October 22, 2021

Marathon Boat Group launches new line, triples jobs

Business sails along

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Dylan Winters welds a rail Saturday as employees of Marathon Boat Group finish fabricating and assembling their first pontoon boat for sale. The boats, which will typically sell for $125,000 to $135,000, will keep 23 people busy now, with growth to up to 40 employees in the future.

The scream of a grinder competed with the hiss of compressed air and drowned out casual conversation. Not that there was much casual conversation: This was boat No. 1, it was their day off, and they wanted to complete assembly in three hours.

Behind them lay a 25-foot behemoth of aluminum and steel, fiberglass and Plexiglas. It was a tri-pontoon boat, the first that Marathon Boat Group was ready to sell. This wasn’t just an assembly; the welders, fabricators, designers and managers were trying to iron out a production process that will turn a company that had eight employees a year ago — and 23 starting Monday — into a 40-or 60-person company in just a couple of years.

“It’s going to be dozens of boats this year, hundreds next year,” said Kevin Thompson, the company’s chief financial officer. That’s not actually a lot. “We expect the owner will get a card signed by everybody who made it.”

Behind the crew, the aluminum canoes that gave the original Grumman company its name and brand lay stacked against the far wall and out into the lot. In the next workspace over, canoes were stacked in a variety of stages and designs: small multi-purpose craft; wide, flat lake craft; larger craft meant for rivers. Grumman was initially an aircraft company that produced the most carrier-based fighter planes during World War II and used rivets instead of welds.

The manufacturer, which moved to Marathon in 1952, isn’t only expanding its company but its outreach to the community — looking at ways to build relationships with local schools.

In the room beyond the activity, V- bottomed row boats sat clustered — these welded.

The pontoon boats are the company’s a new entry to the watercraft industry, and something the Marathon Boat Group, Grumman’s successor, has never done before.

Dylan Winters let out a cry of pain as he welded a rail, “That’s hot!” he called, as an older mentor reminded him steel holds a lot more heat than the aluminum Winters typically welds.

The boats aren’t a typical platform set on a couple of aluminum pontoons. Three pontoons lets them accommodate more space and larger engines. This particular model has bar tables that extend over the motors, creating more entertainment space in a configuration designer Anthony Kalil is proud of.

“I’ve got the patent on that,” Kalil said. “Nobody else can do it.”

“It lives like a 30-footer, but it builds and stores like a 25-footer,” said Dave Porthouse, the company’s director of operations.

The boats aren’t cheap — this model, the Vanderbilt, will retail for perhaps $125,000 to $135,000, a mid-range for the company. They’re not meant to be assembly line products. “It’s meant for someone who wants something special, something different,” Thompson said.

Depending on the engines — a pair of 200-horsepower motors sit on the prototype in the garage — the boats can get up to 40, maybe 50 miles per hour on the water, Thompson said. They have sound systems, plus seating, configurable lighting schemes. Is there anything they don’t have Refrigeration? It’s an option.

The company got $870,000 in two state grants to create the expansion to make the new products. The award is contingent on creating the jobs. Marathon Boat Group recruited experienced designers and fabricators as a backbone to the company, Thompson said, but it will eventually need trained welders to join the company, and eventually advance. That’s why the company plans to work with Onondaga-Cortland-Madison Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

“We are absolutely thrilled about it,” said Colleen Viggiano, the deputy superintendent, noting one student started an internship with the company recently and another is expected to start today. “The real world learning is the best kind of learning for our students.”

The company also provided materials to one of the school’s welding instructors so students could work on a project in which they weld aluminum stairs.
“Which is pretty cool,” Viggiano said. “We’re always looking for ways to connect with business partners.”

Thompson also said the company is talking with other districts, including Homer Central School District and Marathon Central School District, about ways to get students involved with the company.

Marathon Superintendent Rebecca Stone said the company has talked to her about presenting awards, although she didn’t give details on what they would be for, and that they are also looking to provide financial support for some student activities.

Stone also said Thompson discussed internships and tours for students.

“Students, especially those in smaller school districts, they don’t see the opportunities that are in their own backyard,” she said. “This is an opportunity for students to learn skills and become part of the work force here in our local community.”

Homer Superintendent Thomas Turck said the company is helping refurbish a Grumman canoe, and the district is open to other opportunities.

“This is a huge win-win because we get people in, see their skill set, see their level and see who we might want to bring on permanently and students get real training outside of a classroom,” Thompson said.

The company’s location is ideal, Porthouse said, because Central New York and the Southern Tier are population by highly trained, underemployed manufacturers. They’re the sort of workers who can build high-value, low-volume products instead of using cheaper assembly-line techniques.

“If you can do it in metal, it can be done here,” Porthouse said.

But their real purpose Saturday isn’t simply to build a boat. This is boat No. 1. The team is trying to understand how the fabrication and assembly process will work so they can get more efficient in the future. It’ll be an ongoing effort, Thompson said as the crew returned to work. Parts are coming together, but they have only another two hours to finish.

But that’s another reason the company stays in Marathon — people work hard.

“There’s a hearty breed of people around here and it’s almost representative of our boats — they’re here for the long haul,” Thompson said.