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Weeres Industries Corporation is the oldest manufacturer of pontoon boats in the United States. The company's founder, Ambrose Weeres, constructed the first pontoon boat in 1951. Since that time Weeres Industries, located in central Minnesota, has built and sold more than 30,000 pontoon boats. Although Weeres is primarily an American company, its pontoons are afloat across the Atlantic on the Nile and Thames rivers, and in Sweden's Stockholm harbor. The company sells high quality pontoons exclusively through dealers in 20 states. Weeres pontoons range in size from the simple four-person, 16-foot fishing model to a 28-foot, luxury tri-toon that can accommodate 30 people.
Weeres Industries also manufactures fiberglass offshore fishing boats through its subsidiary brands Palm Beach and Key Largo. In addition to the St. Cloud headquarters, Weeres operates Palm Beach Marinecraft in New Ulm, Minnesota, and Marine Manufacturing Corporation in Douglas, Georgia. Weeres also builds and sells swimming rafts and paddleboats, which account for about 5 percent of the company's business.
Keeping Business Afloat: 1950s
As the "Land of 10,000 Lakes," Minnesota has often been the source of innovations related to water recreation. Lake City, Minnesota, located along Lake Pepin and the Mississippi River, was the birthplace of waterskiing, and a number of boat manufacturers, fishing-oriented businesses, as well as perhaps the most prominent name in life preservers and related gear, Stearns, have their home base in Minnesota. Not surprisingly, pontoon boats originated in the state, in the small Stearns County town of Richmond, where innovator Ambrose Weeres created the first pontoon in 1951. His initial boat was basically a plywood sheet strapped to 55-gallon steel drums. Weeres and acquaintance Edwin Torborg tested their pontoon on Horseshoe Lake, near Richmond. (Some sources credit Torborg as the designer of the pontoon, but the historical account is unclear. Weeres has been recognized several times as the sole inventor of the pontoon.)
The prototype pontoon even included a steering device and a mount for an outboard motor. After storing the boat for the winter, Weeres learned the hard way that the steel pontoons collapsed when the air contracted due to cold temperatures. He redesigned the boats slightly, including small breathing tubes in each pontoon to allow for fluctuations in air temperature.
That first year Ambrose Weeres constructed four boats. In 1952 he founded Weeres Industries and took orders for 40 more boats. The inventor displayed his pontoons at a boat show in Chicago, inducing another 100 orders for pontoon boats.
In 1956, company founder Ambrose Weeres was pursuing new innovations, and created the paddleboat. Weeres Industries soon added paddleboats to its product line.
Business Ups and Downs: 1960s-70s
Knese built a large production facility near St. Cloud, Minnesota, and worked to forge business relationships with area boat dealers. A company marketing highlight occurred when Knese arranged for Weeres pontoons to be used in the water events of the Minneapolis Aquatennial celebration, a weeklong summer community festival attended by thousands of Minnesotans. More potential buyers saw the boats in use and were intrigued. Business increased enough that Knese added two more production facilities in 1964. The number of employees grew to 22.
Sometime between 1964 and 1976, Dick Anderson purchased the business, which by this stage was also producing swimming rafts. But pontoon boats remained its manufacturing focus. In 1976, Weeres Industries produced more than 900 pontoons. For a short time Weeres also produced trailers for pontoons, water bikes, and snowmobiles. The newer pontoons at this time could accommodate larger motors, making it easier for users to pull waterskiers.
During the years Anderson owned the company, sales ranged from $1 million to $1.5 million per year, and production varied greatly from year to year. Weeres produced low, mid-range, and luxury pontoons from 16 feet to 28 feet in length. By this time the competition in the field had grown, and the marine industry overall was beginning to weaken.
1982: New Owners with a Commitment to Growth
By the early 1980s, the company was near declaring bankruptcy, according to Clint Lee, one of the two business investors who purchased the company in 1982. Lee said the financing for his purchase included assumption of the company's debt. At that time the company had just 16 employees, and annual sales were under $1 million. According to Lee, the company had faltered for several years because the owners failed to reinvest the profits in the business.
Neither Lee nor partner Gordon Brown had a background in the boating industry. Lee had experience running small businesses, and he was looking for a business opportunity in manufacturing that produced a tangible product. So he looked at Weeres. His decision to purchase Weeres Industries was facilitated by reading a commentary in Kiplinger's that forecasted great growth in the boating industry, particularly in the pontoon boat area. The previous five years had been slow for marine manufacturing.
One thing that attracted Lee and Brown to Weeres specifically was that the company had some of the most expertly skilled aluminum welders in the industry. Aluminum welders were hard to find and difficult to train. In large part because of that exceptional craftsmanship, Weeres had a reputation for superb quality. Weeres pontoons were built like tanks, according to Lee, but they lagged behind the competition in the area of styling.
Lee and Brown focused on improving quality and lowering costs. They were committed to reinvesting the profits into the business. Early on in their ownership tenure they invited Ambrose Weeres and his family for an outing on a large luxury Weeres pontoon with an inboard/outboard motor. They wanted Mr. Weeres to see how far his invention had come. A few years later Lee and Brown contemplated moving the company to South Dakota because the cost of doing business was so much lower there. The fact that South Dakota was further away from their primary market factored into their decision to stay put. In 1985 Weeres Industries purchased Palm Beach Boats, in Douglas, Georgia, which manufactured both salt-water and freshwater pontoons.
Company Growth, International Expansion: Late 1980s-90s
When Lee visited Sweden in the late 1980s, he noticed there were no pontoons in the Stockholm harbor. Seeing an opportunity, Lee made a business deal with the best yacht builder there, Storebor Brux Company, to assemble and sell Weeres pontoons. Weeres sent the pontoons disassembled in containers, and assigned an assembler from Minnesota to work in Sweden. Unfortunately, shipping costs greatly increased the pontoon prices. The arrangement with Storebor led to the sale of about 15-20 pontoons, but faltered when the country's economy took a turn for the worse.
In the late 1980s, pontoon manufacturers noticed a dramatic change in the demographics of pontoon owners. No longer were pontoons just for retired couples with lakeshore property. Because the newer pontoon craft were easy to trailer, and were safe and versatile, young families started buying them as well. To appeal to more buyers, Lee, the chief executive officer and president, and Brown, chairman and sales manager, spent quite a bit of time and money redesigning the boat and furniture, to improve the visual appeal and comfort while lowering costs. They found they could hold the cost down and improve the product.
Weeres Industries secured its place in the Minnesota history books in 1991 when Ambrose Weeres was among the first four people to be inducted into the Minnesota Marine Hall of Fame. Not only known for its original creation that hatched the industry, Weeres Industries had a continuing record of innovation. The company was most likely the first pontoon manufacturer to use pressure treated plywood so the preservative would penetrate deeply into the wood. Weeres was also one of the first companies to use aluminum pontoons, making the boats lighter, faster, and more buoyant.
The company's most rapid growth came between 1992 and 2002. One contributing factor may have been that Weeres began selling boats, trailers, and motors in a "package deal." Lee believed bundling the boats, motors, and trailers helped increase sales because consumers were able to spend less time and energy putting the pieces together. No doubt the booming American economy was also a factor, as consumers found more disposable income available to spend on recreational pursuits. In the late 1990s, Weeres saw 30 to 35 percent annual growth, and the staff grew to 60 employees.
In the mid-1990s Weeres started Marine Manufacturing Corporation in Douglas, Georgia, to produce fiberglass offshore fishing boats under the brand name Key Largo. The company soon ranked as the top producer of offshore fishing boats for the Florida market.
The company received national recognition in 2000 when Pontoon and Deck Boat magazine named Weeres the "Best-Built Luxury Pontoon." In the early 2000s, Weeres focused on marketing its various lines primarily east of the Mississippi. The company worked exclusively through dealers in 20 states and Canada. Expansion to the western United States had been hindered by the smaller number of recreational water spaces there. Weeres pontoons could also be seen on the Blue Nile River in Africa; on the Thames near Windsor Castle, where they were offered for rent; and also in Sweden, Switzerland, and Italy.
Weeres Pontoons were designed for a variety of uses--fishing, swimming, waterskiing, or just for cruising lakes and streams. The specialty models helped to attract new users. Weeres offered several different selections in its pontoon series--including the Sundeck, Fisherman, Suntanner, Sportsman, and Flightdeck. Pontoon boat sizes ranged from 16 feet to 28 feet in length, with the largest boasting a 30-person capacity. Most were within the eight-foot width legal limit so they could be transported by trailer.
Beyond the Creator's Vision
Pontoon extras in the new century went far beyond what Ambrose Weeres ever dreamed of. Accessory selections included portable toilets, changing rooms, electronic fish finders, radios, tape and CD players, roof enclosures, swivel seats, wheelchair gates, aerated livewells for keeping fish or storing cold beverages, and mini-kitchens with microwaves and refrigerators.
President Lee credited the company's success to continually trying to improve the product and working closely with and improving the dealer network. He and Brown were committed to onsite management and to "plowing money back into the company." Lee asserted that Weeres still employed the best welders in the industry. "We picked an exceptional employee base and added to and improved on that." Weeres pontoons had a reputation for lasting forever. Although that did not help repeat business, buyers often tended to upgrade to larger or more luxurious pontoons.
Weeres Industries also stressed point-of-sale advertising. If dealers had shows, Weeres sent their salespeople to provide all the necessary answers for prospective buyers. The same was true for boat shows, where dealers set up booths and Weeres sales representatives were available to field questions.
The 50th anniversary of the company in 2002 passed with minimal celebration. Weeres management and employees remained focused on their core objective: producing high-quality boats and satisfying their customers. Looking to the future, Lee did not expect any dramatic changes in the pontoon boat industry, but he believed the company's fiberglass offshore business would see growth. Company owners Lee and Brown, both well past the average age of retirement, remained at the helm of Weeres, prepared for expansion and continued success.
Principal Subsidiaries: Palm Beach Marinecraft; Marine Manufacturing Corporation.
Principal Competitors: Godfrey Sweetwater; Premier Marine, Inc.; Genmar Industries, Inc.