Some four years after his passing, the paternal presence of John Haines Snr hangs palpably in the air as sons John Jnr and Greg sit in the factory boardroom and reflect on their formative years.
He’s embodied in the racing photographs and Boat of the Year plaques adorning the walls, in the rustic patina of the workshop floor, in tea room tales, but mostly he’s locked in the heart, mind and soul of two men who are, very much, chips off the old block.
Both speak with fondness and reverence of a father who was a larger-than-life force throughout their family and professional lives. When asked if it was a blessing or a burden to carry the surname of runabout royalty, an industry immortal, they’re absolutely adamant they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I said at Dad’s funeral that I was incredibly lucky because I saw him almost every single day of my life,” John says. “We argued almost every single day, but there was mutual respect every single day and I loved him every single day.”
For two siblings left to run a national dynasty that includes Suzuki outboard distribution and the renowned Signature and Seafarer trailerboat brands, it’s not an easy act to follow. The legend and legacy of ‘Hainesy’ is indelible, and to some outsiders there’s a perception that John and Greg were born with a silver spoon – a notion so ridiculous as to be laughable.
John Snr would often say: “It takes as much fibreglass to build a good boat as a bad one”, and in the same vein it takes as much moral fibre to be a good boatbuilder as a bad one. John and Greg weren’t born to be good boatbuilders, but were raised that way.
Barely 11 months separates the brothers in age – John just turned 43, Greg is 42 – but business-wise they are like twins joined at the hip, equals in hierarchy and commonly mentioned in the same breath.
RITE OF PASSAGE
Their footprints, as two tiny boys, are embedded in the factory floor from the original concrete pour, and both worked their way up without favour, spending time in moulding, detailing and even as cleaners sweeping the floor. It was rite of passage more than birth right that got them where they are.
John actually started at the Haines Hunter plant in 1979 when he was 10, spending school holidays collecting nuts and bolts off the floor, sorting and placing them into containers. His fingers would itch from the residue fibreglass dust.
Haines Hunter, at that point, had been running for over 20 years and was building an iconic fibreglass runabout range, aluminium boats, trailers, a sailing trimaran and waterskis. It then became embroiled in a hostile takeover bid from an Asian investment group that forced John Snr and his brother Garry out.
Further legal drama ensued when outboard giant OMC legitimately bought the brand and sued Haines Snr over the right to use his name on the side of boats.
Three years later, John Snr returned to the marine business with Leeda trailers. Every school holiday, every weekend, and most afternoons after school, his sons would catch a train to the factory in the Brisbane suburb of Wacol and help with assembly.
Greg still recalls a phone call from Springwood Marine dealer principal Tom Wyld: “He said to Dad ‘I’ve sacked Haines Hunter because I want to sell your boats’. Dad said he didn’t have any boats, but Tom said, ‘You will …’.”
In 1984, Signature was born.
“We’ve been in this business from day one,” John says. “Mum, Greg and I were sanding plugs and building boats. Like everyone else in the factory, though, we had to put in a holiday form – if we wanted to have a holiday during our school holidays we’d put a form in.”
Greg got a leave pass to attend a national rowing title as part of the Queensland Youth Eight, but John had to decline coxing for Queensland schoolboys because there were boats to build.
John attended Schoolies Week in 1986 before starting full time; Greg followed in 1987. They were the lowest-paid employees for almost the entire time because they were trying to grow a family business.
A HARD MAN
“Dad was a hard, hard man,” John says. “In business he was a lot harder on Greg and I than anyone else. But at the same time we never wanted for anything.”
On John’s 17th birthday his father presented him with a new Honda Civic. It was a big deal, with the grandparents coming over for a party and the key being wrapped in a box. They walked outside and someone drove the car in.
“I said ‘I love it Dad, thank you so much!’ … and Dad said ‘Tomorrow we’ll discuss how you’re going to pay me back’. And that’s what I did – I put $50 every week into his hand for years. Paid for all our own fuel, tyres, registration and insurance.
“He was immensely generous, but everything came with a lesson and I don’t begrudge that at all. It’s why I’m so tight in business now … we don’t like borrowing money. We try to run debt-free.”
Greg got the same deal, in a different colour, but at least knew it was coming.
The brothers’ earliest memories involve perching on the Redcliffe hills watching a powerboat race or going boating on Moreton Bay. Born Free, a Haines Hunter 28 flybridge cruiser with notoriously unreliable petrol sterndrives, was the first boat they can remember.
There are fond recollections of sharing time with Don and Pat Argus and their three daughters.
Don, ex-CEO of National Australia Bank and former chairman of BHP Billiton and Brambles, was their former bank manager, and he and John Snr would go to Tin Can Bay each year and return with “400 mudcrabs and a couple of hundred kilos of fish”.
On boating trips John Snr wore a favourite T-shirt that said “Have a sh@#ty day” and the boys wrote the letters COB on the back. “We told him it stood for Captain of Boat, but it actually meant Cranky Old Bastard,” Greg laughs. It was the only time they ever got the upper hand.
The boys cut their boating teeth on Tamara, a 45ft timber pilot boat built in 1945. Their father would hand over the helm and say “take us to Tangalooma” before imparting his knowledge on the art of navigation. Always a lesson.
From 1974, the family lived on a river frontage at Jindalee. Every weekend, for six months of the year, they waterskied, while in winter they’d shoot across to Moreton Island in a Signature fishing boat and wet a line.
The brothers have textbook recall of the various boats they’ve owned over the years and, unwittingly, finish each other’s sentences when describing them. “The first boat we had for ourselves was a Signature 1550R,” says John, before Greg adds “with a 75 Merc two-stroke – brown band, metal clamshell cowl.”
Next boat was a 1700S, green and gold, with a 150 brown band Merc. Then another 1700S that was burgundy, with a Mercury 150 XR2, and on it goes.
“Dad said we could build a 2100S for ourselves, which had everything in it – we took it to the Brisbane Boat Show and a guy came in and bought it off the floor. It was Keith Lloyd from Lloyd Ships,” John recalls. “We never got to use it and never ended up building another one.”
But Greg remembers a blue-and-white 1900S … “It must’ve had thousands of hours on it – we went through three motors. That was a great boat.”
There was always a raceboat on hand as both Haines boys drove in the single outboard class in either a 1900S or a 2100S, notching a number of national offshore titles.
“We’d pray for 40 knots because our 65mph boat would beat the 90mph boats in the rough. Fill the tank with ballast, trim tabs down and just go flat out,” John recalls.
Signature hull shapes began showing the benefit of this experience through the development and evolution of the variable deadrise form. It was John’s task, working in R&D, to perfect the concept, while Greg refined the sales and marketing pitch.
END OF AN ERA
John Snr was always there to bounce ideas off. Then, overnight, he wasn’t. Having been diagnosed with throat cancer, he told his sons eight years ago that he was handing over the reins. He survived the first bout, but succumbed four years ago.
The economy hit its lowest ebb around the same time, creating a double blow for the new and grieving management team. They have barely paused for breath though.
In recent times, Signature has been one of the few domestic runabout builders still developing new models, with a new 575F nearing completion and a range of fully enclosed hardtop boats from 5.4 to 7m due in 2013. Other releases since 2008 include the 543F and RF, 502RF and DF, 575RF, 535 bowrider, 602F and Traveller Vanquish.
They also struck a deal with Hyundai Yachts to build Signatures under licence in Korea for their domestic market and northern hemisphere, and they’re also being manufactured in New Zealand by Reflex.
The Haines Group picked up the Seafarer marque mostly because they didn’t want to see the moulds go to wrong hands … former owner Lindsay Fry apparently felt the same. And most recently the Haines Group purchased the IT and moulds for the Tournament range of affordable fibreglass trailercraft.
Well remembered are the lessons from the Haines Hunter implosion: “Dad’s three golden rules were never take a partner in a primary form of income, never enter into a business deal that’s not mutually beneficial, and never burn your bridges,” John says.
The philosophy has returned handsome dividends since Suzuki approached the Haines Group in 2002, looking to sign a distributor who understood the Australian and New Zealand markets. The Haineses, in turn, could see that the four-stroke motors were something out of the box.
“Has it been fantastic for us? Absolutely,” says John. “Has it been fantastic for Suzuki? Absolutely. We are their biggest marine customer in the world in terms of dollars.”
Their commitment includes carrying arguably the best spare parts supply in the industry, at considerable cost.
“Managing the foreign exchange side of Suzuki takes up most of my day,” John says. “But when I want to get away from my computer screen I walk down through the factory and talk to the guys on the floor.”
By way of further diversity the Haines Group drove its way into the caravan market in October 2011, launching the Sea Change range. Current production is around three a month.
“We’re a high-end off-road alternative and in that regard we’re considerably less expensive than some of our rivals,” John says. Adds Greg: “You pull up in a caravan park and everyone wants to come and have a look.”
Boat building technology and methodology has ensured a strong, light and high-quality package, with welded aluminium (not timber) frames, vacuum-bagged fibreglass walls and roof, fully moulded shower liner, Cruisemaster suspension and the best possible brakes.
And speaking of breaks, Greg took a three-week cruise in early 2012 that ultimately inspired a life-changing decision. He made a few phone calls, had dinner with Bill Barry-Cotter and three days later was working for Maritimo as marketing manager.
There was a family connection, of course. Years ago, Barry-Cotter had inherited the job of fixing a raceboat for Stefan Ackerie and he sought Haines Snr’s opinion. They remained acquaintances who’d enjoy a beer together at times.
“Dad always said that Bill Barry-Cotter is the best big-boat builder in the world, and I’d agree with that 100 per cent,” John says.
Greg had previously shown his faith by buying a Maritimo 48 Mk1. “I liked the efficiencies of the narrow shaft angles, and the walkaround decks are great because you can fish four or five guys down the side,” he says. “We also trusted Bill as a family friend and knew how well they were built.”
There was the simple commuting factor for the career change as well – Maritimo is 11 minutes from Greg’s home, not an hour each way each day. He maintains an office at Wacol and does regular email correspondence for the family concern.
“My first day on the job for Maritimo was a national dealer meeting so I was thrown in the deep end. I also spend time in the factory with Bill because I’m a boatie and own a Maritimo. We toss ideas around with R&D.”
Barry-Cotter shares some common traits with John Snr. “He’s a hard task master in much the same way as Dad was, but if you do the right thing it’s not an issue. He’s also understanding of my other commitments and supportive of the fund-raising work I do for the Wesley Hospital palliative care ward.”
Under the new working arrangement the two brothers believe they’ve become better mates. They realise now it had been difficult to differentiate work and family, and they used to be as hard on each other’s work as their father had been on them.
Neither has strayed far from the nest. John initially bought the house next door to his parents and currently lives only a suburb away from mother Alida, while Greg is on the Gold Coast.
The family lineage looks set to end with the current generation. John’s two girls Alixandra, 13, and Zara, 10, are university bound and, like it or not, boat building is an unlikely vocation.
John isn’t averse to appointing an advisory board in years to come but, for now and the foreseeable future, it’s family business as usual.
In the eyes of those who know them, and in their own hearts, the Haines brothers have nothing to prove. They’ve done the hard yards. They feel, at last, like they’re their own men.