The Nichols Bros sign over the factory door may be old and faded, but this out-of-the-way yard in the Brisbane suburb of Hemmant continues to produce some of the most respected trailerboats in Australia.
The boats are called CruiseCraft and they are renowned as some of the toughest offshore craft on the market. More than that, they are stylish to look at and superbly equipped.
Visitors to the factory drive a few hundred metres along a narrow, dusty road off the main Lytton Road in this industrial suburb. Stepping into an unassuming reception area suggests a basic foundry or metal works. It is the wall leading to a side office that gives the game away – there are perhaps 50 plaques adorning it: 1981 Boat of the Year, more Boat of the Year awards, class awards, and international recognition. This is a company with a long and enviable reputation for quality.
“I get a kick out of comments by boat show visitors that they would love to own a CruiseCraft one day,” says the business’s joint owner Nathan Nichols.
“I know they will be customers … maybe in a year or two, maybe longer. That is why we always want to build the best, to be aspirational. People have a lot of options: a new pool, a new car, a new kitchen, a new boat. That guy who has waited and saved for years to buy a CruiseCraft deserves an exceptional experience from it. And that’s why I come to work every day.”
Nathan is a part of the third generation of the Nichols family involved in the marine industry. Nathan, brother Justin and cousin Darren bought the business from the second generation in 2005 and, in August this year, the family celebrated 70 years in the industry.
“It is a great heritage and a big responsibility to take on,” he says “We have worked since then to fine-tune processes and structures. This is now not a family business – it’s a business that happens to be run by a family. It’s a very different attitude.”
Nathan says all three are living the dream. “We have always loved boats, not just because of the family. We love them,” he says. “That is how we spend our spare time – as does every generation of the family. And when we come to the factory or the dealership or a boat show, we’re simply doing what we love. We all help design, build and sell beautiful boats. Personally, I haven’t really worked a day in my life.”
Nathan, Justin and Darren jointly take responsibility for every part of the operation. On the day of our visit, Nathan was working at the Hemmant factory site, while Justin and Darren were at the Wynnum Marine retail outlet. But they all move around – a few weeks in one role, a few in another.
The Wynnum Marine retail space, on the corner of Fox and Wilde Streets in the Brisbane bayside suburb of Wynnum, is where the Nichols story began in 1946. During a tour of the site, Nathan points toward a block retaining wall beside the boat display.
“Nichols Brothers started right there,” he says. “You can still see the remains of the slipway into the creek.”
The boys’ grandfather, Roy, and his brother, Len, began building and repairing small boats there. The business grew quickly and expanded to selling marine paints, hardware and engines under the name Wynnum Marine. In 1960, the retailer displayed its wares at the first Brisbane Boat Show in City Hall.
“That was an interesting show,” says Nathan. “The hall is government property and you can’t conduct commercial business there. So every time someone wanted to buy something from Roy, he would take them across to a red phone box. That was public property. The transaction would be completed in the phone box and he would then return to his display booth. That phone box got a bit crowded at times!”
Wynnum Marine has not missed a Brisbane show since.
The Nichols Bros business continued building, selling and repairing boats, expanding to its current Hemmant site in 1965, leaving the Wynnum site to focus on retail.
A high-point came in the 1970s, ironically just after disaster struck the business. The Hemmant factory burned down and everyone struggled to bring the business back into shape. It was that moment that sparked the development and launch of the Rouge 14. The company would go on to sell more than 1000 of that model over the next four years.
The leader among the current generation of boats is heading in the same direction: the Explorer 685 has already notched up 250 sales.
Today, the business remains multifaceted. It is involved in building and repairing boats, as well as its retail dealership, Wynnum Marine, which sells CruiseCraft boats and represents US ski- and wakeboard marque MasterCraft, local aluminium runabout builder Stacer, and outboard manufacturer Yamaha. The dealership also has a thriving used-boat business.
That structure of multiple streams of income, along with a team whose skills range across fibreglass, composites, stainless steel, welding, two-pack painting, mechanical and more, has put the Nichols companies in a strong place to weather the many business storms that strike the marine industry.
“When the dollar was at $1.05 against the US dollar, I spoke to my father about the struggle against imports,” says Nathan. “He reminded me that when the dollar first floated in 1983, it was high, and again in the late ‘80s it hovered around parity. Everything old is new again.”
When the third generation took over in 2005, business was buoyant.
“There was a lot of cash in the two years after we took over,” explains the trio. “We could have gone out and bought sports cars and such, or built a flash new factory, but we didn’t. We banked it. We weren’t prescient or anything – we just wanted it put away to use for development of the business.”
In the rocky years after the GFC, the team’s many skills, as well as the surplus in the bank, were used to keep cash flowing. Briefly, they turned their hands to building parts for the automotive industry. They would work at virtually anything they knew to keep the doors open and people employed. And it all paid off.
Last year, CruiseCraft bought the Melbourne-based Streaker boatbuilding business from another renowned boating industry family.
“It was a logical business decision,” says Justin. “The Savage family is as well known in the industry as we are and had been running their business for a little over 40 years. Streaker Boats are great boats and their price position was favourable to us.
“CruiseCraft is positioned as a premium brand and owners expect all the bells and whistles. We would not dare strip a model down to compete in another stratum of the market. We are happy with our position, but would like a second strand – Streaker offers that.
“Streaker had never really established much beyond Victoria. We had a factory operating at 50 per cent capacity and a strong dealership network. Streaker was operating in Victoria at about 40 per cent capacity. We have brought that business into the Hemmant factory and used our dealer network to promote the brand nation-wide. It is a perfect fit.”
Loyalty is the backbone of the business. During a tour of the factory, Nathan talks constantly about the people. He points out that every boat is built by a team, from assembly to fitout. Each team member does whatever it takes. There are no demarcations.
“When a boat is ready to roll out the door, the guys can look at it and say ‘we built that!’”
“We run a boatbuilding apprentice program on site. Young people who don’t aspire to university or TAFE can come to us and work through a course that will see them equipped to work anywhere in the industry. In fact, I encourage them to leave and work elsewhere after they complete their apprenticeship. Many on the floor today have come back after gaining experience in other factories, sometimes in other industries. They bring new ideas, ways or working that we might not have thought about.”
Nathan proudly shows off a pair of small timber boats built by the apprentices.
“We teach them all the basic skills. They learn to design a boat and then build it from the ground up. That way, they understand the concepts around what they’re working on when they’re on the factory floor, and why we do what we do.”
Loyalty extends to the supply chain, too. The parts store is small, with every external part or element arriving just in time. Ensuring workflow under this regime requires trust with the suppliers.
“Our resin supplier has been with us for 28 years – not just the company, the individual sales rep. If we need something quickly, he’s here pronto. If there is an issue, he fixes it immediately. He’s not the cheapest, but that resin is the best, in our opinion, and the service is the same.
“That goes for our other suppliers, too – our windscreen supplier has been with us for 35 years, as has the gelcoat supplier. The stainless steel people are relative newcomers … they’ve been supplying us for just 18 years.”
One new supplier has been for composites. CruiseCraft abandoned timber in its boats last year, replacing many elements – including stringers and transom – with composites, as they’re lighter and stronger and will never rot.
It is an innovation in a business that remains steadfast in its adhesion to many traditional boatbuilding methods. While CruiseCraft was an early adopter of fibreglass as a boatbuilding material in 1965, the boats and some small parts are still built from open moulds.
“Justin, Darren and I have been around the world and visited a lot of boatbuilding factories,” says Nathan. “There are companies producing thousands of boats a year – all open mould. We have read about companies that invested heavily in new closed-mould technologies and other innovations. We have not seen it save on labour or cost. Most of those companies are gone, swallowed by the GFC.
“We may keep traditional methods, but we spend a great deal of time studying new technologies and innovations. We will adopt only those that will benefit our business and our people.
“For example, all our design work now is 3D graphics-based and we use CNC routers to cut the composites – that all makes sense. But we won’t invest until we can see the long-term benefit for the business, our people and our customers.”
Darren describes the company’s commitment to R&D as ‘wreck and destroy’.
“When we build a new model, our first job is to take it out and thrash it around to find out if we can break it,” he says. “That’s the best way to learn and make sure our boats are sound. Of course, it’s also a great excuse to be out on the water.”
All three are passionate about boating. It’s in their blood and an integral part of their lifestyles. Most weekends, they are out on the water, fishing, waterskiing or simply exploring and enjoying the bay.
It’s clear the Nichols trio and their people have one special task ahead of them: as gleaming new CruiseCraft and Streaker boats roll out of the factory, they are going to have to extend the wall in the reception office to make way for more trophies and plaques.