Orin Edson built Bayliner from humble beginnings in Bellingham, WA to what was at he time the world’s largest boat company. His goal of making an affordable boat with a turn-key approach for beginners and the “masses” still resonates even today and is a true testament to his legacy. By making boat ownership affordable, he probably did more to grow the sport than anything since the invention of fiberglass. Eventhough he sold Bayliner to the Brunswick Corp. years ago, his passion for boat building has never left him and he is still making waves.
Orin Edson – visionary, entrepreneur
Orin Edson turned Bayliner into the world’s largest yacht-building company by making
boating affordable to the masses. Now he’s trying his hand at production megayachts.
By Marianne Scott
J. Orin Edson, who founded his boat-building company in 1961, bought the “Bayliner”
name from Al Koffel, who’d been supplying his brokerage with plywood boats. The
price of the now famous brand?
One hundred dollars.
A quarter century and hundreds of thousands of Bayliners later (43,000 in 1986 alone),
Edson sold his company to the Brunswick Corporation for cash and stock totaling
$470 million. The 25 years he spent building the largest yacht manufacturing firm
in the world are a monument to entrepreneurial spirit, hard work and the conviction
that fun on the water should be available to everyone.
I met Edson (Mr. Edson to everyone around him) at his
Pacific Marine Management offices at the Arlington Airport in Washington. His office
runs along one side of an immaculately maintained hangar, located just a couple
of blocks from where he built his first Bayliner plant. The hangar contains the
Dassault Falcon three-engine jet in which he flew himself from Arizona the night
before. A couple of gleaming helicopters, handy for landing on his 161-foot, Bill
Garden/Don Starkey-designed yacht, Evviva, flank the jet. Edson himself looks younger
than his 71 years and works hard at keeping in shape—in part to keep up his airplane
pilot rating. He’s an imposing man, self-contained, used to being in charge, and
he gives the impression that to be on the wrong side of him would be decidedly uncomfortable.
Childhood on the Water
Edson grew up on the water. Born in Bellingham in 1932 during the Depression, he
played on the family rowboat on Lake Whatcom until age nine, when his father, an
engineer, began working for the firm that built Sandpoint Naval Station during World
War II. The family moved to Seattle and a 30-foot cruiser became part of family
recreation on Lake Washington. He soon wanted a boat of his own, got a paper route
to save up for it and bought a 12-foot molded plywood boat. Toward the end of the
war, he managed to obtain a five-horsepower Johnson outboard through his uncle who
ran a cannery and was eligible to purchase commercial engines. By age 13, the future
entrepreneur was speeding around in his runabout, exploring every nook of Lake Washington.
After high school, Edson enrolled in the University of Washington’s electrical engineering
program, completing three years before the Korean War intervened. “I was either
going to Korea to get shot at or doing something else in the military,” he recalls.
He joined the army and entered the Signal Corps, the branch responsible for communications
and information systems supporting the combined armed forces. He served in the Alaska
Communications System and spent three years in the service. Back in Seattle for
his last year of duty, he worked nights, using the daylight hours for boat racing,
a hobby in which he’d invested time and money. But when he decided to get married,
he needed the money he’d invested in his race boats. “My brother referred me to
a fellow on East Lake Avenue who had a parking lot,” says Edson. “The owner sold
roofing kettles used to heat tar for roof repairs. I answered his phone while he
was on the roofs and he didn’t charge me for using his parking lot. I put six or
seven boats in the lot and sold them all in a week.”
A Born Boat Salesman
Edson’s friends noticed the swift sales and asked if he would sell some of their
boats too. Thus the empire was launched. By 1958, Edson had bought property on East
Lake Avenue, built a showroom and embarked on a retail boat business. He first focused
on selling used boats, but soon obtained dealerships for several brands of new powerboats,
including Glasspar, Owens, Reinell, Sea Ray and Dorset. He also marketed wooden
boats like Sabrecraft. One day, he bought a trailer load of plywood runabouts with
the brand name “Bayliner.” He liked their quality so much he drove to Tacoma to
meet the fellow who built them. That’s how he found Al Koffel (an approximation
of the name—spelling is unsure), who, working in tandem with his brother, was fast
enough to complete one unpainted plywood boat a day. Edson promised Al he would
buy all the boats Bayliner could crank out.
Along with the boats, Edson frequently sold outboard engines, selling so many that
Mercury made him a dealer. He grew into one of the biggest outboard retailers in
the country and struck up a friendship with Mercury’s founder, Carl Kiekhaefer.
But the new fiberglass boat business grew ever more daunting. “We’d get a line selling
well and then the builder would put in more dealers all around us. It was tough
to hold margins against the competition.” Somehow, Edson had to find a new, reliable
supply of boats. He knew of a small company building fiberglass boats and drove
up to Marysville to visit with Pacific Mariner’s Al McKay, who ran the manufacturing
side of the company. Edson vividly recalls the auspicious meeting: “I remember sitting
down with Al and his wife Bonnie in their kitchen. I asked him how hard it would
be for me to get into the boat building business. He said it wouldn’t be hard at
all. I’d need a place and a plan, so we decided right there at his kitchen table
we’d build a 16-foot outboard and a 19-foot stern drive.” Edson rented a hangar
from the City of Arlington. Al promised to get the molds done in 90-100 days and
by mid-June, 1961, the first Bayliners rolled off the assembly line.
Obtaining the Bayliner Name
In the meantime, Edson had asked “the other Al” if the Bayliner name might be available.
Edson smoothes back his thinning hair while recounting the response. “Al told me,
‘well, plywood boats are getting harder to sell and I’d just as soon sell houses.
So would $100 be too much for the name?’ And I said, ‘No, that’s all right.’ He
had the brand all properly registered with the federal and state registries. So,
for a hundred bucks I got the name and a long association with a very nice man.”
For the next five years, Bayliner stretched its assembly-line plants in Arlington,
until the need to service the eastern Mercury dealer network with boats led Edson
to open a manufacturing facility in Pipestone, Minnesota. Growing pains accompanied
the expansion and Edson knew he needed more help. Dissatisfied with the sluggishness
of the company’s financials—and knowing their critical importance—he hired Don Saunders
to manage the company’s finances. “It was,” says Edson, “a good start of a long
and close relationship with a wonderful man.”
Edson was doing Bayliner’s marketing himself and “not doing a very good job of it
because I was just too busy.” So he eventually enticed a fellow skier and friend,
Slim Sommerville, to leave Howard Head’s ski business and take over marketing. “When
he joined us, Bayliner really took off because Slim is probably the best sales person
in the word,” Edson says enthusiastically. “He could actually sell more than we
could manufacture. So we expanded again and built another factory in Georgia.” By
1968, Bayliner had about 100 dealers in the U.S. and Canada.
Beginning in 1974, the firm also built sailboats. Yes. Sailboats. “It was after
the oil embargo drove up the cost of fuel. Our competitors called them the ‘tilted
Hilton,’ grins Edson. “It was called the ‘Buccaneer,’ a roomy 24-foot sailboat.
We made several models and it sold well through our powerboat dealers. We also bought
some tooling rights for boats out of eastern Canada and called them ‘US Yachts.’
That was a very poor business. No way to make any money. So we returned to power
and by the mid-seventies we were building 6,000-7,000 boats a year, with sizes ranging
from 17 to 30 feet.”
The Incentive Plan
The boat business is a fickle one and in 1978, between economics and stiff competition,
Bayliner was faced with shutting down or slowing production at the Minnesota plant.
Loath to lose a well-trained, motivated workforce, Edson, Somerville, Saunders,
head of production Ron Cooley and Dave Livingston (a designer who’d worked for Reinell),
cooked up a plan to increase efficiency and competitiveness. What, the team wondered,
would a customer pay for 19-foot stern-drive boat? They determined that for a turn-key
boat complete with trailer, the magic number was $8,995—a price roughly equivalent
to the cost of a Chevy. Like Henry Ford and his model T, they wanted to make boating
available and affordable to the average-income family.
The next step was the close collaboration with the Pipestone employees. They were
promised that if they reduced the standard 48 hours it took to build a boat, the
company and workers would share the savings equally. Ditto for material savings.
And if the boat required no repairs during its warranty period, the warranty reserve
would be shared as well. “Thus,” explains Edson, “they participated in both the
profitability and the quality. It was tremendous. The hourly savings were immediate
and the workers saw the results in their next paycheck. Over the next three years,
Bayliner opened another four factories, each building a specific boat or group of
boats and all employing the same winning incentive plan.
Brunswick Buys Bayliner
In 1986, the Brunswick Corporation, which had started as a billiard table and bowling
supply company, added Bayliner to its stable of marine companies. (The corporation
had acquired Owen Yachts and Larson Boats, as well Mercury Marine in the 1960’s
and has added a horde of other boat-related companies since.) For the first time
since he left the army 30-plus years earlier, Edson had leisure time.
His first personal “retirement” boat was a 105-foot Azimut built in Italy. “I did
a lot of traveling,” he says, brown eyes twinkling. “All my previous cruises had
been hurried. Now I had time.” He and his wife Charlene (his first wife died of
cancer) cruised Europe and the Caribbean and brought the boat home to Puget Sound.
But he yearned for something more personal and ordered a yacht from Admiral Marine
in Port Townsend, closely working with the president, Daryl Wakefield. The 161-foot
Evviva was designed by famed naval architect Bill Garden, who, like so many of Edson’s
collaborators, is a long-standing friend. Don Starkey, perhaps the best-known European
designer, created the interior. The boat has nearly 160,000 miles under her keel—more
than six times the circumference of the earth at the Equator.
Megayachts Pop up on the Radar
It seems, though, that Edson missed the challenge of being an entrepreneur. In 1994,
brothers Rick and Randy Rust, owners of Westport Yachts, asked him for advice on
a boat-building project. Edson complied. The brothers didn’t follow his counsel—something,
Edson says, that cost them a lot of money. A year later, Westport freely admitted
their mistake and asked Edson to join the company. “They were doing a good job building
a nice product but in a very difficult way,” he explains. After the visit, the Rusts
again asked Edson to join the company. Although Edson doesn’t admit it, his tone
betrays he was itching to increase the factory’s effectiveness. So he bought into
the company and the firm changed tacks. “They’d been building 106-foot yachts. We
changed the 106 into a 112 and then added the 130 with its four major molds. We
also introduced a 98-footer, a real success story. We had 450 employees and had
hired all the available workers in Westport, a town of 2,200.”
The need for more crew grew stronger when the company decided to bet on a new size
yacht. They came up with plans for a 164-foot, 495-ton yacht. To build such a yacht
required a bigger plant and new manpower. Shopping for on-the-water premises they
could buy led to a short location list: Port Angeles and Anacortes. Edson had assumed
Anacortes, with its long shipbuilding history, would jump at the chance to host
a new Westport plant. He frowns when he recounts what actually happened. “The people
in Anacortes were wonderful and the press was great, but the city didn’t make an
attractive offer. The political environment was incorrect. But in Port Angeles,
the port and the city worked closely together, solved the problems and thus made
our choice easy.” A year later, in November 2003, a contractor handed over a ready-to-operate,
10,000-square-foot plant and tooling began immediately. Edson expects the factory
will be able to produce one $30 million yacht a year.
Edson is far from retired. “Gosh,” he says, “I’m having such fun with the yacht
business and I’m still one partner among several in Westport. I have an obligation
to see this 164 through to completion and get the production process running well.
I enjoy the challenge of making superb quality boats.”
Besides continuing his lengthy career in yacht building, Edson is involved in a
variety of other activities. His wealth has allowed him to donate several million
dollars to Seattle’s Fred Hutchison Cancer Center, in support of building construction,
T-cell research, and an on-site garden named “Edson Park” in his honor. He’s also
established the J. Orin Edson Foundation, which recently offered grants to the Westlawn
Institute of Marine Technology (formerly Westlawn School of Yacht Design).
Edson has known astounding success in his life—success won through hard work, business
savvy and the increases in disposable income in the second half of the 20th century.
But his philosophy about life is plain: “Be sure you like what you do. Never do
anything just for the money—you must like doing it.” He
also quotes a friend of his, Ed Kennel, a “good old sailboater,” who said, “Encourage
all people to get out on the water regardless of what size or type of boat. If you
like boats, you like them all.”