Dorton has Big Plans for Bryant Boats
Ex-MasterCraft CEO’s first objective after buying company is to add dealers and boost their margins
Bryant Boats chairman John Dorton wants to strengthen the brand’s distribution network by signing longer-term agreements and growing dealer margins.
The former MasterCraft CEO, who recently acquired a majority interest in Tennessee-based Bryant, has plans for making that happen, with his sights set on markets that include the Deep South, South-Central states, the West Coast and international markets.
“I have a good history of helping create a dealer base that’s among the more profitable in the industry, so we’re going to continue to focus on dealer profitability,” Dorton said during his first day on the job at Bryant. “We believe we can help dealers find niches of buyers that are currently being underserved by other manufacturers. Bryant is a smaller, lower-production manufacturer, so we’re able to go in and focus on more of the niche sub-segments of the sterndrive business.”
Within weeks, Dorton had recruited a few East Coast dealers, one in Australia and one in New Zealand.
“We’d like to add five to 10 dealers a year for the next three years or so in open markets,” Dorton says. “Bryant has done a great job of serving their current dealer network, so we certainly intend to continue that.”
Not just a boat
The new chairman is working with company founders Jim Bryant and his son, Joe, who are still active in the business, to step up the offerings in their segments — 18- to 27-foot boats, including deckboats, bowriders and runabouts.
Bryant plans to unveil one of two “performance devices” (patents pending) at the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo, Dorton says. He also hopes to recruit dealers there.
The company has been working with Peter Granata on new sterndrive designs. Dorton calls Granata “one of the most noted marine designers in the industry.”
The in-house engineering department is led by John Winter, who has worked with companies that include Marine Concepts, Dorton says.
Industry veteran James Hoag will sit on the company’s board, Dorton says.
Hoag once ran Bayliner and was chief executive of MacAndrews & Forbes when that company owned Master- Craft, Skeeter and Boston Whaler, Dorton says. Brunswick Corp. acquired Bayliner in 1986, and Hoag retired as president of Brunswick’s pleasure boat operation in 1994, where he’d directed operations since 1989, according to Associated Press archives.
“He’s really well thought of in the industry,” Dorton says.
Bryant recently launched a new Sweetwater edition, named for the Tennessee town where the boats are built.
“It really takes some styling cues off that elegant, nostalgic Adirondack look,” Dorton says. “We’re trying to invoke a lot of the nostalgia of what boating means to empty nesters ... and make it current. It’s got engines that start quickly, and more comfortable seating and layouts and more space, but it’s got all the styling that reminds you of more elegant boating.”
The brand will be marketed to “niche sub-segments of the sterndrive segment,” Dorton says, focusing on athletic families and empty nesters, and all of the boats will be saltwater-compliant. “You see a lot of runabouts now going to coastal regions, both domestically and internationally,” Dorton says. “I think it makes the boat more robust, even for the exclusive lake boater.”
That focus will help Bryant gain footing in markets such as Croatia, Switzerland, Spain, Germany and Singapore.
“I think our saltwater focus will help us with some of those international markets,” Dorton says. “About 70 to 80 percent of those boats will end up in salt water, and especially in the Adriatic there’s a very high salt content.”
Dorton brought his son Ben aboard to head marketing, and the company plans to have a much greater presence on digital and social media platforms.
As they brought boats to Boating Magazine to test in October, Ben Dorton posted about his trip along the way. When he arrived, five potential customers in Orlando wanted to peek at the Sweetwater edition.
“We’re reconnecting with those boaters in more intimate ways than some of the big companies are able to do,” Dorton says.
The company’s new marketing campaign will tap into Bryant’s smaller, more personable size with the slogan: “It’s not just a boat; it’s a Bryant.”
“The Bryant family had exchanged a lot of ideas with other boatbuilders over the years, so they have a great reputation as being a company to share ideas and techniques,” John Dorton says. “They have always put quality first. I know it’s kind of an overused word often. But their warranty expenses were among the lowest I’ve ever heard of, so that tends to tell you that you have a great product out the door.
“Many of their dealers would say it is one of the few boats that would be delivered and they could take it out of shrink wrap and deliver it to customers,” Dorton says. “And they have a raving fan base. I think the company is sort of not that high in being at the forefront of people’s awareness, but the folks that do know them are big fans.”
The 18- to 27-foot sterndrive market is a tough one, Dorton says. But the good news is that the company was profitable when he took over.
“It’s a very tightly held, frugal manufacturing operation, so even with minimal sales gains it will be very beneficial to the company,” Dorton says. “So we don’t need to go out and conquer the world to have a successful business. We’ll have no long-term debt, and that’s very important to profit.”
Dorton joined Bryant in late September — a month after retiring from MasterCraft.
“Knowing the family philosophy on taking care of employees, knowing the high quality, knowing their methods of production are similar to what I’m used to — it just felt like a very good fit,” says Dorton. He says that after 16 good years at MasterCraft he believed the company was well positioned with new products, great management was in place and the timing just seemed right to take a breath.
“There’s certainly a lot of pressure running a large boat company in challenging economic times like these,” Dorton says.
Once word of the acquisition began leaking to vendors and key industry players, many people expressed excitement, says Dorton, who has a long history of involvement in industry affairs.
“It seems like a natural move to a lot of other folks,” Dorton says. “So even though it’s a different segment, a lot of vendors service both sides.”
As much as he still loves the Master- Craft brand, Dorton’s workday at Bryant already feels different because he’s more involved in a hands-on way.
“This will be a little lower-key position over here,” he says. “It gives me a chance to focus on things I love, which is product, dealer development and marketing. You may catch me laminating a boat or up on a truck. It really does feel nice to get back to the roots of what this business is all about.”