Never one to shy away from a frank discussion, boat-building icon Bill Barry-Cotter reflects on a career of soaring highs and plunging lows. By Mark Rothfield
Here sits Bill Barry-Cotter, Maritimo supremo, design demigod, nautical knight … a man who rivals Noah as a boatbuilding visionary if you’re to believe the superlatives.
He’s sipping on a flat white in a Coomera café, smack bang in Queensland’s marine heartland. It’s positively posh compared to those snack vans which prowl industrial hubs, but the Ritz it ain’t.
There’s a sheen emanating from a clean-shaven scalp, but alas no crown, nor halo. Casual shorts and a bright open-necked shirt have obviously replaced the cape today. He converses with a laconic, larrikin ease, not a hint of plum.
The normality is unsettling, quite at odds with expectations of meeting a “legend” with zillions in the bank and a reputation that precedes him like a popstar’s bodyguards.
I wonder, where the blazes is the boardroom? Where’s the blazer, for that matter?
Can this really be boating royalty?
It’s the opposite, I suspect. He’s an ordinary, sentimental bloke with an extraordinary developmental talent. Not so much a purist in the Herreshoff sense, but a guy like Ben Lexcen, with a God-given eye for innovation and a gut that’s keenly attuned to his boating customers’ needs.
Barry-Cotter apparently doesn’t have an office, let alone a boardroom, because he skips between R&D and the construction coalface. The empire is run inside his head, with finer details managed by trusted employees.
At 67, the man doesn’t need to work. But building boats defines him, completes him. It’s stamped on his passport under “occupation” and, of course, he’s utterly famous for it.
Oddly though, for someone who’s launched more ships than Helen of Troy (4500 at rough count) over four score and more years, we know the glossy superhero image, but little about the real person behind the mask.
If there’s truly one extraordinary thing about Bill Barry-Cotter, it’s the tale of how a farm boy from rural NSW became a marine icon revered here, there, almost everywhere.
The following story isn’t about the Bill Barry-Cotter you know, it’s about the one you possibly don’t know …
THE EARLY YEARS
He wasn’t always called Bill. He wasn’t always called Barry-Cotter either.
Ronald William Barry-Cotter was born on June 29, 1944, in Adelong, near Tumut in the NSW Snowy Mountains region. The closest waterway was Blowering Dam, where Ken Warby later set his world powerboat speed record, but the coast was a solid half-day’s drive away.
He was dubbed Bill Barry as a baby and retained that hyphen-free moniker until a magazine journalist did an article on him in the ’70s … “I mentioned the Cotter bit and I’ve been stuck with it ever since.”
Bill’s father, Frank, had been granted a soldier’s settlers block at Adelong, where he was able to apply the contour-draining skills he’d gleaned through the war.
The farmer’s lot sat ill with young Bill: “I didn’t get on with my father that well … He was a tough old guy, very clever at engineering. But I wanted to be a carpenter rather than follow him into farming.”
Frank’s drainage prowess led to the Department of Agriculture offering him an advisory job. The farm was sold and the family packed its bags for Sydney. Frank later broke his back in a Land Rover accident, moved to the Lands Department and ended his career as a waterfront land valuer.
Bill’s mother, Sue, was a school teacher who worked her whole life. She died around ten years ago.
While there was barely a trickle of saltwater in his parents’ veins, Bill’s uncle, Keith Barry, was a renowned powerboat racing man. In 1950, Keith drove his 91ci (1.5lt) hydroplane Firefly II to an impressive 72.3mph, thus setting Australia’s first world water speed record.
“It was the early ‘70s before the record was broken again,” Bill adds as a footnote. “That’s where my interest in boats came from.”
As a newly arrived Sydney resident, it didn’t take long for Bill to gravitate to the Bayview Yacht Racing Association (BYRA) club on Pittwater and jump headlong into the Moth and VJ classes.
“I built a new VJ that was the quickest thing around then, but then some kid’s dad would go and buy a new sail and I was down the back of the fleet again,” Bill recalls. “I decided to get out of sailing and return when I had the money to compete.”
BILL THE BUILDER
Bill the budding carpenter was about to become Bill the boatbuilder.
The year was 1960. John F Kennedy announced his presidential bid as the US prepared to send 3500 troops to Vietnam; France tested its first atomic bomb; the Reserve Bank was formed in Australia; Ben Hur won the Oscar … and Bill Barry began an apprenticeship at Sydney Technical College.
His first job was with Neville Steber, brother of Stebercraft’s Bruce Steber, in a company called Clinker Craft.
“Neville was a brilliant boatbuilder, but not so good as a businessman. He woke up one morning and decided it was all too hard,” says Bill. “I moved over to Cedric Williams.
“Cedric Snr later did me a real favour. When he stopped boatbuilding I basically took over the operation. He gave us a lot of machinery.”
Mariner Cruisers was born from this point, with Bill a tender 22. Among his rivals were the old stagers Halvorsen, Griffin, Quilkey, Bracken and Swanson. They were halcyon days, the sunset of the timber era and the dawn of fibreglass.
“With a few fibreglass boats starting to appear, I’d run an ad saying ‘in timber or fibreglass’ then when a customer turned up I’d talk him into choosing timber,” Bill says. “I sold a boat to a Tasmanian guy and he wouldn’t budge – it had to be glass.
“Around that time I’d had a screaming match with our timber merchant … the guy said ‘send the wood back and I’ll sell it to someone else’. I called ACI Fibreglass in Melbourne and started talking to them – their reps spent months coming into the factory, showing us what to do.
“Their service convinced me to stay with fibreglass … we only built half a dozen wooden boats after that.”
The classic Mariner 25 was an all-wooden boat initially. The Mariner 30 was Bill’s first full fibreglass offering, and it was followed by a 34. He then bought the moulds for the 7.6m Pacer, changed the deck, and went on to build 400 in nine years – averaging one a week. Elder brother Kerry, an auto electrician, joined Bill at Mariner as a painter/fibreglasser. In Bill’s words, Kerry is now a brilliant self-taught chemist, better than any resin company employee. Though semi-retired and suffering ill health, Kerry is still called in when needed.
Bill’s only sister, Lynn, died a year ago of a stroke, aged 64.
FULL SAIL AHEAD
Ironically, Australia’s pre-eminent sportscruiser creator was perilously close to being a dyed-in-the-wool yachtie, for younger brother Kendal chose sailmaking as his vocation.
Bill built a new Swanson 42 yacht that the brothers raced in the 1975 Sydney Hobart. They retired after a crewman was struck by the spinnaker pole and rendered unconscious for 15 hours.
Space was then cleared in the Mariner plant at Mona Vale to start building Carter sailing boats.
“Dick Carter was very successful with his One Tonners and I also built a Three-Quarter Tonner and a Half Tonner. Kendal owned the sails, I owned the boat, he was the skipper I was the cook,” Bill chuckles.
“We won Division C of the Sydney Hobart and also won a Three-Quarter Ton Australian championship.”
Ultimately, it was yachting politics that brought Bill unstuck. He planned to build a sleek 6-Metre yacht to a Peter Cole design, but a battle between leading engineering classification bodies Norske Veritas and Lloyds meant it was all too complicated.
The Australian Yachting Federation stepped in and Bill stormed out: “I’ve never been on a sailboat since.” As it was, he had an order to build an offshore powerboat for high-profile Gold Coast hairdresser, Stefan and never looked back.
BACK WITH A VENGEANCE
Animosity is something that has punctuated Barry-Cotter’s career. In 1978, with expansion plans in mind, he agreed to sell Mariner to a multinational firm.
By then, Mariner was the largest boat manufacturer in Australia. Bill pocketed around $3 million, yet within a few weeks he’d left. His parting words, aside from some choice expletives, were: “Just remember, one day I’ll get this business back for 10 bucks.”
Riviera Marine was his eloquent response, and a decade to the day later Bill was haggling with Mariner’s liquidator. When the negotiations got down to the goodwill, he offered 10 bucks.
“The liquidator said it had to be worth a million,” Bill recalls. “Finally he said, ‘I’ve heard the story and you’re never going to get it for 10 dollars – what about 12?’, and I said ‘it’s a deal’”.
In the Mariner days, there was no emotion surrounding the product – Barry-Cotter was intent on building the quintessential production boat rather than a better mousetrap.
For R&D he would simply look at the market, detect a gap, grab several knowledgeable customers and use them as a sounding board for where the boat should fit and at what price.
“We’d then go and build that as a genuine production boat, with no changes. I bought a lot of hardware direct from America and ordered complete timberwork out of Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Thailand. All flat-pack interiors, teak decks and so on, made in job lots.
“All we were doing at Mariner was fibreglassing and assembly. We weren’t boatbuilders as such.”
After reacquiring the Mariner marque, Barry-Cotter installed long-time employee, Craig Jones as production manager and Kendal as general manager. They quickly turned around losses and restored a profit.
But if revenge is a dish best served cold, it didn’t take long for the “Recession we had to have” to leave a bitter aftertaste.
Barry-Cotter cautiously decided to move Mariner from Sydney to Riviera’s south-east Queensland site. Ultimately, the Mariner brand was gobbled up.
Maritimo was founded on a similar premise in 2002 after two private equity firms bought Barry-Cotter out of his stake in Riviera for a reported $180 million. For someone who confesses to hate working for others, any chance of a loving relationship was again doomed.
The expansion continued last May when the Mustang brand joined the Barry-Cotter stable.
To say Maritimo has been a thorn in Riviera’s side is an understatement, particularly during the heady pre-GFC days.
“We released the Maritimo 52 Sky Lounge just before the 2007 Sanctuary Cove Boat Show and sold 15 of them at the show,” Bill says, sipping his coffee. “Every boat had a salesman aboard signing up a customer. We sold around 30 boats in all.
“But then we went to the Sydney Boat Show in August 2007 with the new 550 fishing model and Peter Jenkins, our marketing guy, sensed that things weren’t right. I could smell it, too.”
RICHES TO RAGS
In 45 years, Barry-Cotter has ridden every financial swing and roundabout.
There was Gough Whitlam tinkering with the dollar and tariffs. There were oil crises in the ’70s and ‘80s. There was the joy of Keating getting the Australian dollar down to the point it was cheaper to manufacturer vessels here than anywhere in the world.
“At one stage, the dollar was 50c to the US and labour was about $15 an hour – equating to $US7.50. Today we’re paying close to $A40 per hour, while in Miami it’s $12 an hour,” Bill says.
“The past six months have been worse than any time during the GFC. It’s the worst in 45 years, and other boatbuilders are saying the same. To be honest, I’m wondering where we go …”
Somehow, Barry-Cotter has always found a way to endure.
During Whitlam’s reign, as exports collapsed, he attained the first agency for Yamaha boats outside Japan. In the ’80s fuel crisis, when displacement cruisers were in vogue, Riviera built the Grand Banks 36 Europa and the 42.
At other times he rode on the back of suppliers, slashing their wrists.
“In the ‘70s, Halvorsen had Chrysler and Barry Spooner (Caribbean) was Mercury, so you’d have to buy motors off your opposition – instead, we used to get GM engines out of Canada and convert them ourselves.
“As soon as the fuel crisis hit, I started getting visits from Chrysler and Mercury – they were asking $2000 for a V8 petrol engine with a gearbox. Eventually, Chrysler got down to $700!
“I bought an untold number of engines on the understanding that they would warehouse them. Then, in 1976, I got a solicitor’s letter forcing me to take delivery of all the engines.
“I didn’t buy another petrol engine until after I sold out. By then, Volvo had turned up with a diesel and that was it.”
One positive was the relationship forged with Peter “PJ” Jenkins, Chrysler’s marketing manager, which blossomed into arguably the most dynamic sales partnership in Australian boating history.
For the past three challenging years, Maritimo has evolved into a semi-custom operation in order to survive. They’re no longer true production boats in Barry-Cotter’s eyes.
“It’s only as the market winds back that you realise the cost of customisation,” he says. “More hands, more time, more mistakes – if you can do it as a production deal, nothing goes wrong.
“In all honesty, I think what the market wants is something they were getting in the early Mariner/Riviera days – something that looks good, is very simple and won’t give them hassles warranty-wise.
“I noticed that when we did the little Mustang 32. To my mind that boat is today’s Pacer – it does 38 knots with a little engine. You could get to Sydney on one tank of fuel and it has an entry price of $215,000.”
When the Global Financial Crisis hit, Barry-Cotter realised something. It was “Whitlam revisited”, rank with incompetence, underlying inflation and rising costs of living. The currency had inflated and grey imports were flooding in.
“All that effort in building our manufacturing base has been destroyed by the clowns in Canberra – it’s back to where Whitlam left off,” he laments. “The best thing the Government could do for us right now is leave. They couldn’t help if they tried.
“At the moment, we’re screwed. The export market was once 60 per cent of Maritimo’s business, whereas today it’s 10 boats a year and we’re selling those at a deal.”
Barry-Cotter’s nose-to-nose stoushes with the Hon Paul Keating are well known. The former Prime Minister, a Halvorsen owner, once branded Barry-Cotter the “Tupperware Boatbuilder” in Parliament. Despite that, he credits Keating with putting the boating industry on the map.
“The Press crucified Keating for calling us the Banana Republic, but I later met a TV cameraman who’d filmed him that day – he said that the supposed throwaway line walking onto an aircraft took two hours to record and get right.”
Today’s major concerns revolve around factory operating costs. Maritimo’s electricity bill is apparently $260,000 a year at a time when the company employs 50 staff; $20,000 more than when it had 480 staff and was operating at full steam.
Much of that money is dispersed into thin air, driving compressors which run the chopper guns …
Where to now? Some difficult decisions are being made at Planet Maritimo, not least of which is where to build their new models.
Like everyone else, Bill has sounded out China, Taiwan and Turkey for pricing. The cheapest he’s found is the US. “That blew me away,” he adds.
With materials representing 65 per cent of a boat’s cost, there’s an immediate saving of around 30 per cent to be made through the giant buying groups operating in the States.
Purchasing Riviera again is something he’s also considered, though not for vengeance. “I guess I would buy it back for $12,” Bill says. “It would be a good fit right at the moment to put the two together – you could salvage enough volume to start where we were in the ’70s again.”
While appalled at some of the hardware emanating from Asia (“CNC [routing] must stand for Cheech and Chong over there”) Barry-Cotter is considering rekindling the Mariner logic as it applied to outsourcing and customisation.
For now he’s focussed on delivering simplicity and remains a strident critic of complex components that deliver warranty issues.
“I’d refuse point blank to fit fuel and water gauges. I’d be ostracised by the whole retail side of the market, but the reality is they don’t work – we’ve spent hundreds of thousands fixing these gauges and the customer is never happy,” Bill says.
“We put a sight glass on everything. Black tank gauges used to comprise a clear plastic tube, a ping pong ball and a piece of dowel – there is nothing to go wrong.”
Pod drives don’t figure prominently in Barry-Cotter’s plans because he says they bring little performance benefit to his hulls. Seakeeping, handling, manoeuvrability and fuel efficiency are the key elements this builder prides himself on.
When it came to developing the new Mustang 43 Sports Cruiser, his sales team flagged concerns about pod costs.
“I realised that if we fitted sterndrives, the owner could drive the boat for three years – with warranty the whole time and a third of the service costs – and after three years take the motors out and throw them in the rubbish bin. Then put two new motors in and still save money over pods.”
The legend tag doesn’t impress Barry-Cotter and it’s unlikely his surname will ever adorn the side of a hull. But his succession hopes ride with his offspring.
Between Bill and his wife there are five kids: “Two sons of hers, two daughters of mine and one son of ours”.
Stepsons Luke and Ryan Durman work as marketing manager and Sydney-based salesman respectively, while Tom Barry-Cotter is studying graphic design and harbours hopes of joining the R&D team.
Outside work, Barry-Cotter is content to lead a simple life, skiing in Thredbo and taking his old E-Type Jag for an occasional spin.
He refreshes his raceboat licence every year, but admits his boys can beat him hands down. A 525hp class racer may be on the horizon.
After a stellar career, Ronald William Barry-Cotter sometimes jokes that it takes 40 years to build a Maritimo. Asked what he’d like to see as his legacy, he pauses momentarily …“I’d be happy to see a few people still floating around in some of the boats I’ve built in 50 years.”
Luxury cruiser manufacturer Maritimo says it is heading into 2012 heavily focused on product improvement and refinement and meeting the needs and aspirations of the boat buying public.
Marketing Director, Luke Durman said the company’s Maritimo and Mustang brands both had a strong and loyal following and they wanted to build upon that foundation by increasing the focus on design, quality, performance and customer relations.
“We are going to move into next year (2012) with a clear focus and goal and we will make sure that the new products we deliver to the market are carefully considered and absolutely hit the mark in terms of market acceptance,” he said.
Durman said two vessels that the company currently had in the research and development phase, the Mustang 43 Sports Cruiser and the Maritimo M44 Cruising Motoryacht, had been the most considered and reviewed new models the company had ever undertaken.
“The attention to detail, planning and review that these two new vessels are undergoing is without precedent at Maritimo,” he said.
“We have restructured our new product development process and created a dedicated management team. We are literally going back over things a dozen times and making refinements, improvements, changes and additions that, in the end, will make these two new models stand-out vessels for our company.
“We are all about maintaining our performance standards, improving the arrangements, maximising available space and refining the fit and finish so that the end product really resonates with the customers.”
The new Maritimo M44 Cruising Motoryacht will feature a generous saloon comparable to the Maritimo M48 and M53, with saloon windows forward allowing plenty of natural light and a sense of space. Maritimo says other features include a cleverly designed saloon daybed/lounge that converts to a double berth, an aft galley and wide opening bi-fold saloon doors, internal staircase to the flybridge, three-sided enclosed flybridge with forward helm, an aft full-width flybridge dinette lounge that converts to a double berth, transom barbecue console and a two-cabin/two-bathroom layout.
In all, the boat will have the capacity to sleep eight people. The Motoryacht will be available with twin shaft or twin IPS propulsion options.
Durman said the Mustang 43 Sports Cruiser was undergoing similar review and consideration.
The Mustang 43 is designed as a high quality family cruiser that provides more space and is a step up from the highly successful Mustang 32 Sports Cruiser, but is more affordable than its million dollar-plus Maritimo stablemates.
“This boat is sure to have tremendous appeal because it will be priced in the $650,000 to $700,000 range and it features superb accommodation for the entire family,” he said. “But once again we are reviewing and reviewing to make sure that we get it 110 per cent right.”
Durman said the company’s aim in 2012, and for the next few years, was to have a reduced range of vessels and to ensure that what is released was the very best that was on the market in all areas. He said the focus was on delivering an improved brand experience from a review of product and service.
“The market conditions we are experiencing currently are challenging and it is up to all manufacturers to deliver to the market new and exciting models and service levels that have widespread appeal and give purchasers reason to make a commitment to buy new boats,” he said.