Boat Industry Still Sluggish: Cadillac Waits For New Jobs

Apr 23, 2012

The Four Winns boat plant in Cadillac hoped for steady growth when it struggled out of bankruptcy two years ago. Yet, after an initial surge, employment has hit a plateau. Even with auto companies having bounced back from near death to record profits, the boat business is slow to pick up.

Bill Edwards helps make the decks of pleasure boats – the kind you can take fishing, water-skiing or sunning with friends. Fiberglass boats have been made here in Cadillac for 50 years, becoming part of the city’s identity. Edwards has been at the Four Winns plant for 11 of those years. He's seen booms, busts and a bankruptcy. And he was there when the new owner brought the Glastron boat brand over from Minnesota to share the plant. Between the two nameplates, the factory churns out 15 shiny, new boats in a day and that’s expected to continue. That’s a modest, but steady, pace. It allows Edwards to breathe easier, though he’s not going on any spending sprees yet.

 “I feel a little more confident than I did back then, but it’s still a little iffy on taking long vacations and stuff like that,” he said.

Edwards is one of 430 people working here, which is down about ten positions from a year ago. When the new owner started calling workers back, it had predicted up to 2,500 new jobs in a few years. The dramatic turnaround in the auto industry since then has helped the boat business; though not as much as company president Roch Lambert had hoped.

“Car manufacturers are back on track, so we saw some encouraging results certainly out of the Detroit Boat Show,” he said. “We had a phenomenal boat show in Toronto. There were some shows in Cincinnati where we didn’t do much. It really is hit and miss.”

While the company re-tooled, the state awarded it millions in future state tax breaks. But those depended on job growth. And a state official says the company won’t likely receive any more breaks, until the workforce grows again. Lambert is optimistic, but nervous about gas prices that are right around the $4-a-gallon mark.

“If it hit $5 a gallon, then it’s a different animal that we would have to face at that time,” Lambert said. “It’s a bit of a concern that we hope is going to go away.”

Lambert hopes the recovery gets stronger, so more people will buy a luxury item like a boat. That’s about the only way the industry as a whole can start growing again.

“We don’t expect the industry volumes to go up, so it’s all about gaining market share right now,” Lambert said. “It’s taking it away from somebody else. And that’s a lot more difficult than when you’re lifted by the industry going up in general.”