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Home grown: Boulton Powerboats Inc.

Editor's note: This is one in a weekly series of profiles on locally owned and operated businesses in Southern Oregon.

What do you do and how long have you been doing it? (Mike speaking) We build custom aluminum boats from 18 to 40 feet. We've been doing this since Oct. 14, 1974. Boulton Powerboats incorporated in 1997. I started at Alumaweld Boats working for my dad. I was bought out, and my father retired in 1987. Then I started Jetcraft of Oregon in 1987, and for 10 years I was a partner with Bruce Wassom in a custom boat company. I was bought out in 1997 and started Boulton Powerboats.

How long have you lived in the Rogue Valley? We moved here from Fort Worth, Texas, in 1970. Patricia is from Central Point, and we got married in 1980.

What inspired you to go into this line of work? It kind of came in the blood. At the beginning of high school, I was interested in welding. One of my first goals was to become a certified welder. Being involved in the boat company, I worked with a retired marine engineer, Morris Torgerson. He was a boilermaker for 50 years, working as a shipyard draftsman. He taught me the art of lofting, which is laying out a blueprint full-scale. Before computers, that's how they did it, drew a blueprint, an inch-to-foot scale. So I have blueprints of our boats here on premium plywood. It's the art of building boats without guessing, it's like putting together a big model.

What decision or action would you change if you could do it again? When I was with Alumaweld and Jetcraft, I learned to stay small to endure. I kept my business small. The nature of building custom homes or anything like that is that you need to stay small because it's tough to get big fast and maintain the quality. I learned that when I left Alumaweld in 1987. We had a 110 employees, and that's a lot of people to take care of. When I started Jetcraft, we had only 30 people max, and started with a core of 10 people, and those people are still with me. I learned from how big of a challenge it was to keep quality up when taking care of 110 people. I learned that I have to keep my crew small. By staying small it helped us survive 9/11 and Y2K. Our little business has survived every disaster we've had. When the planes flew into the twin towers, we sold three boats that day.

What's the toughest business decision you've made? It was in August 2008, the first time in my career that I had to lay anyone off. The economy slipped when the housing market crashed, and at the same time people stopped buying toys. A boat is pretty much a nonessential item unless global warming continues. If the California coastline comes over the Siskiyous, I'm ready.

Who are your competitors? In a 2-mile radius of our place — what I call boat row — Fish Rite Boats, Willie Boats, Rogue Jet, Alumaweld, Riverhawk Boats. In Southern Oregon there are more manufacturers in a 2-mile radius than any other place in the United States. There are four in Lewiston, Idaho, but there are more here and there is a lot of competition. Family retirement, partnership splits and employee takeoffs are part of why the valley has so many manufacturers — one company divided into six.

What are your goals? Because of the challenges of the industry, we want to be sustainable, stay small and kick the ball forward through those challenges. As with all small businesses, there are a lot of things changing in the industry. We made and sold our first electric boat. It was a 21-foot boat, a little bigger than what we expected. It was one of our Kenai-model boats, made to run with a small engine. We set it up for Diamond Lake, which has a 10 mph limit. The boat is in Eastern Oregon now. It could run 28 hours on one charge. Electric boats haven't taken off like the cars and motorcycles yet. Most of our boats are pre-sold, so we'll wait for custom orders. Right now, we're considering what our 2013 showboats need to be. We're a little concerned we may be a little ahead of the curve and it may be too new for the public, so we'll stick to small outboard boats for now.

What training or education did you need? The training of how to do it without guessing was the training I was fortunate to get from Torgerson, who worked in Portland his whole life, right off the Columbia River. He would come down here for a month at a time when he was in his 70s, and I learned from him.

What's your advice for budding entrepreneurs? Be careful to be well capitalized. There are more things that you don't expect to come up that are part of the overhead. There's insurance for everything. Be prepared for more unexpected costs than you expect. Business operations, taxes on equipment and a lot of little fees are the types of things that come up.

To suggest ideas for this column, about businesses that are at least five years old, contact reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com.

Mike Boulton is the owner of Boulton Powerboats in Central Point. Boulton, and his wife, Patricia have been building custom boats since 1974. - Julia Moore