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Lloyd Stevenson Boatbuilders: Creating custom boats for 35 years

by Richard Gladwell/ 10 Oct 2022 04:55 PDT 11 October 2022
78ft expedition ketch - Lloyd Stevenson Boatbuilders - Launch - September 22, 2022 - Half Moon Bay, Auckland © Robert Daly - Lloyd Stevenson Boatbuilders

"I finished my apprenticeship at Vos & Brijs in August '83 and left straightway to finish off a Davidson 40 that I was building with my dad.

"I told them I was just going to finish my dad's boat off and then come back - but didn't return."

That's how Lloyd Stevenson describes the start of the boatbuilding business that bears his name - which commenced in 1985 when he employed the first staff member. Today, it's grown to 50 staff, plus contractors - taking the numbers to 60 on the floor.

That first boat, for his father, a Laurie Davidson 40, was sold to a Kiwi sailmaker, who was setting up in Seattle and "wanted to take a fast New Zealand boat up there, beat everything up and blame it on the sails," Lloyd recalls.

"They went to Laurie, who told them 'what you need is John Stevenson's boat, but he's building it for himself.' Back in the '80's there were tax incentives, for export, plus a good exchange rate."

"John's reaction was 'if you're selling, then you build a replacement, don't you'?"

That first Davidson 40, Teddy Bear, was replaced by a second, Mr Roosevelt, and followed by a third for a buyer who had read an article about Teddy Bear. By that time, the Davidson 40, with the addition of a scoop and some re-measurement, had stretched to a Davidson 42.

"So that was our first three boats, which rolled off the press pretty quickly, and the business was born."

"We started just around the corner in a rented factory- we've always been in East Tamaki," Lloyd Stevenson explains.

The impressive "new" build facility, owned by LSB, is located in an upmarket industrial estate. Except for the signage, it gives no clues of being a builder of superyacht tenders, expedition yachts and purpose-designed high-quality craft.

"We keep calling it a new factory, but we've been here for 15 or 16 years," he quips.

Inside, you enter a different world of traditional craftsmanship sitting alongside the latest composite technology. There's no production line.

A glance around the largely open plan facility shows several building bays, with a 78ft wooden expedition ketch with an outer skin of e-glass and Kevlar, being built alongside a 60ft all carbon Artnautica Sport Fisher. Both were near completion at the time when Sail-World visited and have since been launched.

In other bays an Elite 18 metre, mid-pilothouse fast cruiser is under construction in epoxy glass over balsa, with epoxy fibreglass and foam over ply superstructure.

Two Catalyst 45 chase boats, often used as superyacht tenders or America's Cup team chase boats are being built from E-glass, with carbon reinforcing over a foam core. Almost 80% of the work is for export.

"Other yards specialise in one area, where we jump from carbon boats to wooden boats, to fitting out aluminium hull and decks, to ply/balsa/cruising launches," says Lloyd Stevenson explaining the diversity of construction under a single roof.

"We get this amazing amount of varied work, which is really fun. But it's always a challenge because, in one bay, we're doing one type of work, and in the next, we're doing something quite different. It gives us a good diversity of skills so we can do almost anything."

Stevenson says that in the early days, they dabbled with a production boat, an Owen Woolley 35, in '87, just before the share market crashed. "A year later, you could buy a 40ft Formula 4000 for the same price as a 35fter, and the production market died then in New Zealand - so those moulds went to China."

While many builders prefer to stay with production boats, Stevenson says they are comfortable building custom boats. "We seem to go through phases when it looks like there will be no production boats built here, and then the pendulum swings against one-off boats - so it can change all the time," he says philosophically.

"After building yachts early on, we got into the powerboats - to a local design by Bill Upfold - and they've been very successful. We've done about 23, soon to be 24 of those. And they're still ticking away. They have been a vital part of our business."

"Our market is for people that don't want what other people think you should have. And that seems to be strong enough market. We also do a lot of repair and maintenance on local boats."

"Because we've built so many local boats over the years and have a great relationship with their owners, they come back for repaints and additions, and that's quite a strong line for LSB as well," he adds.

Tracey Stevenson joined her husband in the business, in the early 90's, after a career in the corporate world as an accountant.

"We designed the factory to have the flexibility of being able to take on all sorts of different projects, different sizes, sailing and motor yachts," she explains. "It was designed to make an easy transition between projects."

"We've had an incredible range of boats over the 35 years.

"Two significant projects for us were; the four different sized tenders for the superyacht Sailing Yacht A. They averaged around 40ft; it was a two-year project, which required quite a scaling up in terms of our workforce, and our ability to deliver on a big project like that.

"The other, was the tender for the award-winning superyacht Artefact. This tender has exceeded the Captain's expectations and he has become a big advocate for us. These were ideal projects for us, they were challenging builds that let us showcase all of our skills, especially the quality of finish we achieve with our boats."

"There's a lot of superyachts currently being built around the world. As we start to get younger clients, they are certainly looking for experiences, and that seems to be where superyachts are heading - providing that ultimate experience."

"The superyacht tender side of things is a major focus for us in the export side of the business," she adds.

"Usually, the first approach to us comes from the project manager or captain, and often there's been a connection with a Kiwi working in the chain somewhere, who looks towards New Zealand for building superyacht tenders."

"It's pretty competitive," Tracey continues. "There are quite a few, either semi-production or custom tender builders around the world in the US and UK, as well as through Europe."

"Luckily, we've done a pretty good job with them and have built up a good reputation," Lloyd adds. "So people are starting to come here regardless of the distance from Europe."

While Lloyd Stevenson is clear that unlike others in the NZ marine industry, they have no plans to branch out into being composite engineers for architectural projects or the aerospace industry. "We're strictly marine."

But Tracey quickly points out that diversification has helped them through downturns. "We have made components for different marine and other companies and built moulds for parts of the industry. There is always the potential for diversification, and many of our team's skills can be utilised across the board for different projects. We wouldn't rule out doing it again if required."

"Some of the projects we have undertaken have been a game changer for us. One was when we were commissioned by Disney in the early 2000s, and built some rafts for the Hong Kong Disneyland theme park, " she says.

"For us, that meant upscaling the company administration and building expertise. We had to work on a completely level in terms of the contractual side of things. Working with a company like Disney changed how we operated - including tracking variations and sign-off - it was a bit of a game changer, " she explains.

America's Cup impact

The potential loss of business for the NZ marine industry due to the decision to host the 2024 America's Cup hosting in Barcelona has been a contentious point in Auckland.

Lloyd Stevenson gives a "yes and no" answer to the question, as to whether they would get more business through a locally hosted America's Cup.

"What the Cup does here is to create activity and give people the motivation to do things. It means that other people might chase the AC work and leave us alone to do the local work. So now I would sit back and say it didn't make much difference to us either way. But in 2000, we built a boat called Crazy Horse which was a Bill Tripp (USA) design, a beautiful, high-speed boat built for the 2000 America's Cup in Auckland."

"But for people to say that we shouldn't be putting money into the America's Cup is just wrong, wrong, wrong."

"If the Cup were here, the hospitality sector would be pumping. You'd have the marine sector booming - the Cup supports a massive amount of the economic activity, " he says.

"I think the momentum of the Cup increases the amount of activity across the marine industry, " says Tracey Stevenson, Vice President of the NZ Marine Industry Association. "It's hard to pinpoint what work may have come as a result of the Cup. It certainly increases the activity across the industry. And everybody gets taken up with the tide."

"Everybody seems to be busy building boats at the moment," she adds moving past the America's Cup potential impact, and certainly Covid has brought a lot of activity into that leisure boat market in New Zealand. The smaller boat manufacturers are busy. We're still waiting for the superyachts to come back here and keep that servicing sector of the superyacht industry busy."

A vital part of that superyacht servicing industry is the redevelopment of the Auckland waterfront, with the 2021 America's Cup facilities on both sides of Wynyard Point. They include expanding the Orams Marine facilities to cater for the servicing of more and larger superyachts.

"We're not competitors to Orams, and I think that the investment that they have made is fantastic. It's great," says Lloyd. "Years ago, the Council built those big marinas down the bottom of Silo Park. And when they started putting in the piles and piers, we wondered what would happen.

"Since then, they've been a major success for the Council.. So I'm sure that will be the same with the new Orams yard. Once the facilities are built that can take these big boats, they will come. There are no two ways about that," he says.

Apprenticeship commitment

The induction and training of apprentices has been part of the Lloyd Stevenson Boat's culture from its beginnings 35 years ago.

"There's never been a time since Lloyd started this business that he hasn't had apprentices," Tracey Stevenson says.

"Because I started the company when I was so young, initially I found it difficult to employ somebody older and start telling them what to do. The easiest thing for me was to put on a couple of apprentices, and that's how it started.

"It's a passion of mine. And I love teaching the young team members a few new tricks," he adds.

"As the company has grown, we are always taking more. Even when we only had five staff, there were a couple of apprentices. Currently, we have 8-10 apprentices with a permanent staff of 50."

The company works within an NZ Marine Industry program - the MAST Academy (Marine and Specialised Trades) - a funded process to transition Year 12-13 students from school to work. Most of the participants are from local schools because of travel logistics.

"It's identifying people who are still at school and have a passion for boat building. They can come and work here for a day a week, in their last one or two years at school, which allows them to figure out whether that's what they want to do.

"It allows us to look at them and say, 'Yep, they're gonna make a good apprentice'.

"That's one good method of attracting apprentices. But we've had quite a few retraining from other industries - including chefs or people who have tried a couple of years as architects."

"Boatbuilding is a trade of passion. There are no two ways about it," says Lloyd.

"Sure, they do paperwork out in their own time. But we sign up apprentices for 9000 hours across four and a half years. We work on the theory that it costs us a bit to get them through in the first couple of years. But over the last couple of years, if we have done our job right, making a good contribution"

Lloyd Stevenson accepts that boat building isn't for everyone, however the skills they learn in boatbuilding set them up for life - whether they stay in the industry or head off to other trades, there are many opportunities both in New Zealand and overseas. Many students who have struggled with the more academic subjects at school can be very successful boatbuilders - as long as they have the right attitude and are keen to learn.

Over the past 35 years, Lloyd Stevenson says apart from the technology used, not much has changed in the industry - particularly in the required attitude and aptitude.

"The good ones get out there, and you see them at break time. They just grab a coffee and wander around the other boats being built, looking at the other projects, and just keeping an eye on what's going on."

"I did that a lot when I did my apprenticeship. Just grab a cup of coffee, wander around, see what others guys were doing, and absorb all the information."

"I did my apprenticeship without building a new boat, as it was all repair and refit work" "You learned the theory from night classes and learned how to work with your hands at your place of apprenticeship. Then you put the two together, and away you go."

"We're one of the few and probably the only builder now that puts our apprentices through two strands," explains Tracey. "So they do both wooden and composite boatbuilding when they are here."

"The apprenticeship is structured, so they have to get the unit standards ticked off. They get rotated around the different jobs, work alongside tradespeople on the floor, and learn the skills."

One of the unit standards for an apprentice is to build a traditional half model - the starting point with boat design and construction going back centuries.

The results of this back to the future exercise dot the walls in the meeting room at the facility, showing 35 years of craft built by the yard and covering the diversity of designs and construction.

Lloyd Stevenson flicks over them with a brief explanation about each, it's an impressive legacy - both in each of the boat models, as well as the totality 35 years of diversity and excellence.

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