A Legacy of Success
Four Winns Goes the Distance
by Alexandria Lopez
A luxury you can afford: This tagline succinctly describes the wide array of recreational power boats available from Four Winns, now part of Rec Boat Holdings, LLC. Located in Cadillac, Michigan, this hometown world-class boat builder has a storied history and a bright future.
The company’s recent consolidation efforts have expanded the production operations in the Cadillac, Michigan facility significantly. “With regards to Rec Boat Holdings, we build the brands of Four Winns, Wellcraft and Glastron,” explained Cliff Crowe, buyer with Four Winns. “We started off with Four Winns, integrated Wellcraft into the facility in 2008, and transitioned Glastron to the Cadillac location in 2010.”
Though Four Winns is now a part of a larger whole, the company has retained its unique history, characterized by the ability to transcend any of the many challenges that have confronted it.
From Humble Roots: The History of Four Winns
Four Winns’ story begins with a furniture store and George Spicer, the store’s owner. In the 1950s, Spicer began selling Clipper Craft boats from his local business. Though the boats were originally manufactured in Indiana, when Clipper Craft was put on the market, Spicer bought the entire operation, relocated it to Cadillac and started building the boats himself, rebranding the business as Saf-T-Mate Boat Company in 1962.
Across the country, the Winn family was in the sporting goods business, selling a different boat brand that was losing market share. While looking for another brand to sell, they discovered Saf-T-Mate in the early 1970s. Just a few short years after their initial partnership with Saf-T-Mate, Spicer announced his desire to retire. The Winn family had a decision to make.
The two Winn brothers who served as Saf-T-Mate representatives at the time told the rest of their family about the opportunity to acquire the entire business, and, in 1975, the Winns bought Saf-T-Mate from Spicer, relocating to Cadillac to build and sell the boats now known as Saf-T-Mate by Four Winns. In 1976, the company changed names again, rebranding itself as Four Winns to represent the father — Bill Winn Sr. — and his three sons — John, Bill Jr. and Charlie — who were instrumental in acquiring and managing the business.
Tragedy struck on May 5, 1978, in the form of a fire that immolated the entire building plant. Only the tooling, located elsewhere, was spared. “They had a lot of suppliers and the community behind them,” remembered Tom Wenstadt, engineering manager. Due in part to this overwhelming support, Four Winns was able to resume production within a few months of the blaze.
There were further challenges ahead for Four Winns, this time in the form of a congressional proposal to ban weekend boating in order to conserve gasoline. “They hadn’t really recovered from the fire before this proposal came along in 1979,” Wenstadt said. “The industry basically stopped overnight. The ban proposal itself faded quickly, but layoffs were enormous throughout the industry due to the sharp drop in demand.” However, the ’80s proved profitable for the company, which blossomed from 100 employees to more than 1,000 within the decade.
In mid-1986, two companies —Brunswick and Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC) — approached the Winns to express interest in buying the business. After weighing the offers, the Winn family sold Four Winns to OMC in December 1986.
Since 1996, the company has undergone fluctuations in leadership. Green Marine acquired OMC in 1996. In March 2001, Genmar Holdings, Inc. purchased Four Winns Boats. Seven years later, Genmar closed its Sarasota operations, where they had been building Wellcraft boats, and moved the production to the Cadillac plant. In February 2010, Platinum Equity purchased Four Winns and transferred it to its subsidiary, Rec Boat Holdings.
Building It Better: The Benefits of Four Winns Boats
Four Winns specializes in recreational fiberglass motorboats ranging in size from 18 feet up to 50 feet. Many boatbuilders transitioned to fiberglass from wood construction in the late 1950s due to the intensity of labor and high levels of maintenance associated with wooden boats.
In contrast, the ease of fiberglass construction makes the composite an optimal material for boat manufacturers. “We can take a little boat, 18 feet or so, from just materials to a boat leaving the company in about two and a half days,” Wenstadt said. “With wood, I would guess that it would have taken about two and a half weeks.”
Fiberglass construction is also noted for its longevity. “They’re very durable — probably too durable,” Wenstadt chuckled. “It’s not at all unusual to see a fiberglass boat on the water that was built in the 1970s or 1980s.”
“We’ve always used composite technologies to build our boats because the system is tried and true,” Crowe attested. “Our boats are stylish and smart, but still affordable.”
Currently, Four Winns produces five series of sports boats, runabouts and cruisers: the H Series, SS Series, SL Series, F Series and V Series. Some of the many amenities that distinguish Four Winns boats include:
• Premium vinyl seating
• Stainless steel finishes
• Premium gel coats
• Marine-grade carpeting
• Plentiful storage space
• Well-appointed interiors
• Customizable exteriors
• Sony sound systems
“We have an innovative line of products, and we’re motivated by the desire to set trends,” Crowe noted. “We’re a high-volume boat builder with a mix of different volumes and brands, but we do it all efficiently. We have some of the most knowledgeable, skilled craftsmen in the industry.”
Looking Ahead: Overcoming Obstacles and Moving Toward the Future
Despite the integrity of the company’s product, the boatbuilding business can be challenging, and Four Winns has had to overcome its share of obstacles along the way. “One of the biggest issues is that we are a solely discretionary product,” Wenstadt acknowledged.
Although private boats are often tagged as a luxury item, there is still a very high level of competition in the field. “There are many boat-builders around the world, but more importantly, there are environmental restrictions and recycling challenges,” Crowe said. “We must continue our ongoing efforts in being environmentally friendly well into the future.”
Even unusual obstacles facing Four Winns, such as customers who suffer from aquaphobia, or fear of water, can be overcome with extra effort and attention to design. “We’ve leveraged that to some degree,” Wenstadt explained. “We strive to make a very safe and family-friendly boat. Sometimes the sporty look of a boat can affect the feeling of a safe ride. We’ve made our boats deeper so that you feel more protected from the environment, particularly from the water.”
In less than a century, Four Winns has grown from its modest beginnings to be one of the largest boat builders in the industry, exporting product to more than 65 countries worldwide. “The Winns went from Saf-T-Mate obscurity to being in the upper echelon of premium builders today,” Wenstadt summarized. The company is currently working very aggressively to develop new products that will differentiate our brand from others and attract in new customers. “With confidence, strong leadership and a solid dealer network, we will continue to grow our market share,” Crowe predicted.
NAC and Four Winns: A Promising Partnership
In order for Four Winns to build the ideal boat, NAC supplies the company with its preferred composites and raw materials. The two companies have been working together for years and keep in very close contact to ensure that the partnership remains profitable. “We have a long history with NAC,” Crowe noted. “We’ve been together in good times and bad.”
“Four Winns is a major player in their industry,” Butch Pitts, NAC national accounts manager, said. “As a distributor, we stock materials for them so that we can deliver them inventory as needed. We probably supply Four Winns with products from more than 30 manufacturers.” This inventory system allows NAC to distribute several products to Four Winns in one delivery, which circumvents the need for Four Winns to contact every manufacturer individually to procure separate shipments. “We also work with Cliff and their operations staff on new products,” Pitts noted.
“I would say that I’m on the phone with NAC almost daily,” Crowe estimated. “We have orders coming in regularly — once, sometimes twice, a week. We procure a sizeable amount of our fiberglass, resins, gel coats and adhesives through NAC ’s distribution work.”