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.”