A Rising Tide: boat manufacturing in South Carolina sees steady growth
Newberry’s Falcon Boats has joined other manufacturers that are driving a renaissance in South Carolina boat building.
by David Lucas
The Ranger brand of boats is practically synonymous with big-time bass fishing, and with good reason. The premiere professional bass fishing tournament in the world — the Forrest Wood Cup – is named for the guy who founded the company. Forrest L. Wood was a fishing guide (and later professional angler) from Arkansas who began constructing and selling custom-made fiberglass boats in 1968. Woods’ designs were based on what his guiding experience taught him would be most useful for pursuing bass on big lakes, and he is widely credited as the originator of what is now the “bass boat” style of lake boat. Woods later helped start the Fishing League Worldwide (Get it? FLW = Forrest L. Wood), and a large number of the professional (and amateur) anglers who fish both the FLW and Bassmasters tours use Ranger boats.
So in the professional fishing world, it was kind of a big deal when tour pro and former Forrest Wood Cup champion Anthony Gagliardi announced that he would be aligning himself with upstart Midlands bass boat manufacturer Falcon Boats.
Far from surprising though. For one thing, Clemson grad Gagliardi is a proud South Carolinian, and Falcon boats are made in Newberry and tested on Lake Murray, his home lake. For another, his formal education as a mechanical engineer, as well as 15+ years of professional bass fishing experience, make Gagliardi uniquely positioned to be more than just an endorser of this product. In addition to being on the Falcon Boats pro team as a sponsored angler, Gagliardi is actively involved in helping the company further develop and refine its line of boats. At the final weigh-in of the 2017 FWC, where Gagliardi finished 5th and was in contention for the top spot going into the final round, he spoke in glowing terms about the design of the new boat he’s using on the FLW tour.
Falcon Boats president Stephen Waller and business partner Tim DePriest bring decades of boat building experience to the table, along with third partner Jimmy Metts (who’s also involved with Lexington-based Tidewater Boats). With A little luck, Falcon Boats may be able to steer a course similar to the one blazed by Forrest Woods himself in the 1960s, taking their innovative designs and manufacturing techniques honed through decades of experience to the next level and becoming a major player in the boat manufacturing business. That would be a welcome development for the state economy (and for folks looking for good jobs in Newberry).
“It’s an awesome feeling to be building boats in Newberry again. We’re starting out small, and plan to grow as business allows, but we have high hopes of producing quality and affordable boats for many years to come,” said Waller when the new plant opened in March of 2016.
The boat manufacturing industry in the United States was hit hard by the Great Recession that began in 2008. By some estimates, overall sales went down by as much as $8 billion nationwide. But boat sales, along with the economy as a whole, have slowly been recovering, and nationwide sales in 2015/2016 have rebounded to near pre-recession levels. It's a hopeful time.
“Falcon Boats’ decision to expand to Newberry County is a testament to the reputation South Carolina’s world-class workforce has built as one of the best in the world,” added then-Governor Nikki Haley at the new factory's opening. "This $1.5 million investment, creating 35 new jobs, is a huge win for Newberry and our entire state’s manufacturing industry.”
That’s very true. Falcon Boats is part of a boat building, repair and manufacturing sector for South Carolina that accounts for an estimated annual economic impact of more than $1 billion and 2,400 high-wage jobs. (source: The Economic Contribution of Natural Resources toSouth Carolina’s Economy — Clemson University, December 2016; full report at http://dnr.sc.gov/economic/index.html)
According to the report, “The boat sector produces 2,450 direct jobs with an average salary of $74,000 due to the skill required to work in this industry. Sector direct output (sales) is $608 million and the total output effect (contribution) to the state economy is $1 billion.”
Falcon Boats hopes to add to those impressive totals, along with other South Carolina-based manufacturers such as the aforementioned Tidewater boats, newly resurgent Sea Pro out of Whitmire, which re-launched with a new line of center console boats in 2015 and others. And this growing resurgence of South Carolina-based boat manufacturing doesn’t just include the Midlands, nor does it only involve power boats. Down in the Lowcountry and Pee Dee, companies such as Sportsman, Key West and Stingray are building and selling a wide variety of boats, along with many other builders small and large. In the Upstate, paddlesports is the thing. This past August, fishing kayak manufacturer Bonafide Kayaks announced a new manufacturing operation in Greenville – a $2 million investment the company hopes will add 76 jobs over the next three years. That will be a nice addition to an already robust paddlesports manufacturing base in Greenville County, led my major manufacturer Confluence Outdoors. Employees at Confluence’s Greenville plant builds small boats for a wide range of popular brands, including Perception, Dagger, Wilderness Systems, and Mad River Canoe.
We South Carolinians love the water, and we love our boats. No wonder, we’re blessed with access to thousands of miles of rivers, beautiful lakes and tremendous saltwater boating and fishing opportunities. Now, with boat manufacturing again on the upswing in the Palmetto State, folks in the market for a new boat won’t have to look to far to find one that not only fits their needs, but is also South Carolina-made!