Photo by Brian Holberg Just two and a half hours north of Milwaukee on a sunny day in late May, pop music blares from the rafters of Cruisers Yachts’ high-ceilinged Oconto plant. On the floor, three 30-something women inject resin into fiberglass molds the color of tomato soup – one of the first steps in […]

Photo by Brian Holberg

Just two and a half hours north of Milwaukee on a sunny day in late May, pop music blares from the rafters of Cruisers Yachts’ high-ceilinged Oconto plant. On the floor, three 30-something women inject resin into fiberglass molds the color of tomato soup – one of the first steps in building a yacht. In another area, a middle-aged woman looks over upholstery choices for Cruisers’ new Black Diamond series, eager to show off a custom seat she’s designed. Yet another woman sits alone aboard the deck of an almost-finished yacht, searching for blemishes or trapped air before the hull is screwed on. There’s a sense of calm to the operation; a feeling that they take their time to get it right.

With the help of six assembly lines and nearly 260 employees (nearly half of whom are women, a rarity in boat manufacturing), the company can crank out one of these glamour ships in eight weeks. After running the engines, electrical and plumbing for an entire day, says Jon Viestenz, product manager at the company’s Oconto headquarters, “we put the shrink-wrap on, put it on a truck and ship it all over the world.”

And around the world yachts produced in northern Wisconsin go, from Dubai to Russia and the Mediterranean Sea.

“You go to shows in France, and we’re so well known,” says Sandra Graf, who has worked at Palmer Johnson in Sturgeon Bay for nearly a decade. “But people in Wisconsin don’t even know we’re here.”

Such is the Wisconsin yacht business – an industry unknown to many within the state but renowned in international waters. From $200,000 boats to $65 million behemoths, ships from four of Wisconsin’s yacht manufacturers have impressed the likes of Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, John Travolta, Sonny Bono, Dale Earnhardt Jr., TV mogul Ted Turner and the King of Spain.

And the local industry sends ripples all over the world. Near some of the world’s most expensive marinas, places like Marina di Capri in Italy and Port de Saint-Tropez in France, sleek yachts cut through glittering turquoise waters. Much of that grandeur traces back to Wisconsin’s northeastern corner, known more for its paper mills and logging than the hundreds of luxury motor yachts crafted here by hand. Although other yacht producers reside in Florida and Italy, Wisconsin boasts four major players within a 50-mile radius, from Sturgeon Bay down to Manitowoc, keeping the Great Lakes maritime tradition alive and employing about 1,000 salt-of-the-earth northeastern Wisconsinites.

“Wisconsin is legit,” says Kevin Koenig, a senior editor at Power & Motoryacht Magazine. “The Great Lakes boat builders are definitely big contributors to the yachting world.” In 2012, 4,260 yachts longer than 30 feet were sold nationally, according to Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, with Wisconsin making just under 50. But boats like those 50 are what have given Wisconsin yacht manufacturers their world-class reputation.

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And it’s often a family operation. Among current employees at the nearly 100-year-old Palmer Johnson, many have had a brother, father or grandfather also work there, says Mike Kelsey Jr., Palmer Johnson’s president. He says they’re happy to have the “homegrown talent” and a nontransient workforce.

For at least two Cruisers employees, it’s practically a family business. Jeremy Hanson, 33, works alongside his mother and three aunts, and Trisha Loberger, 38, began working for Cruisers while in college. Her father, Roger Stewart, is currently the longest-serving employee. His first day was 55 years ago.

Climb aboard a 45-foot Cantilus Cruisers yacht that’s almost passed its quality-control checks, and the allure is clear. On the deck, a sunshade descends with the push of a button, built-in leather seating converts to flat beds for an impromptu snooze (with stainless steel cupholders ready to house mojitos), and a television swivels from the adjacent kitchen. The secondary stateroom also doubles as a theater room.

To build a yacht is to craft a piece of art. Discerning buyers often turn to an interior designer for guidance, and the sky’s the limit with amenities. Some buyers never even visit Wisconsin during the process. Dick Nocenti, director of marketing for Marquis Yachts, which is based in Pulaski and makes about 120 motorboats and yachts annually, recalls a Chinese couple’s request for their 72-foot yacht: a karaoke lounge complete with a sound system, stage and television monitors.

Cruisers’ largest markets for its lower-priced yachts (between $200,000 and $1 million) are in North America, but the market in China is rapidly growing. Still, Viestenz says, the “biggest thing is keeping jobs here in Oconto and not sending them out elsewhere.”

That made-in-America label, companies say, is attractive to overseas buyers.

“We make it very clear that we’re an American company,” Nocenti says of

Marquis, which has bounced out of bankruptcy twice. “Metalwork, fiberglass and upholstery are done in-house. It’s a lot like German car manufacturers. American-made yachts have that same reputation around the world.”

That’s not to say these builders haven’t tried to expand. For some five years, Cruisers had a North Carolina shipyard, but it reconsolidated in Wisconsin in 2007. “Our attrition and turnover was just killing us,” Viestenz says. “If you’re going to build boats, you’re better off being here than anywhere else.”

In 2010, Palmer Johnson shut down operations in Southampton, England, with Kelsey releasing a statement saying that despite earlier plans to create 800 jobs and construct a new facility, he was going to move the entire SuperYacht program to Wisconsin, citing “the world economy” as a cause. Palmer Johnson, which makes about six yachts each year, used to have a 30-acre shipyard in Savannah, Ga., but ultimately decided to refocus operations at its Sturgeon Bay headquarters.

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Down the street from Burger Boat Company’s Manitowoc office and along the Manitowoc River, a dedicated 8-acre shipyard houses eight bays, a 500-metric-ton travel lift, a woodshop and a joiner facility. This year is Burger’s 150th anniversary. Faced with a down economy, the company is closing fewer sales of custom yachts, which Burger began specializing in during the early 1900s when yachts first became popular. Now, Ron Cleveringa, vice president of sales and marketing, estimates they make just two or three custom yachts per year, which retail for between $100,000 and $23 million, and take 18-24 months to build. But commercial contracts still fly off his desk, like a 62-foot fishery research vessel (named Coregonus) for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the 300-passenger Leading Lady, which takes Windy City tourists up and down the Chicago River. Projects like these keep 150 jobs in Burger’s shipyard.

“I remember the days when we could not build boats fast enough,” says Nocenti, noting that Marquis now takes 18 months to fill orders that it used to complete in less than a year. “It was a buying frenzy when banks easily lent money.”

But sales can be as rocky as those ocean waves. Wisconsin has followed national sales trends of yachts larger than 30 feet, which bottomed out in 2010 after a steady six-year decline, then improved 19 percent the following year. Sales dipped again – but only by 4 percent – in 2012, says Dammrich.

Some builders – particularly Cruisers, with its less-expensive portfolio – like how business is trending. Looking around the plant, Viestenz recalls a darker time: “Five years ago, we had hardly anybody working here,” he says. “The marine industry really tanked.”

And in what could be the sign of an upswing, Palmer Johnson recently sold a $65 million, 215-foot yacht dubbed Lady M. As one of the largest yachts sold worldwide in 2012, noted that 100 jobs would be created at the Sturgeon Bay shipyard.

In mid-May, the Door County residents who helped craft those 215 feet of luxury, gathered to watch Lady M launch into Lake Michigan. With six staterooms and a pool that converts to a helipad, the yacht made waves, blowing up the pages of sailing and yachting blogs. But there was nothing unusual about the hometown pride. Whenever a new ship is christened, a town celebration ensues, and not just at Palmer Johnson.

“It’s one big party,” says Burger’s Cleveringa. “The firetrucks, the Coast Guard and Honor Guard come out. People sing the national anthem, and the mayor gives the key to the city to the owner of the yacht.”

This article appears in the August 2013 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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