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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
“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.”
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
James Sheely, sales director of Grand-Craft, shows off workshop (6)
Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved