- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Bryan says, "We had been aware of fiber glass for quite a while. Lots of people had tried to use it to make boats and had failed. The material itself wasn't consistent and the surfaces would be uneven. We were dubious, but the truth is our company didn't amount to very much until we started molding our boats in fiber glass. Then they were faster and lighter and much prettier—and we were a much different company."
Along with replacing the wooden hull with fiber glass, Alcort utilized other up-to-date, if less lovable materials such as aluminum for the formerly spruce masts and Dacron for the formerly 100% cotton sails. The rudder and dagger board remained mahogany, but the tiller was changed to ash (though stained the color of mahogany) because that wood happens to be sturdier.
And the company grew and grew. In 1964 it moved to its fifth and present plant, built on a seven-acre plot deep in the bleak factoryscape that is Waterbury's industrial complex. The plant is cheerily topped with a couple of Sunfish on the roof, but, seemingly for miles in every direction there are dozens of shutdown or limping factories, melancholy symbols of the economy.
At Alcort things are O.K., if not terrific. There are 150 employees, 40 of whom work on the production line, efficient in effect but Rube Goldbergian to look at: Fiber glass boat molds hang from lines like fish as they move along ceiling trolley tracks from process to process until, ultimately, a gleaming, finished boat appears. When things are going at top speed, a Sunfish can be completed—from first spray coating of the stripes across the deck to the final sealing of the cardboard box it will be shipped in—in just over six hours. Sadly, the original 12-foot Sailfish, granddaddy of the whole current $12 million-a-year operation, was dropped from the line back in 1966. A 14-foot Super Sailfish managed to stay alive and marketable between then and 1980, but it's also now extinct. However, the Sunfish sail on. The average production has been close to 10,000 a year for almost 20 years. The highest figure was 15,000-plus in 1974, the low just over 7,000 during the recession of the mid-1970s. What with this year's economic woes, the total probably won't rise above 7,000 either.
Still, through thick and thin, the firm goes on, and most of its employees have been around for a long time. Meinelt is still there; he's now quality manager. Among the missing, however, are Alex Bryan and Cortlandt Heyniger. They sold the whole Alcort shebang to American Machine and Foundry Co. in 1969. At the time, AMF was busily acquiring sporting goods and recreational firms by the handful. Alcort fit their plans perfectly.
And, as it turned out, AMF fit Bryan's and Heyniger's plans even better. "Selling to them was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Heyniger. Bryan agrees: "We had gone from scratch—absolutely nothing—to being a business that was quite valuable. Neither Bud nor I were managers. We'd been wonderfully fortunate, but we knew we had all our eggs in one basket. We were worried that we were vulnerable to having all sorts of big companies move in and take our business away from us. We were so small. So rather than get deeper involved in protecting ourselves, we sold to AMF. We'd had other offers, but theirs was just right. I felt real comfortable with their executives. Also, I'm a golfer and I was intrigued with the fact that they had Ben Hogan advising them on golf clubs. We had no regrets. We'd made so much more money than we ever dreamed we'd earn."
Alex and Cort thought they might continue to work with the AMF people, but both rather quickly dropped out of active participation in Alcort—Bryan within two years, Heyniger in three years. As the latter says with a shrug, "You can't work for someone else when you've spent your whole life working for yourself."
Since the founders' retirement, AMF Alcort has produced or marketed a number of sailboats other than the Sunfish—from a 26-footer for $22,000-plus, the Paceship, in the mid-'70s (now discontinued) to a sailboard called the Windflite for $895 (a good seller today). The Force 5, a sleek and classy Laser-like boat, sells well at $1,995. The Minifish is a smaller, shallower Sunfish for $895 and is only mildly successful, as is the Puffer, a 12½-foot day-sailer for $1,995; a 15-foot model is in the works. The Sunbird, a day-sailer with a rather tubby look, hasn't done well at $3,995 and may be phased out. A couple of new catamarans—the Trac 18 ($6,500) and the Trac 14 ($2,695)—seem ready to catch on.
With a volume of about 12,000 boats a year, AMF Alcort is the world's leading producer of sailboats in terms of sheer numbers. Yet, as Jim Ronshagen, vice-president for sales and marketing, points out, "Yes, we're the biggest producer—by far. But the sailboat business is very fragmented. There are probably 4,000 so-called manufacturers in the U.S., but 1,400 of them make one or two boats a year. About 200 of them—the big ones—build between 10 and 25 a year. But the cheapest boats in those yards will be $20,000 and they go up to a million dollars, or more. We sell to our dealers for under $1,000. We have to build a lot of Sunfish to get the same revenue those guys get on one boat."
Over the years, there have been many assaults made on the Sunfish market—imitations, cheaper imitations. And none has made a noticeable dent. Why? Ronshagen answers with the predictable, self-serving—yet inescapably true—pitch of a Sunfish salesman: "It's a great product, and it has been from the start. Sailing has always been considered a rich man's sport, but the Sunfish removes that stigma from it. The boat is inexpensive, easy to transport, easy to learn. The wind is free. Maintenance is almost nonexistent. Unlike golf, skiing, tennis and other sailing, there aren't constant, expensive technological changes. You can race in it, loll in it, let children use it without anxiety. It's just a great product. It's good for everything."