Time Out – Catching up with Ken Clinton

135

Intrepid Powerboats president talks the state of the marine industry. 

By Gregg Mansfield

Few people have the pulse of the marine industry as Ken Clinton, president of Intrepid Powerboats. Having been with the Florida builder for 33 years—15 years as president—Clinton has seen the industry highs and lows and the trends come and go.

Intrepid Powerboats is the bellweather for the center console market with the company building approximately 110 boats a year. Intrepid offers 12 models from 30 to 51 feet and its largest model, the 51 Panacea, made its debut at the 2023 Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show.

Clinton began his career as a machinist building submarines and moved to Florida to work in the recreational boating industry. Within his first month on the job installing engines, Clinton was promoted to supervisor and within two years was the plant manager because of his attention to detail.

Since taking over as president of Intrepid Powerboats in 2009, Clinton has led the company through the pandemic and stayed on after the company’s acquisition by MarineMax in 2021. We caught up with Clinton after the unveiling of the 51 Panacea to talk about the marine industry. 

Fsh intrepid panacea 51w
With Intrepid Powerboats building larger models such as the 51 Panacea, the company opened a second plant in Swansboro, N.C. Intrepid will continue to build models under 50 feet at its facility in Key Largo, Fla.

Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Center Console Life: With the debut of the 51 Panacea, center console boats keep getting bigger. What do you think is driving that?

Ken Clinton: I have a theory that with the engine technology and joystick, it’s made it a lot less intimidating to run a bigger boat. The entry-level boat for me for years was 30 feet and now it’s 42 feet because they can get in it, they can dock it by themselves, they can tie it off by themselves, when other people for their first boat would never even consider it.

Once they get comfortable with the 42, it’s so easy to go to 51 because they now have the confidence to do so.Kent Clintonw

CCL: So, joystick technology has made that big of a difference?

KC: Absolutely. I’ll take it a step further. I’m working with a company called Avikus, which is owned by Hyundai, which is the world’s largest manufacturer of tankers and cargo ships. They showed me a presentation of autonomous boating for its ships and asked if there would be a market for smaller vessels. I said absolutely because it’ll bring more people into boating that are intimidated.

They took me out in a boat in Tampa and they set up vessels to get in the way for the artificial intelligence to make decisions. The guy coming at us slows down, speeds up, then goes to port to get in our way and the system gets around him.

We then go to dock and the camera shows all the slips, so he picks the second one and touches the screen. The screen asked if we wanted to go bow to stern, which we said yes. It turned the boat around, backed it in perfectly, brought us right next to the dock and held position while they got out and tied the lines. It’s the future.

I was a presenter at an event with insurance underwriters, maritime attorneys and surveyors, and I told them all to get ready because autonomous boating is coming, so be prepared to insure it.

Img 7643 3 rtw
Intrepid Powerboats is the premier builder of luxury center console boats.

CCL: Is this part of an effort to make operating a boat more like an automobile?

KC: People are intimidated by boating. When you’re a kid and you grow up, you’re getting in a car every day, and you’re going on a bus to school, so you’re so familiar with it. A lot of people have never been on a boat, or they’ve been on their buddy’s boat and sat on it, but they didn’t run it. 

To be able to take a whole group of people that are not in boating and make them comfortable to join that, it’s going to expand our market that much more. Look, we all eat and feed our families by bringing people into boating, so I think it’s important.

CCL: Do you see comfort creatures such as a SeaKeeper gyro as important for the marine industry?

KC: It’s funny that you bring that up because I was the first to do a SeaKeeper in an outboard boat. I had a customer come to me and said his wife got seasick and he wanted to know if we would put a gyro stabilizer in the boat. I didn’t even know what it was, and I had to go research it.

The smallest SeaKeeper at the time was the SK9, which was huge, I had to reconfigure the entire boat to put this giant gyro in a 39, but I showed that you could do it, and that it was important to the industry.

Now when you walk through this boat show, I guarantee that seven out of 10 of these boats have a gyro in it because we showed the importance of it. It took another group of people that couldn’t go out on the water that might get seasick that can now partake in it. That’s what it is all about, it’s about continuing to find ways to bring people into this wonderful activity of boating and this technology does all that.Headshoot1w

CCL: You’re not afraid to be an early adopter of technology.

KC: I could go on and on. I was the first one to do a dive door back in 1994. I did it for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. It was the first one ever done.

(Other builders) waited to see how long my boats would hold up with a big hole in the side. That’s why nobody would do it. We were the first one to do 35-inch shafts. I went to Mercury and Yamaha and said I needed 35-inch shafts and they said forget it. So, I got with Bob Latham (owner of Latham Marine) and we created 35-inch shafts.

And we were the first ones to put heads inside of center consoles, all these consoles with heads inside of them, we did at first. We were the first ones to do a bow thruster in an outboard boat for a customer that said that he had a lot of wind and current behind him. We were the first ones to do electric actuating backrests on the back of forward seating.

CCL: The marine industry has slowed down since the pandemic. Where do you see the market currently?

KC: One of the things that I pitch to my team all the time is that the haves still have, so it’s important that we continue to be the brand of choice, which means you have to be the best because the 1 percent out there can buy anything they want and we want them to buy our boat, so we can’t make a mistake, especially in the day and age of the internet. If you make a major mistake on a boat, the world knows in about 5 minutes.

There’s that continued back pressure to perform and I use a negative as a positive, so we’ve got to keep our A-game on and hold our own and I’m blessed to have a team that does.

CCL: Can you talk about Intrepid Powerboats’ expansion to build models larger than 50 feet?

KC: It’s a giant facility on the water on 56 acres in Swansboro, North Carolina. At one point Hatteras, Tiara and Chris-Craft Boats had it. The biggest thing that I found, besides an amazing facility, is there’s generational craftspeople there, there’s people that know how to build boats.

In Largo, I struggle with labor, and I go up there and local towns around it are all filled with people with “my Dad built boats, my grandfather built boats and I built boats.” There are a lot of boat companies up there and in some cases running out of work where they’re at.

028a6653w

CCL: Do you see moving all your production to North Carolina?

KC: I love Largo, I’m not leaving that facility. I’ve built that facility over 25 years, and it’s extremely successful. I built the 51 Panacea in Largo and it was a nightmare pushing it out of the hull building and getting it into assembly and it just doesn’t fit.

CCL: How has the acquisition by MarineMax worked out?

KC: They’re the reason why I’m able to get the Swansboro (North Carolina) factory. I worked 31 years before the acquisition, and I’ve never had over four different ownership groups, one person give me $1 for capital. Everything that I did through all those years, I had to self-generate with basic margins. When they gave me the pitch, they said, ‘Look, we’re a publicly traded company, where we have excess cash, we want to make a good investment for our investors, we consider you the number one powerboat builder in the world.’

It’s been a fantastic relationship. They leave me alone.  They let me run the company as I own it and it’s been great. They support me financially to be able to make that next step.

CCL: You seem just as enthusiastic as when you started 31 years at Intrepid Powerboats.

KC: Well, the biggest thing is we just continue to innovate and press and push. We’re never satisfied, we always know we can do it better. We always know that there’s better things that we can do and our customers are our best designers. That’s what keeps me going.