It took a revamped boat-manufacturing company acquiring a near-empty Alachua sailboat factory to breathe new life into the site.
In October, A&M Manufacturing took over the 38-acre, 210,000-square-foot Marlow-Hunter building in Alachua after its sailboat production had dwindled over the last 15 years. A&M, which joined forces with StyleCraft Boats in Chiefland, produces fiberglass pontoon platforms and boats and plans on revitalizing the industry with its new designs and concepts.
“A little over four years ago we were able to rescue a [boat] manufacturing business that was in Old Town,” said A&M CEO John Hemken.
At the time, the 25-year-old aluminum pontoon boat repair company was in a dire financial situation. Hemken’s brother and sister-in-law—who own a marine upholstery business that produces fabric for boat seat cushions—were supplying A&M Manufacturing but weren’t being paid.
“So they called me,” he said. “[I] had a consulting practice at that time, and I was working with small businesses to turn them around, but I was in the Milwaukee, Wisconsin area.”
Hemken said he flew in one weekend and restructured the entire business, “top to bottom,” and knew there was a need for fiberglass hulls in lieu of aluminum hulls.
“This business was started originally as a repair facility for aluminum pontoons,” Hemken said. “But when you start welding, you have to continue because when you weld aluminum, you lose 70% of the strength around that weld.”
Aluminum prices have continued to move upward, while the product gets thinner, leading to “problems, problems, problems,” according to Hemken.
“Right now, an aluminum pontoon boat has about a two-year life because the saltwater electrolysis corrodes the aluminum, then they crack, then they leak, then that welding starts creating a never-ending process,” he said.
Hemken said after three days of working with A&M’s previous owner, he felt the opportunity was too good to pass up. By the following Monday, they were running the company. They eventually assumed ownership, including more than $400,000 in liabilities.
The company now creates multiple styles of fiberglass pontoon platform boats that range from recreational multi-deck vessels with slides, tuff boats used for cranes, fishing outfitters, and platforms for restaurants, such as a tiki boat. They can make specialty boats of varying sizes and are even building houseboats or can take the pieces from an existing aluminum pontoon hulls and transfer it over to a fiberglass hull platform.
A&M Manufacturing is the production side of the business while StyleCraft Boats is the sales and marketing side. StyleCraft is owned by Billy Chapman Jr., a member of the Fisherman’s Hall of Fame who has been an outfitter for four decades with a manufacturing shop based in Chiefland.
“(Chapman’s) a cool dude and he’s world-class at what he does,” said Hemken, adding that Chapman’s traveling and industry connections make him a great promoter for the business.
Over the past four years, the company has grown to 60 employees, but Hemken has his sights set even higher.
“In the (past) three years, we grew the business 5X, five times in three years,” he said. “That’s one of the reasons why we are recognized as one of the top 50 companies in Florida—the Grow Florida (GrowFL) companies to watch list.”
And that’s also the reason why, even with existing space at the Chiefland’s facility, Hemken decided the plant wasn’t large enough.
“So how did we get to [Alachua]?” Hemken asked. “I looked at the opportunities and what we can do, and we can grow 5X, five times, in the next three years, but I believe we can do it the three years after that as well. And Chiefland’s [facility] is not big enough for six years from now.”
Hemken found out about the Alachua plant and connected with the owner, David Marlow, who had seen production go from 1,400 sailboats yearly and employing 400 workers to a crash following the 2008 recession.
“David Marlow consented to allow me to acquire the facility because he has a heart, a soft spot if you will, for boat manufacturing, and his operation here had dwindled down to just a few sailboats [a year] and about eight people,” Hemken said, adding the plant will continue producing daysailers. “He wanted to see it thrive again, so I’m indebted to him.”
A&M will also keep the existing Chiefland facility where Hemken said they are making a woodgrain fiberglass boat line called Elite Craft.
“We call them the James Bond boats, vehicles that emulate the old wooden boats that are so iconic,” he said.
A&M products have found their way across the United States and businesses can contact the company on its website.