Fans of Contender Boats Inc. know the Homestead-based company for tournament fishing boats that speed to fishing grounds far offshore. They’re likely to do a double take when they see Contender’s new 25-foot boat skimming the shallow inshore waters of the bay.
The boat is fast and built to fish — but unlike the boat builder’s signature offshore vessels, it’s designed for cruising near shore.
Contender Boats is on a new heading with its Bay model — unveiled in February, competing for the first time in the inshore market.
“They’re selling like hotcakes,” says marketing director Les Stewart. “It’ll change our company.”
The Homestead-based boat builder isn’t forsaking the high-end, high-performance offshore tournament fishing boats upon which its reputation is based. The Bay boat, however, represents the quest for innovative product in various lines to drive growth for Contender Boats as well as the foray into inshore markets.
In addition to the inshore market, Contender Boats, which has seen growth boosted by implementation in recent years of technology, including new stepped-hull designs, is positioning itself to grow in the pleasure boating market.
“We are headed in multiple directions, which has helped us to grow while many are still downsizing,” Stewart says, adding that Contender continues to introduce new products each year. “We plan to expand our product line to become more in line with everyone in the market, not just fishermen.”
The fisherman has been at the heart of Contender Boats since its founding in the mid-1980s. Owner and President Joe Neber was a commercial fisherman, a South Beach native who ran offshore for his catch. Neber decided he could build a boat that better suited his purposes. Once he did, and his boat was noticed by others, he found himself building boats from the back of his house, Stewart said.
“Contender was bred through tournament fishing and slowly built from there,” Stewart said. The boats were crafted with a center console to allow angling all around and designed for long jaunts — and they started winning tournaments. Hence the company’s name.
Today, Contender has 143 employees who handcraft semi-custom boats from its Homestead facility. The company is on track to build about 240 boats this year with projected revenue estimated at $20 million.
Contender crafts more than 20 models here, which range from the small 25-foot Tournament to the mid-size 28-foot Sport and the large 32-foot stepped-hull model, all the most popular offshore Contender boats in their size class. The respective base prices for those models are $85,486, $107,364 and $184,997. The 25-foot Bay, the current best seller for Contender, has a starting price of $73,963.
Those models will be among the nine boats Contender plans to bring to this year’s Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which runs from Thursday to Oct. 29.
Stewart says what sets Contender boats apart from competitors is primarily “the build quality.”
“They’re not manufactured, per se. They’re crafted. They’re handmade — like someone creating a piece of art,” he said.
Each boat is engineered individually: While the hull remains the same, almost everything else can be customized. “Everything is done in-house,” Stewart said. “If there’s a problem, we built it — we know how to fix it.”
The company is profitable and growing, according to Stewart. But it has still not reclaimed the business of its heyday — when Contender was building 600 boats annually before the nation encountered tumultuous economic seas.
In 2006 and 2007, Contender was building about 12 boats a week before the economy tanked. With constraints on disposable income, potential buyers had to make choices: Given the decision of purchasing a boat or paying the mortgage, the mortgage won.
“In the past two years, we picked up significantly,” Stewart said, noting that Contender is making four to five boats a week, has an order backlog and anticipates increasing sales. “Now, you’re seeing more consumer confidence and people are saying, ‘I don’t know how to live without being on the water.’ ”
The Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show will give Contender Boats a better idea of what future sales will look like. “A lot of people fly in for the show and make it their family vacation,” Stewart said. The event usually generates a good amount of sales and “you get a feel for what’s going to happen later in the year.”
This season, the 25-foot Bay model is leading Contender’s growth. The boat has the same structural concepts as the offshore lines with the company’s rigid, twin stepped-hull design that increases fuel efficiency and overall performance, Stewart said.
The draft, however, is only 12 inches — compared with two feet for the larger offshore craft — allowing it to run in shallow water. An optional trolling motor lets the Bay boat navigate without the use of its outboards “to sneak up on the fish and be very quiet in the water,” Stewart said.
Its design incorporates features that appeal to the pleasure market as well, with added seats that allow for more companions, Stewart said.
“We will get a little more involved in this market,” he said, noting the company is contemplating more models for the line.
The move gets a nod from industry observer Frank Atlass, chairman and CEO of marine insurer Atlass Insurance Group of Fort Lauderdale.
“It broadens their base and gives them much more opportunity for sales,” Atlass said. “They’re doing a lot better than most of the boat builders.”
Contender also has a Luxury Sport line aimed at pure pleasure boating, a growth market for the company. “This is something you’re going to the sand bar and entertaining people with,” Stewart said.
The pleasure market offers one of the company’s biggest challenges, too. Since Contender recently entered the market, customers don’t yet associate the company with building pleasure boats, Stewart said. “We educate them, and they buy. But it’s a hurdle — to inform people we’re not just a fishing boat.”
Contender has also recently embarked on a joint venture called Contender Mystic Power Boats, working on 60- to 70-foot vessels for “those who want the luxury yacht and extreme high performance all in one,” Stewart said.
The boats are the first craft of this size capable of exceeding 100 mph, he said. “It’s an incredible ride.”
Contender is still focused on its bread-and-butter business, the tournament fishing market.
Alex Gonzalez, a retired pro baseball player whose teams included the Toronto Blue Jays, bought a 35-foot Tournament four months ago, sold on its fishing capabilities and seaworthiness.
“Once I rode in one, it sold me,” said Gonzalez, who lives in Miami. His Contender is comfortable in calm as well as rough seas — “it lands softly.”
Gonzalez, who fishes in tournaments, took his Contender — named Game Face — to the Bahamas not long after buying it for what’s now his best fishing memory. His 13-year-old son, Tyler, landed a 50-pound yellowfin on his own, while Gonzalez pulled in a 70-pounder. “We had the whole marina coming out of Bimini to see the fish we had.”
A plus for his Contender — it had the capacity to store the big fish, Gonzalez said. Other features he praises are the center console, the space, and the added seating — with back rests. The boat is diver friendly, important for both his son and 11-year-old daughter Analise, who dive. It’s easy to get in and out of the water, he said. Gonzalez’s wife, Samantha, isn’t a hard-core fisherman or diver. But “she loves the boat,” he said.
What would he tell someone considering buying a Contender? “They can definitely trust the product they’re getting.”
The most incredible feat for Contender thus far, says Stewart “is to be building boats as long as we have and to build the reputation in the industry we have — to have the base of people that appreciate what we do. We have a strong reputation, following and fans.”
Stewart’s favorite Contender Boat story tells how the boats’ performance continues to build fan loyalty: A customer who boats off the New York coast — where offshore fishing grounds are 90 miles out — recalls taking a run on a foul-weather day.
As the boater headed farther out, he encountered many others making their way back. Finally, at his fishing destination, he found only Contender boats. He announced over his radio, “It must be Contender weather, boys.”