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A Grand Heritage

James Sheely scales a stepladder and peers over the vast naked hull of a 30-footer, its mahogany ribs exposed. The thick planks curve into perfect symmetry, an enchanting balance of finesse and power. Nearby, a 20-footer sits at berth, unfinished with labor pangs revealed in a coat of sawdust.

The room is a work in progress, one Sheely tours from time to time with potential customers. They weave around piles of wooden boards scattered on a wooden floor to one or another of several handmade wooden boats. The crafts are in various stages of completion and in various shades of brown. The whole scene appears shrouded in sepia, as if it were a photographic glimpse of a bygone era.

“If we were in some state-of-the-art clean environment, it would actually detract from the visit,” says Sheely, Grand-Craft’s sales director.

30 Years of Craftsmanship
Indeed, the homespun plant in which each craft cobbles out its own unique cubby is part of the sell. It’s part of the Grand-Craft that this year marks its 30th anniversary of making mahogany boats in the vein of a renowned predecessor, Chris-Craft.
 
On the surface, it appears to be a shallow product that smacks of cultured nostalgia to the class of financial elites who buy it. But here at the plant, a look inside the soul of the ships reveals something much more refined: A craftsmanship of historic appeal. It’s what attracts celebrities and business tycoons to 430 W. 21st St. in Holland.

And it’s what enticed Tim Masek to buy the company four years ago.
A Chicago native who made his mark in “pure smokestack sort of companies,” Masek admits his passion for boats was docked earlier in life. But his appreciation of yesteryear’s fine workmanship drew him to Grand-Craft.

“It does take a certain skill level to not only build something that’s beautiful, but also functional,” says Masek, 44, a married father of four who now lives in Grand Rapids. “As someone who can appreciate fine things in life just like our customers, it gives you excitement about having a company that does something like that. We carry on a tradition that is still wanted by the marketplace.”

A Chris-Craft Connection
Chris-Craft built its last wooden boat in 1972, and Grand-Craft launched seven years later to make replicas of the famous brand. Many of today’s Grand-Crafts hearken back to earlier Chris-Crafts. For instance, the 30-foot-long 30th-anniversary boat draws inspiration from a 1930s-model.
 
On a 20-foot-long custom remake of a 1947 Chris-Craft, Sheely admires the bull nose and tumbled transom that give the boat an air of sleek strength, a subtle sexiness that shimmers with classic style. On one hand, the appearance poses challenges to the construction process that Sheely understates as “not small.” On the other hand, it’s an appearance that recalls for many customers their childhood afternoons on grandpa’s old Chris-Craft.

“These guys 60 years old now remember sitting back there in their swimming suits and getting soaked. They have this emotional tie to it,” Sheely says. “We have some of the best craftsmen in the world working here. There is a lot of value in this market to be able to do what we’ve done here.”

The art of building the boats puts all hands on deck, so to speak. The Philippine mahogany is cut to form, fit into place and then sanded and varnished 18 times. Impressed by the work, Masek and partners in the private-equity firm TMB Industries in 2005 bought Grand-Craft from longtime owner Richard Sligh, of the Sligh Furniture family. Masek later bought out fellow investors.

“Our boats are part of a heritage,” Masek says from Ohio while working on one of those smokestack deals. “Our boats are part of tradition and our customers can appreciate that.”

Interesting Sorts of People
Ah, the customers. On the exterior, the brown Grand-Craft plant lacks any of the glamour portrayed on the walls of the office where photographs of boat owners Robert Redford, Jennifer Lopez, Tim Allen and Joe Dumars hang.

The clientele is what Masek calls “a great cross-section of interesting sorts of people.” So great, in fact, that the appearance of a Grand-Craft last year in the music video of another customer, Kid Rock, presented the company a marketing dilemma: How closely did Grand-Craft want its name tied to the tattooed rocker who sings about “smoking funny things” in the company of bikinied babes gyrating in, well, an unseemly manner? “It’s a balance between how you promote that and with what customers you promote that,” Masek says.

Daniel A. “Buddy” Kelly, Jr. was charmed by the mahogany boats he saw on Lake Gaston, but feared the maintenance problems of an older craft. He had heard horror stories. Then the Raleigh, N.C. man spent a day at the Grand-Craft plant last spring. He was sold on the construction process and ordered a 22-footer (with a closed bow “because that’s the way boats were built way back when”) to replace his 8-year-old MasterCraft ski boat. In August he took delivery of “Dock Hopp’n.”

“To watch those guys working on the wood the way they did, I felt like I was a kid in a candy store,” says Kelly, 63, former owner of a heating and air conditioning business. “To walk in and see where the mahogany planks start on a rack and then see them start building the skeleton frame of the boat, it’s just very impressive. You basically see the whole boat from start to finish. It’s just a big piece of furniture, the way it’s finished. When it’s done it looks like something that belongs in your living room.

“I really haven’t given up anything (with the Grand-Craft), and now I’ve got something unique. I just wish I was in it more often.”

Standing Out
Differences aside, Grand-Craft customers all get something similar in the end: A fine handcrafted wooden boat. It’s a niche market to be sure, but one still in demand for those seeking to stand apart from other boats in the marina.
 
For example, a 36-foot-long commuter-style water taxi with bench seating is being built for The Cliffs, a high-end residential community in South Carolina. Complete with custom mahogany golf bag holders, the boat will transport up to two foursomes across Lake Keowee to on-site golf courses.

Grand-Craft makes about 12 boats a year, ranging in base price from $69,000 for a 20-footer that takes six months to build up to $1.5 million for a 42-foot-long custom behemoth now under construction. Work is slower in this economy, with the crew scaled back a bit and working four days a week. (“Upwards of 60 to 70 percent of customers over the last five years have been hedge fund managers, Wall Street guys,” Sheely says. “Inquiry has really slowed.”) Still, the plant is stocked with several boats.

Under construction for a year with at least eight months yet to go, the current king is the 42-footer made for a client who already motors a trio of Grand-Crafts up the Tennessee River to college football games in Knoxville. The cavernous hull spanned by 13-foot-long beams sits like a whale in the Grand-Craft plant, awaiting its maiden voyage as a super-sized, upscale pontoon boat for cruising with class.
 
Among the wooden boat innovations for this ship is a Volvo-Penta motor with twin props that pull the craft and swivel for easy docking. The motor got installed in Virginia, where Sheely and the customer promptly took the unfinished boat for a spin on the Alexandria River and found that it could rotate 360 degrees with little more than a wobble off center. “You can do it all on a joystick. It’s like playing a video game,” Sheely summed up.

“We want to be able to offer a customer today anything they can dream up,” he says. “These guys, a lot of times they don’t want to go in and buy the newest model of the ski boat. They want something different. Most of these boats take longer to build than a $250,000 house. It’s a process that you can’t necessarily speed up.”

Instead, Grand-Craft hits rewind.

“Our boats are part of a heritage,” Masek says. “They’re clearly set off as something that’s different and unique. We make a great product that a lot of other people can’t make. Our customers love that.”


Matt Vande Bunte writes about business, government, religion and other things. His work has appeared in newspapers including The Grand Rapids Press and Chicago Tribune and in assorted sectors of cyberspace.

Photos:

James Sheely, sales director of Grand-Craft, shows off workshop (6) 

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved
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