High-end boatbuilder Albermarle Sportsfishing Boats, Inc., steers a steady course toward growth despite rough financial seas and stays afloat with hand-made quality and attention to detail. George Lauer profiles a company born and based on the North Carolina shore.
Change one letter in the old joke definition of a boat and you’ll have a pretty good idea of why Albemarle boats are so popular.
The standard definition goes something like this: “A boat is a hole in the water into which you throw money.” Change the “l” in hole to an “m” and you’d be closer to the way most Albemarle owners feel about their boat – a home in the water.
“Our customers tend to be pretty loyal,” says Carol Ricketts, vice-president of the company and recent winner of the Marine Retailers Association of America’s Woman of the Year award.
“Our boats are about quality and being built one by one,” Ricketts says. “Our designs stick to classic, dependable, seaworthy lines. Every one of our boats has hand-crafted wooden trim in teak or cherry. We hand-roll our fiberglass. All that puts the pricetag a little more in the luxury range compared to similar size boats, but that’s our niche market – high-end sportfishing boats.”
Born, based on North Carolina shore
Albemarle boats have been built for decades in the small coastal town of Edenton, N.C. Tested in Albemarle Sound near Cape Hatteras, the boats have a reputation for performing like larger, custom-made craft. Albemarle designs are especially favored by fishermen who want to be able to run their boats alone or with a small crew.
Albermarle boats range from 24 foot center consoles to the 41-foot Express Fisherman. All models have a reputation for handling rough seas with grace and stability, providing a smooth, dry reliable ride.
Albemarle owners say one of the main reasons for their loyalty to the brand – aside from the initial quality – is the company’s quick reliable customer support through dealerships as well as the factory.
A family outfit
For the first couple of decades after J. Scott Harrell Sr. started the company in the 1970s, orders for new boats came mostly from the Eastern Seaboard. Now, after a dozen years of remarkable growth with J. Scott Harrell Jr. – aka “Scotty” – at the helm, Albemarle Boats are sold through dealerships on both U.S. coasts, Australia, Japan, Greece, Sweden and Italy.
In the early 1970s, Harrell the elder sold top quality fishing boats at his thriving boat dealership on Albemarle Sound. He handled many of the best boats available at the time.
However, when customers traded in boats on something newer or bigger, Harrell found it took lot of work to get the boats ready for resale, even if they were relatively new. The rugged waters of Albemarle Sound and the Atlantic off Cape Hatteras can be punishing on fishing craft.
So Harrell enlisted some of the best craftsmen and designers on the East Coast and they set about making their own fishing boat, designed to handle years of rough conditions. In 1978, their first creation – “Hull #1,” a 24-foot cuddy – was launched in the sound. The boat is still in service today, a floating testament to endurance.
Growth spurt in 90s
For the first 20 years or so, the company concentrated on two designs – 24 and 27-foot cuddies with center consoles. In the early 1990s, with about 45 employees handling two basic designs, the company began to switch gears. Several new, larger boats were designed and went into production.
Sales volume increased by about 400 percent over the past dozen years, the payroll went from 45 to 180 employees and the company recently enlarged it’s 160,000-sqaure-foot facility at the shoreline.
Albemarle’s boats range in size and price from the 24-foot cuddy for about $70,000 to the 41-foot convertible fly bridge boat for about $750,000.
All this growth comes in counterpoint to the larger sportfishing boat industry, which has leveled off in recent years. The boating industry, perhaps more than others, is particularly susceptible to rises in inflation and fuel prices. “The jump in fuel prices has really taken the wind of the industry in general but the market we participate in has been relatively unaffected,” Ricketts says. “Our client market base is individuals in a different bracket. They have bigger issues than fuel prices.”
New corporate umbrella
Albemarle’s success caught the eye of the Brunswick Corporation and in spring of 2005 Brunswick bought Albemarle and folded the company into The Hatteras Collection, a unit of Brunswick specializing in offshore fishing vessels. Brunswick, founded in 1845 to make billiard tables, is now a world leader in the design and construction of quality offshore fishing boats, sportfishing convertibles and luxury motor yachts.
Albermarle is one of three companies in The Hatteras Collection. The other two are Hatteras Yachts, based in New Bern, N.C., and Cabo Yachts, based in Adelanto, Calif. Hatteras Yachts pioneered the production of large offshore fiberglass powerboats with the introduction of its first model in 1959. Hatteras builds luxury motor yachts from 64 to 100 feet and sportfishing convertible yachts from 50 to 90 feet. Cabo Yachts handles sport fishing boats in the 30-50 foot range.
Brunswick, traded on the New York Stock Exchange (BC), recently announced a new, streamlined organizational structure to advance the integration of its marine operations.
“In our effort to be the best, as well as the largest, marine company in the world, it is important for us to coordinate our efforts to have the best products sold through the best distribution network, the best cost position and a global presence across all of our marine operations,” said Brunswick Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dustan McCoy.
“To achieve this goal in a more focused and timely fashion, we are forming a new organizational structure.”
The new corporate attention to marine operations carries potential to expose Albemarle boats to even more fishermen in more parts of the world.
If that happens, Albermarle is ready. “There are opportunities for expansion here,” Ricketts says. “We have plenty of acreage to grow in if the need arises.”