Earl Bentz entered the boat business working for his uncle’s dealership at age 14. Now, at 66, he’s decided to start his third boat company, Caymas Boats, from part of the facilities – and with many employees – of his former Triton Boats in Tennessee
Bentz was part of the legendary Mercury Racing factory team of the 1970s, started three different boat companies, and was president of the OMC Boat Group for nearly a decade. At the end of 2018 he announced a US$30.2m investment in new brand Caymas Boats, to build fresh and saltwater fishing boats in GRP. The investment is expected to create 280 jobs over the next five year. Bentz spoke with IBI from his home in Nashville.
What’s scarier, boat racing or starting a boat company in 2019?
“When you boat race, if you’re afraid you don’t have any business being in the cockpit of a boat. But I think that anybody who has ever started a business or built a business… there are always those doubts that keep you up late at night about hoping the economy will continue its momentum, hoping the dealers will have enough confidence in you and the boating industry to want to stock your boats, and then hoping consumers will accept your product. It’s gotten a little easier the past 40 years, I guess, because we’ve established our team and a good reputation for providing high-quality products, backed by high-quality service and doing what we say we are going to do.
“But, you know, it doesn’t take a lot of brains to run a race boat at 140 or 150 miles per hour down the water and when you’re in your teens and 20s you really don’t think about the consequences of what happens if you crash or it doesn’t work. Obviously in a business when you have hundreds of people and families depending on you to make good decisions, I would say that’s far more frightening than driving a race boat.”
Will you begin building boats in your February/March time-frame?
“We are actually building the first 25ft center console as we speak. We’re going to build the first boat and have it completed here in the next couple of weeks. We’ll take it to the ocean and do our endurance testing for several weeks. So, the saltwater boats – the 25ft and 27ft bay boats – will be first, then the next boat in late spring will be a 33-footer set up with twins; March-April time-frame you’ll start seeing some bass boats in the 18ft to 21ft range.”
How many hulls are you looking to sell in the first year?
“I think that will depend – our building expansion will not be completed until around the middle of May. And in that facility, we should be able to produce 20 boats a week, and that’s a combination of saltwater and bass boats. That will get us on par with where we’d like to be for the next 12 to 18 months. We’re not looking to do a lot of numbers. If we can do between bass boats and saltwater, 2,000 or 2,500 boats per year, that’s big enough. We are going to go bigger with the saltwater boats; fourth-quarter of next year I’d like to have something in the 40ft range with trips and quads [three and four outboards] and maybe come back and pick up a smaller bay boat in the 22ft-23ft range, so we’ll let it play out, see how things progress and let the market tell us and our dealers tell us what needs they have and what we need to build to fulfill those needs.”
What type of market research did you do?
“We talked to a lot of dealers in freshwater and saltwater. Before we started tooling any of the boats we flew around and visited with some dealers to get their feedback and see what their customers want. We’re going to do some different versions of the bay boat, for instance. We’re going to let the market tell us what to do first in order to fulfill the greatest needs. The main thing is to provide a dealer with a good quality product, at an affordable price and back it with great service.”
What’s the story behind the name Caymus Boats?
“For many years I would go to the Cayman Islands scuba diving. The Caymus Festival is held in the Cayman Islands, it means ‘to have a good time’. We’re not sure if it’s a little bit too nautical for bass boats; we’ve had some dealers say ‘you need one name for saltwater one name for freshwater,’ so, [Caymus Boats] is our holding company name and you may see a couple more names come down the path – one designated for saltwater, one for freshwater models.”
What about levels of investment?
“Well, let’s just say it’s about three-times what it was 22 years ago, and it was expensive 22 years ago. We’ve tried to spend our money wisely.”
There are certain efficiencies moving back into your former facilities, one would imagine?
“Well, we moved into part of it. We ended up with what was our engineering building, but the main manufacturing facility is a wood working operation and we do not own that, but we are building a new facility literally right across the street. The engineering building is 23,000ft2 and I can take a nine-iron and hit the new building, which will start off at 85,000ft2 and we will grow; we have room for a quarter-million square feet of building as our business grows. So, between the two buildings we’ll have little over 105,000ft2 which is enough for a first-step and I’m hoping by next fall we’ll be expanding.”
You have nothing to prove, you’ve done this all before – a few times; why now?
“I sold my last company to Brunswick in 2005 and while I have remained active the past 13 years, you’re not driving the ship anymore, you’re riding.”
“My wife and I have a home in Florida and fishing is one of my passions. We went down in January; we went out to dinner every night, I fished every day and when I wasn’t fishing, I was quail hunting and when I wasn’t quail hunting, I played golf. And I did this for three months. And I got up one morning and I said to my wife, ‘I just can’t do this. I’m miserable.’ And she asked what I want to do and I said ‘what I’ve done since I was 14 years old.’ My friends are all in the boat business; my dealers and my customers. It’s what I’m passionate about, it’s what I love.”
“I tried retirement and I will tell you, getting up and having nothing to do but fish, hunt and play golf is not everything it’s built up to be”
“She’s been very supportive. She asked if I want all that stress and I reminded her that I kind of thrive on that stress. It’s kind of what gets me out of bed early in the morning and it’s just what I enjoy doing and she said, ‘go for it.’ So we looked for another company to possibly purchase and, again, my employees that I had at previous jobs – at Hydrosports and Stratos and Triton many of whom have worked for me for 35-plus years – were all located here in the Nashville community and part of my passion is the people I have worked with.
“So I got together with many of them, many of the old team, the engineering staff, sales & marketing customer service folks, manufacturing people – gel-coaters, laminators, final assembly people, right down to truck drivers and said, you know, if you guys would like to do it, I sure have an interest in doing it, but I won’t do it without y’alls involvement. And all of them – to a man and to a woman – have said that we would love to come to work and support this effort. That’s what made my decision to do it.
“Someone asked me just this week ‘what’s my exit strategy’ and I guess it’s the graveyard. I’m hoping when I’m 80 or 90 years old that I’m still able to be affiliated with this business. I tried retirement for three months and I will tell you, getting up and having nothing to do but fish, hunt and play golf is not everything that it is built up to be. And it is absolutely not the way I want to spend the next 30 years, if I have 30 years left in my life.”