Editor’s Note: The following article first appeared in Professional BoatBuilder issue No. 139. It is one of a series we’ve published since the Great Recession of 2008, profiling boat builders who have managed to stay in business despite challenging economic circumstances.
One of the subtle things you notice when you tour a shop like Bruckmann Yachts, in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, where the company’s work force since the great recession of 2008 has slipped to about half of its 35 employees, is this: those remaining are the most experienced, the most skilled. As the work evaporates and the grim job of handing out pink slips begins, management—in this case 50-year-old Mark Bruckmann—first sheds itself of the newest hires, the youngest, the least experienced, the least dedicated.
During a recent visit to Bruckmann Yachts, most of the employees I saw on the shop floor were beyond middle age, working at various tasks confidently and independently. Two men prepped the halves of a long motoryacht skeg, gooped the ends with polyester putty, and then joined the two. In a mezzanine wood shop, a cabinetmaker glued together a cockpit box for a new-build; he told me he’d retired several times, but Bruckmann keeps cajoling him to come back to take care of one special project or another.
The projects in the shop on that day were diverse. The new construction was an Abaco 40 (12.2m) Downeast-style express cruiser, designed by longtime associate Mark Ellis. The rest was a smattering of projects: a refit of a Bruckmann Legacy 42 (12.8m), whose owner died before the work could be concluded; for a self-taught designer, an odd-looking Coosa-panel catamaran that won’t seem to finish or go away; a big houseboat; and an Olson 30 (9.2m) sailboat called Pink Panther that was in for a paint job—pink, of course, with a large logo of the cagey, jazz-loving feline on the topsides port and starboard.
Like two builders out West, Dennis Choate (“Survivor,” Professional BoatBuilder No. 126) and Jim Betts (“Survivor II,” PBB No. 129), both of whom had enjoyed halcyon days building big custom raceboats, even America’s Cup yachts, and now are willing to take just about any job they can get, Bruckmann too says the last few years have been tough. When I say that it’s remarkable he’s still in business after decades, he says, “I wonder why sometimes. You get trapped in a lot of ways. I’m not 25 years old. I just can’t switch professions.”
For Bruckmann, like Choate and Betts (with whom Bruckmann collaborated on a custom sailboat some years back), there really isn’t anything different he wants to do.
But it wasn’t always this way.
An Illustrious Forebear
Mark Bruckmann builds boats for a living because that’s what his father, Erich Bruckmann, did. A native of Germany, the elder Bruckmann emigrated to Canada in 1950, when he was 21. He was a cabinetmaker by trade, which he continued doing for a time before getting a job building wood boats at Metro Marine, in Oakville, Ontario. He was the lead on a well-known 40‘ sailing yacht named Thermopylae, for yachtsman Gordon Fisher. Soon after, he founded Bruckmann Mfg. and won the contract to build the legendary Cuthbertson & Cassian design, Red Jacket, which was purportedly the first large (39‘9“/12.1m) balsa-cored boat.
It had several other unusual features, such as diagonal strapping inside the hull (see “Red Jacket Revisited,” PBB No. 115). A not uncommon practice even today, she was built at a temporary site, a lumberyard in Burlington as it happened, with a temporary crew. Designer Mark Ellis (see PBB No. 138, page 32), a key associate of Erich and Mark Bruckmann, says, “From my standpoint, seeing Red Jacket for the first time, I realized this was a fantastic piece of work. Stripped out between the bins. Ring frames. It made a lot of sense. I was working for Hunt, and they were structurally oriented. I learned a lot from them. But when I saw Red Jacket I said, ‘This is unbelievable!’ She was designed to beat the Cal 40s, and did.”
Bruckmann Mfg. was one of four partners in the formation of C&C Yachts in 1969. While Belleville Marine and Hinterhoeller Yachts handled series production of C&C designs, Bruckmann was the custom shop, and that is where young Mark Bruckmann, just 12 or 13, was introduced to boatbuilding. His first duties were assisting Martin Klacko in the metal shop, making masts.
Bruckmann earned a degree in business from University of Western Ontario, but still couldn’t help himself. “I should have learned better than to have gone into the boat business,” he says. “I didn’t get into this because I was a sailor, which a lot of people do. They like sailing and think building [sailboats] ought to be fun, too. I always was good with my hands and liked creating things, so decided I wanted to carry on with it. After university I went to Europe for a year and worked for a couple of yards there. Royal Huisman [Vollenhove, The Netherlands] was one, Dubbel & Jesse [Norderney, Germany], and Baltic Yachts [Bosund, Finland] I visited for a bit, but not long. That gave me an appreciation for what they were doing. Huisman was a premier builder.” That was 1984–85.
Shortly after he returned to Ontario, his father retired and a year later helped 24-year-old Mark start a new version of Bruckmann Mfg. in the old Metro Marine facility.
“It was sort of fitting to start there again,” Bruckmann says. “We built a couple of custom boats there but sort of under the cover of darkness, laminating and spraying. It was nice to be on the water because you get the service work, but from a building standpoint it wasn’t practical. As we got busier with Bluestar and powerboats and other projects, we just couldn’t handle it.”
So he moved the business to an inland location in nearby Mississauga. Working almost exclusively with Mark Ellis, he built powerboats, sailboats, and the Bruckmann 50 (15.5m) motorsailer.
“The relationship with Mark started way back in Oakville, and it’s been a partnership the whole way,” Bruckmann says. “Most of our builds are Mark Ellis designs. We aren’t in business together but as close as you can get. We had a good run with power because that was all coming up at the time. All the sailboat manufacturers were switching to power or adding power. We sort of capitalized on that.”
The following years Bruckmann calls his “boom years, until 2008 when everything crumbled. Since that time, we’ve been downsizing and downsizing, trying to survive.”
The Express Cruiser
But those pre-recession years were pretty good, excepting a temporary lull following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
In 1994, Mark Ellis designed what was to become the Legacy 40. At that time there weren’t a lot of Downeast-style express cruisers. No East Bay. No Sabreliners. It was a custom design that appealed to Paul Petronello at Freedom Yachts (Middletown, Rhode Island), who was jumping on the trend of those years—sailboat builders found they could sell to their customers a powerboat with the same style and construction quality. As with Bruckmann and Ellis’s original client, Freedom owners weren’t interested in 8-knot trawlers; they wanted more speed to cover more ground on weekends and short cruises.
Bruckmann: “The hull design at that time with the flat wide chine was a new thing. The boat could plane at 11 knots with a single engine. A 40-footer! I remember when we were building it and specing the prop, the prop shop said, ‘This is never going to work. The boat weighs 22,000 lbs [9,966 kg], and it is not going to plane with 420 hp [315 kW].’”
But it did.
So the tooling for the custom boat was sold to Freedom Yachts and a licensing arrangement made with Ellis. Hull #1 of the Legacy 40 was launched in 1995. The following year, Bruckmann tooled the Ellis-designed Legacy 34 (10.4m) for Freedom Yachts.
Bruckmann saw no reason why he shouldn’t capitalize on the Downeast-styled express cruiser craze, so in 2000 he and Ellis introduced the Bluestar 29 (8.8m; now the Bluestar 29.9). The instigator was Grove Ely at Boatworks Yacht Sales, the Grand Banks dealer in Essex, Connecticut, whose smallest boat at the time, Bruckmann says, was a 36 (11m), and they wanted a smaller entry-level boat with an East Coast look from which they could guide customers into larger models. Two years later they added the Bluestar 36 to the model line. Over a period of six or seven years, Boatworks sold 35 Bluestar 29s and 20 of the 36s. To meet demand, Bruckmann had a crew of 35.
Because Boatworks had invested in the tooling, it had exclusive rights to Bluestar, and for Bruckmann, that created a problem. “Towards the mid-2000s, just before the crash, it started to slow down. I guess they saturated their market area, and their client base.”
Bruckmann says that because Boatworks had it sewn up, he wasn’t really able to sell the boats anywhere else, like Maine and Florida. “So Bluestar didn’t get the range it should have gotten when times were good. It was an opportunity missed. I sold Freedom the tooling but retained the rights to build for Canada,” he says, laughing, because the market for this boat was anywhere but in his own country.
In between orders for Bluestars, Bruckmann built custom boats—sail and power. As a small builder, Bruckmann keeps his marketing focus fairly narrow: “All along, we’ve been building boats that were conceived for a certain purpose. They generally try to fill a niche that wasn’t being served, or something slightly different.” This certainly was the case with the Bruckmann 50, in which they tried to overcome the bad rap on motorsailers, namely that they neither sail nor power very well. Bruckmann says they were so troubled by the stigma that they didn’t even want to use the name motorsailer, preferring pilothouse instead. Beyond credible performance in both modes, Bruckmann says they were “driven by the need for a better-looking motorsailer.”
It came about due to the success of the Ellis-designed Northeast 400 (LOD: 37‘6“/11.3m), built by Cabo Rico. Ellis got a commission for a larger version. “We had a Canadian customer that had a Northeast 400,” Bruckmann relates. “He wanted a bigger one. He financed the tooling. We tooled the boat, and Jim Eastland [founder of Eastland Yachts, Essex, Connecticut] sold the first boat to a couple in the States. Then when it came time to build for the original tooling partner, he didn’t want it. He wanted a powerboat, so we built him a powerboat, which is in the shop here. He passed away four weeks ago.
“We were pretty successful with this boat, given the size of it—a 50-footer. We sold 10 boats in nine years. There aren’t many other builders in North America who’ve built that many of that size. It’s frustrating getting people to understand that boat. Motorsailer. A lot don’t even want to go there. The few who see past the stigma, they’re all very happy and the boat sails well, but it’s a tough sell.”
Then there is the 42‘ (12.8m) Bruckmann Daysailer, a gentleman’s day yacht in the same vein as the Hinckley DS42 and the Morris M36—long, lean, low freeboard, low-profile house, big cockpit, and some accommodations if the owner decides to take a snooze.
Like many of the Ellis/Bruckmann projects, the Daysailer was developed for a single client, with the expectation that the tooling would be well amoritized over subsequent hulls. Only this time the designer wasn’t Mark Ellis, but Doug Zurn (see “The Zurn File,” PBB No. 100).
“Morris Yachts pretty much took the market for the elegant daysailer,” says Bruckmann. “We had no success with that boat. I don’t know if it was too cheap or too expensive. Maybe it didn’t have the cachet. Morris had the 36; they had a good run with it. Then we came out with the 42 before they came out with their 42. My owner, who invested in the tooling, thought the 36 was too small. He didn’t want a Fontaine boat or a Hinckley—expensive, and you can’t stand up in it. He knew Doug Zurn, and so we designed the Bruckmann Daysailer, which he loved. But we couldn’t get off the ground with it. Everybody liked it, but nobody bought it. Zurn has cachet. It was nicely built. And it was attractively priced at slightly more than the Morris 36, but $300,000 below the Hinckley DS42.
“Some of these owners may buy the boats just to say they have a Hinckley or Morris. They’re not necessarily going to say that about a Bruckmann.”
On a nice spring day last April I toured the shop and yard with Mark Bruckmann and Mark Ellis. The 25,000-sq-ft (2,325m2) building was formerly a steel warehouse. Just as with Dennis Choate and Jim Betts, Bruckmann had taken on a variety of work. While he has done some non-marine work, he doesn’t look for it. “I let them come to me,” he says.
All the projects in the shop that day were very much marine:
- The custom-built Bruckmann Legacy 42 Aretusa had suffered some lightning damage, mainly to its electronics. While in the shop, the hull was repainted and the brightwork revarnished.
- Beside her was a 63‘ (19.2m) houseboat being refit as a luxury floating home for a couple planning to live and work aboard in downtown Toronto.
- When Hinterhoeller Yachts closed in 1997, Mark Ellis obtained the molds for the Niagara 35 and 42, which he’d designed. Bruckmann has built two of the 42s, including one that was shipped to his shop from Massachusetts for a complete refit inside and out.
- A custom folding catamaran was designed by Bruckmann’s client who pays as he goes…and it is taking quite a while. It’s built with Coosa panels (Coosa Composites, Pelham, Alabama) and will sport twin rigs.
- The aforementioned Olson 30 Pink Panther, shipped from the West Coast to the lakes for local club racing, was in for a paint job.
- A Bruckmann 34e (formerly Legacy 34) was bought by a local couple and shipped from Annapolis for a “cleanup.” Bruckmann says during the boom years he didn’t want much maintenance or refit work. “Just a bother. Didn’t have time. But as things slowed down we’ve taken on more refit work, tooling work for other people, and in between, still building boats.”
- And a new-build, the Abaco 40 is another Mark Ellis design.
“The [Abaco 40] client is a Canadian we’d built a custom sailboat for,” says Bruckmann. “Now he wants a motoryacht, a boat that is mainly a day/weekend boat, not unlike an MJM. But he wanted it enclosed, more of a sedan, but mostly living space up here and not a whole lot down below. He wanted a single-engine boat. Very similar in purpose to the original Legacy design, though it is a brand-new hullform. We want to be fresh and new, and it is different, but along the same lines. Protected prop for shoal-water cruising like the Bahamas. He’s quite involved in the decision-making process as far as looking at efficiencies of single engine versus dual engines or pods.
“So when we go to market with this, part of the mindset is to say, ‘You can do the same thing with a single as with twins, with better fuel efficiency, less weight.’”
Bruckmann tooled it in-house. In the past, he’s gone outside—to Janicki (Sedro Wooley, Washington) to cut the plugs for the 54‘ motoryacht, and to DLBA Robotics (Suffolk, Virginia), for the Zurn-designed daysailer. As another consequence of the slowdown, for this project he had the time. “We might not be as quick,” he says, “but probably slightly cheaper. We have the skill to do it, and it keeps the guys busy.”
During my visit, the hull was on the floor with the interior going in—plywood tabbed to the hand-laid vinylester/polyester and E-glass/Corecell hull. And work was about to begin on laying up the deck. The plan was to exhibit it at the 2012 Newport International Boat Show in the fall.
It’s a handsome boat, with Ellis’s trademark wide chine flats that will enable the boat to get on plane at relatively slow speeds. And its Downeast styling should make it popular, at least on the East Coast. But as Bruckmann found out with the Bluestar line, there’s no guarantee.
“Our location is a challenge for us,” he says. “We’re not in Maine or on the East Coast with our competition, our competition being Morris, Hinckley, and Lyman-Morse to some extent—that style and quality of boats. They’re swirling around their customer base, whereas we’re up here in Canada. The only time they see us is in magazines or at boat shows. It’s hard to keep up a presence. We have dealers that try, but it’s not the same.
“In this business, unless you have backers or deep pockets to create enough of a presence to carry you through, to increase sales, it’s very difficult. Dribs and drabs of advertising don’t seem to cut it.”
Mark Ellis agrees. “It is a challenge. If you make money from new boats, it’s a challenge. It’s hard enough for brokers. When people come to you for a new boat, they know the situation you’re in, that you badly need their order. They beat you up. That’s a fact. They know the dealer gets 15% and the builder has a margin, so they beat it out of you. There are alternatives in excellent used boats.
“There are just enough people who want something different, something new, just enough to keep guys like me alive. The problem is you’re not making the margin.”
And yet builder Mark Bruckmann and designer Mark Ellis, whose careers are inextricably linked, are very much still in business. Not doing the same as in their heydays with series production that amortized tooling and paid royalties, but with a variety of jobs that are predominantly marine and mostly interesting.
Yes, theirs are survivor stories, but for those very reasons, they are success stories, too.
About the Author: Dan Spurr is Professional BoatBuilder’s editor-at-large.
For further reading:
Survivor I: Dennis Choate in Professional BoatBuilder issue No. 139
Survivor II: James Betts in Professional BoatBuilder issue No. 129
Survivor IV: Precision Boat Works in Professional BoatBuilder issue No. 164 (not available online)