Boat Maker Sets Sail on Global Journey

MANY people love the sea, but having the freedom to be out on the open water in your own boat is something special.

Enter Haines Hunter. The boat manufacturer has been in the marine industry since opening its doors in 1959, but activity has ramped up in the past few years since new owners took over.

After John Haber, Edwin Cole and John Cirillo bought the business in 2001, the awards began rolling in - Victorian boat manufacturer of the year two years in a row, among others.

Cole says Haines Hunter had been owned by an American company "that was going belly-up". Haines was making a profit, but it was being milked by the parent company, and "we got it at the right price".

Cole, a corporate accountant and 25-year veteran of the textile industry, said the new owners came in and changed the culture.

"We have been putting in lots of money on research and development," he said. "There is a need for new products. People get sick of the old ones." Both manufacturing sites - at Hoppers Crossing in Melbourne's west, and in Queensland - have research and development departments. New talent has also been hired from top British boat company Sunseeker.

"They have some great ideas - so watch this space," Cole said. Boat hulls are proven and patented, so "there is not much change there", he said.

But the Australian dealer network has been revamped, the numbers cut from 40 to 20. The larger network was harder to monitor and head office had less control.

Haines Hunter now has 32 boat models, with lots of optional extras, and makes about 750 boats a year, depending on their size. A smaller boat can be made in four or five days.

Fishermen, both professional and amateur, buy most of the boats, but families are also increasingly forking out cash for them. "We can build in showers, water tanks and sinks. A 6.5-metre boat, for example, can sleep up to five people," Cole said. "Caravans are great, but why not have your own caravan that floats on water?" Australians' rising affluence is fuelling a boat boom. A basic boat costs $25,000 - before an engine is added - but customers can spend up to $250,000, depending on extras.

Haines Hunter also dominates the boat trailer market - a boat trailer can be up to 8.1 metres long.

Victoria is the company's key buyer market, a state of affairs that prompted the new owners to relocate the headquarters here from Queensland.

The company employs about 80 workers - 50 in Queensland and 30 at Hoppers Crossing - but Cole said Haines was planning a major expansion in Melbourne.

Staff numbers will be doubled and the factory relocated to a site in Laverton that is five or six times the size of the Hoppers Crossing plant.

Exports may become a larger source of future income. Haines has exported some boats to Singapore and Noumea - the brand is well known in the South Pacific - but market demand in Australia has been more than enough to keep the factories humming.

However, Cole said Haines was planning a joint venture in China to export boats to Asia, but the company would never export back to Australia. "We are passionate about manufacturing in Australia," he said.

Haines Hunter will be inducted into the Victorian Manufacturing Hall of Fame at a dinner on May 18. To book, phone Kerry Freer Events on (03) 9568 3688.

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