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.