American Pie...

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American Pie...

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With the US dollar where it is currently, and with the euro where it is, American builders ought to be cleaning up in Europe. But they aren't, because hardly any of them design and build boats to international tastes, says Phil Draper.

NOVEMBER 2007

It has to be said that Europe’s boatbuilders owe a huge debt to the Americans. And no I’m not talking about their contributions to the winning sides in two world wars or inventing rock ‘n’ roll, to name but a few of the real biggies. The big ‘thank you’ owed just now from the Euorpeans concerns them being so incredibly off the pace when it comes to developing international markets for their boats; or rather I should say not developing international boats for their markets.
Even the most successful US boatbuilders will be doing well if they export 10-15 per cent of their production and they are likely to be top export performers if they get international sales figures up much above the 25 per cent mark. Most of course don’t export at all. And, before anyone writes in, I apologise in advance to the exceptions; I know I’m generalising.
Fact is, even the very best US builders can’t compare internationally with the best Europeans, which typically would export upwards of 75 per cent and have distribution networks that take in pretty much the whole planet.

“I would suggest that Europe’s boatbuilders could be in real trouble just now if the Americans were on the money with their product design.” 

Of course, the reason I’m chipping these broad-brush opinions in now is all down to the scary health of the US dollar. Indeed I would suggest that Europe’s boatbuilders could be in real trouble just now if the Americans were on the money with their product design as far as world markets go. But American boatbuilders almost without exception stick to the same tack. They try to sell abroad what sells at home and that just doesn’t work as far as boats go; or at least boats other than the keep-it-simple skiboats, the bowriders, cuddy-cabin sportsboats and sportscruisers. Their sailboats and bigger motorboats don’t really have any mainstream appeal internationally. There are similarities in those sectors with American cars, which also don’t tend to travel well.
With the US dollar in the doldrums — and a disturbing number of money-market analysts are suggesting it will get weaker before its gets stronger, and very possibly a lot weaker — and the euro conversely strong — it is fair to say that Europe’s boatbuilders can today, and very probably tomorrow too, thank their lucky stars (and stripes!) that the US boatbuilding industry has always been notoriously insular, not to say crazily neglectful, when it comes to market tastes beyond its own substantial boundaries.
They just don’t seem to have learned past lessons.
When things are good American builders seem to have more than enough on their plates gearing up and delivering to the home crowd. And if they do export, as said, it will be precisely the same stuff that works at home. And every time there is a major slowdown in the US and/or when the US dollar is weak, we see the same cyclical response — a case of too little too late. They tend to turn/return attentions to export territories only when they have spare capacity, not as part of a global growth strategy — and obviously Europe is a prime focus, because it has, outside North America, by far the largest boating communities.
It’s a clear case of ‘pie in the eye’ — and American pie at that!
Be thankful Europeans; and hope there isn’t a change of tack before the dollar strengthens, as surely it must, mustn’t it?

© Phil Draper