Yamaha pushes past hurdles, continuing to innovate
As the new Millennium began, Yamaha’s sport boat business wasn’t looking so hot. It was so rough that the company nearly withdrew from the segment. But now Yamaha stands as a market leader in the jet propulsion segment, as Sea-Doo exited the category last fall, and Scarab and Chapparal are still finding their footing, using BRP’s power plants.
Scott Watkins, product manager of Yamaha’s Watercraft Group, sat down with Boating Industry at a recent WaveRunner event to share his thoughts on the sport boat segment.
Watkins revealed that in 2000-01, Yamaha considered leaving the sport boat segment.
“I don’t know how close I would say, but there was discussion,” he said. “It was like the jet boat, everybody was getting out of it. And we just followed just jet boats, and it went from about 13,000 units a year at its peak, down to it started to just go down, down, down; it was about down to just 4,000, and at that time there were still three or four manufacturers doing it.”
In 1999, Yamaha released the 19 ½-foot LS2000, which was a hit. It was a seven-passenger bow rider that was versatile and fairly comfortable. Hoping to build on that success, Yamaha came out with the Exciter XR1800 in 2000; however that model did not do as well.
“It was a pile; it was terrible, terrible handling, closed bow, not versatile, and that one almost put us under,” Watkins explained.
In 2001, Watkins became product manager of boats, on top of his PWC responsibilities. The entire Watercraft division moved from California to Altanta, and it renewed its focus on what Yamaha calls the “family fun segment.” That segment is a combined group of boats for which families rely on for similar uses. They include inboard, outboard, inboard/outboard and jet boats, of certain lengths and materials used. Yamaha uses registration data to sort them out by brand, and when the family fun segment became a focus in 2001, 77,000 boats fit into this category.
“Basically what we’re tracking is what we believe are the family fun [models] because they use their boat all in the same way. They have basically the same lifestyle, and it’s a deck boat, a fiberglass deck boat, and it’s wakeboard/ski, and it’s runabout inboard, bow rider, and we include jets in that and just kind of combine all of those together,” Watkins explained.
When Yamaha’s upper management saw the potential of attracting more of those 77,000 customers, they became interested in saving the sport boat segment of their business. Watkins’ next step was to evaluate Yamaha’s current product and find what it had been lacking.
“I just took out our boats. I’d been riding in them, but I’d never rode in them like, ‘Alright, this is business now; I need to get down to this,’” Watkins recalled.
After taking notes on Yamaha’s offerings, Watkins found the best-selling boat in the family fun segment, which was a runabout at the time, and set out to discover why it was moving better than the Yamaha models. Watkins found the best seller was more comfortable; it had more room and more storage.
“Next thing you know, we are building a boat very similar; that was our SR230 that we introduced in 2002. It was a hit and just took off. That was the beginning, and it just kept going,” Watkins said.
As Yamaha surged headfirst back into the sport boat market, the company looked at reaching more customers in the family fun segment by providing more length options. In 2006, a 21-footer was added to the lineup, and in 2012, a 19-foot Yamaha entered the market.
“We would break the industry down into one-foot increments, by brand, and we would say, ‘Here’s a nice cherry patch over here; it’s the 21-foot cherry patch, and by the way, we have the right horsepower and this price point, so let’s build it,’ so we did it. Same thing with the 19, and that’s all taken 10 years,” Watkins said.
Because those in the family fun segment were already relying on a variety of propulsion options, luring them to a jet boat wasn’t difficult.
“The stress level on a jet boat going across the lake is so low compared to having a prop, and when you’re stopped, and when you’re swimming around or near the boat, the whole time, as the driver or the parent of somebody that you’re with, you’re very low stress,” Watkins said. “Not to mention just ease of maintenance. These things, you jump in them after a year … no winterization; you don’t touch anything unless you mess something up.”
Watkins admits there are a few aspects of its boats that it would like to fix — including low-speed handling — but those are all being addressed with an all-new generation boat that it’s unveiling next year. With continued improvement, Watkins says Yamaha is ready to prove it’s in the jet boat market to stay.