains part of its strong sales appeal to this day. In Four Winns’ words, the design featured stepped, angled “After Pods” to minimize bow rise at low speeds, reduce drag at high speeds, and provide greater lateral stability while running or at rest.

When Outboard Marine Corporation broke apart in 2000, Four Winns became part of Genmar Holdings, and following its bankruptcy in 2010, part of Platinum Equity’s Rec Boat Holdings group, which also included Glastron, Wellcraft, and Scarab. Four Winns continued to flourish. In 2014, the Rec Boat Holdings group was once again sold, this time to the international giant Beneteau Boat Group.

In 2015, Four Winns introduced what was claimed to be the world’s largest bowrider/overnight cruiser, the Horizon 440. It was a show-stopper at that year’s Toronto International Boat Show.

Now in 2021, Four Winns offers forty-five models of outboard and sterndrive powered boats from nineteen to thirty-five feet in four series of bowriders, deck boats, surf boats, and cruisers.

After retirement in 1987, Charlie Winn opened a lakefront restaurant in Cadillac, became a housing developer, co-founded the Charlevoix Country Club, collected and restored antique boats, and joined the Great Lakes Cruising Club as well as the Porsche Club of America and the BMW Motorcycle Club of America. Charlie died of cancer in 2013. Bill Winn Sr became a dedicated volunteer and philanthropist. He died a year later in 2014.

In 1988, right after the sale of Four Winns, Bill Winn Jr moved to Fort Myers, Florida where he founded the very successful Boaters Landing boat dealership, which is of course a Four Winns dealer. John Winn stayed in the Cadillac area following his later retirement, and became an avid antique boat collector and restorer. His on-water Charlevoix residence on Round Lake, with its massive attached boathouse and museum, became somewhat of a local tourist attraction. He also became a member of the Great Lakes Cruising Club and cruised extensively with his wife, family, and friends.

In an interesting closing note, the grandchildren of the George Spicer, who sold his Saf-T-Mate boat company to the Winns, still operate Spicer’s Boat City of Houghton Lake, Michigan. They are still a Four Winns dealer.

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