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Is Australian boat manufacturing car-eening for fall

by Mark Rothfield on 22 Jun 2013
The government must support our world-class boat builders as it does the car industry. Maritimo Marine
How do you start a small business? These days, you buy a big Australian manufacturing firm and simply wait for a while …In recent weeks the car world has been floored by news that Ford plans to close its manufacturing plants while General Motors is aiming to cut workers’ wages to avoid or delay, an inevitable head-on crash.

Should the boating industry be concerned? Absolutely!

The car industry has consistently been a decade ahead of boat manufacturing in its R&D, construction, advertising and retailing. It enjoys a larger market, fewer local rivals, superior economies of scale and deeper pockets courtesy of their global parents.

They also have the undying support of a Labor Government that’s thrown millions of dollars at the problem, with Minister of Innovation and Industry Greg Combet insisting that the ability for local manufacturing to design and build a motor vehicle from the ground up is vital for the economy.

Well guess what? We have the ability to design and build boats from the keel up, to the pinnacle of international standards, but if history is any indication the government cares not one whit.

The prestige Australian built marques Riviera, Maritimo, Quintrex, Signature and Seawind, among others, have all struggled in recent years, slicing their workforces without raising so much as an eyebrow at federal level. We’re dispensable it seems.

So if an international conglomerate like Ford can’t build a family car in Australia, how the heck can we continue to build boats? The same market threats apply – a flood of imports built at a fraction of the labour cost, a dollar that for too long refused to be tempered, and nervous cattle. Perhaps the recent drop in the Australian dollar might help a little but it will have to keep falling to make any significant difference.

The Seawind solution was to shut shop and relocate.

‘Probably five years ago it was apparent that Australia had a limited future as a manufacturer,’ owner Richard Ward says. ‘We have a strong domestic market but we’re a long way from the world market – our boats are horrendously expensive to ship.’

Ward investigated options in China and Thailand but delayed a decision at his increasing peril. Then, in 2010, Seawind acquired Corsair Marine, which was building Farrier trimarans in Vietnam, and the die was cast.

‘It was sad, this process of closing our Wollongong factory, and unbelievably difficult,’ Ward adds. ‘People see that you’re selling out, that you don’t care about your workers … but it’s a short-sighted and mistaken way of looking at it.

‘Governments should be helping us to become a global company. That’s what we’ve done but entirely on our own. Seawind is 100 per cent Australian owned, we will continue doing all the design here, and the profits will come back to Australia. The alternative is to die.’

The Boating Industries Alliance Australia, the national peak body for the recreational and light commercial boating industry in Australia is working hard to explain the value of the Australian boat building industry to politicians, we hope they listen.

If not, the spectre of an Australian boat show without an Australian boat, once unthinkable looms as large as the prospect of a Bathurst race without a Falcon or Commodore.
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