Larson Boats still afloat

  • Article by: SUSAN FEYDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 19, 2012 - 6:52 AM

After navigating a rough few years, Little Falls boatmaker Larson is back, thanks to new technology and new investment.

LITTLE FALLS, MINN. - Minnesota's fishing opener may still be four months away, but production is humming at Larson Boats' sprawling manufacturing complex 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities.

In one building, workers methodically roll fiberglass onto the inside of molds for cruisers. In another, lab-coated employees monitor computers that control most steps to produce fishing boats with Larson's state-of-the-art Virtual Engineered Composites (VEC) technology. A VEC robotic arm first uses a diamond saw to trim the outer edge of one hull, puts the tool away and grabs another to drill an intricate hole for the engine.

"This is our peak production period, and the activity that's going on here now is worlds away from what it was two years ago," said Larson's owner, Minneapolis businessman Irwin Jacobs.

At the time Larson was emerging from the 2009 bankruptcy of Genmar Holdings Inc., which was Jacobs' business that owned Larson and an array of other boat assets. A California private equity firm bought Genmar in January 2010, then sold Larson and two other boat brands made in Little Falls to Jacobs and a partner, along with two additional brands made in Pulaski, Wis. The purchase of the Little Falls plant wasn't completed until February 2010, when a group of community and state lenders provided the partners $1.85 million of the $7.4 million purchase price.

Manufacturing at Larson had come to a near-standstill while Jacobs negotiated the deal to buy the business back. The workforce had fallen to 125, a sharp decline from more than 800 just a few years earlier.

Now the boat company is getting ready for the Minneapolis Boat Show, which begins its four-day run Thursday, and Jacobs says Larson will have its biggest presence there ever. Larson isn't the only one increasing its exhibit space, said Bonnie Harris, a spokeswoman for the show. An increased number of exhibitors -- 189 vs. 171 in 2011 -- will occupy 25 percent more space than last year at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Larson's workforce has increased to about 255, and Jacobs says he expects to rehire more former employees in the coming year. All manufacturing of Larson, Triumph and Striper boats now takes place in Little Falls, where founder Paul Larson began making boats almost 100 years ago.

Production of the Triumph line recently was transferred from North Carolina to a newly built plant at the Little Falls complex, part of about $12 million Jacobs says the partners have invested since buying back the business. Larson, which Jacobs originally acquired in 1977, is so vertically integrated it even has a huge sewing room for making boat seat covers and curtains.

The revival has been welcome news for Little Falls, population 8,500, where Larson has been a major employer. "A big company like that is almost like a mother hen, you get little chicks, other smaller businesses, that rely on it," said Carol Anderson, executive director of Community Development of Morrison County, a nonprofit that contributed to the loan Jacobs used to buy back the plant. "We were very concerned about Larson but also some of those smaller businesses that supply it."

Jacobs says he expects Larson's revenue this year to increase from about $70 million to $100 million. The business lost money last year but Jacobs said he expects it to turn a profit in 2012.

Larson's 50 models include 22 developed within the past 12 months. The company says that's fewer models than in the past, but "our goal changed from having an ego to be the biggest and taking care of everyone to taking care of 80 percent ... simplifying business and reducing our costs," said Chief Operating Officer Mike O'Connell.

"We understood that as the economy would begin to improve, the market would move to 'sensible' purchases -- like a smaller Chevy versus a Range Rover," O'Connell said. Some models are fish-and-ski combinations, with trolling and outboard motors. The largest cruiser is 31 feet long, down from 37 feet. In addition to appealing to a broader range of customers, the smaller boats also trim dealers' costs for cranes and trailers, he said.

Larson has added more than 100 new dealers in the last two years, bringing the total to 217 with more than 300 locations worldwide. The largest, Breakwater Marine, has expanded from two to four locations in Seattle and Vancouver since becoming a Larson dealer in 2009.

Aaron Fell, a Breakwater partner, said he believes customers will be drawn to Larson's nearly 100-year heritage and its cutting-edge technology. Larson's patented VEC process produces fiberglass boats that are lighter and stronger than competitors' fiberglass models. Triumph boats are made with another proprietary process that produces molded polymer hulls that are impact-resistant and impervious to damage from saltwater.

With the boating industry stilling struggling to rebound from the recession, it might not seem like the best time to be investing in new models. Unit sales of powerboats were up for the first nine months of 2011 vs. 2010 but are still dramatically below sales in the mid-2000s, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

"I wanted to get up and running on new models before people started shopping again," Jacobs said. "Everybody else was hunkering down. I wanted to be ahead of the competition."

Susan Feyder • 612-673-1723

  • related content

  • Smith: After recession, hope floats in boat industry

    Wednesday January 18, 2012

    After being rocked by the recession, boating is on a comeback -- reflected at this year's boat show.

  • At Larson Boats’ Little Falls plant, these Larsons were trailered, loaded on a truck and headed for California. In the past year the company has added 22 new models.

  • Larson Boats owner Irwin Jacobs took a swing at a Triumph boat with an aluminum bat to show how tough the boat’s molded polymer hull is.

  • Justin Meidl raised a Larson a boat hull out of its mold, part of the Virtual Engineered Composites method now used on many Larsons, cutting production time from one day to 45 minutes.

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

Click here to send us your hunting or fishing photos – and to see what others are showing off from around the region.


San Francisco - WP: M. Bumgarner 7 FINAL
Kansas City - LP: J. Shields 1
San Diego 10/23/14 7:25 PM
Detroit 10/26/14 8:30 AM
Buffalo 10/26/14 12:00 PM
NY Jets
St. Louis 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
Houston 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Minnesota 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Seattle 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Miami 10/26/14 12:00 PM
Chicago 10/26/14 12:00 PM
New England
Philadelphia 10/26/14 3:05 PM
Oakland 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Indianapolis 10/26/14 3:25 PM
Green Bay 10/26/14 7:30 PM
New Orleans
Washington 10/27/14 7:30 PM
Houston 85 FINAL
Miami 90
Indiana 89 FINAL
Minnesota 107
Utah 105 FINAL
Oklahoma City 91
Portland 93 FINAL
Denver 75
Phoenix 114 FINAL
LA Lakers 108
LA Clippers 107 FINAL
Golden State 125
San Jose 3 FINAL
Boston 5
NY Rangers 4 FINAL(OT)
New Jersey 3
Toronto 5 FINAL
NY Islanders 2
Detroit 1 FINAL(OT)
Montreal 2
Arizona 3 FINAL(SO)
Nashville 4
Carolina 1 FINAL
Winnipeg 3
Philadelphia 0 FINAL
Chicago 4
Vancouver 3 FINAL
Dallas 6
Florida 4 FINAL(OT)
Colorado 3
Tampa Bay 2 FINAL(OT)
Calgary 1
Arkansas State 40 FINAL
Louisiana 55
Connecticut 10/23/14 6:00 PM
(18) East Carolina
Miami-Florida 10/23/14 7:00 PM
Virginia Tech
So Florida 10/24/14 6:00 PM
Troy 10/24/14 6:30 PM
South Alabama
BYU 10/24/14 8:00 PM
Boise State
(6) Oregon 10/24/14 9:00 PM
North Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
UAB 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Rutgers 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(16) Nebraska
Maryland 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Texas 10/25/14 11:00 AM
(11) Kansas State
Minnesota 10/25/14 11:00 AM
Memphis 10/25/14 11:00 AM
North Carolina 10/25/14 11:30 AM
San Jose St 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Northern Ill 10/25/14 12:00 PM
Eastern Mich
(25) UCLA 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Akron 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Ball State
Massachusetts 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Ohio U 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Western Mich
Ga Southern 10/25/14 1:00 PM
Georgia State
Kent State 10/25/14 1:30 PM
Oregon State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Fla Atlantic 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(23) Marshall
Louisiana Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Southern Miss
(1) Miss State 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Georgia Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(22) West Virginia 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Oklahoma State
Texas Tech 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(10) TCU
Michigan 10/25/14 2:30 PM
(8) Michigan State
Boston College 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Wake Forest
Central Mich 10/25/14 2:30 PM
Vanderbilt 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Old Dominion 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Western Ky
UNLV 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Utah State
Temple 10/25/14 4:00 PM
(15) Arizona 10/25/14 5:00 PM
Washington St
Texas-El Paso 10/25/14 6:00 PM
TX-San Antonio
Wyoming 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Colorado State
Syracuse 10/25/14 6:00 PM
(21) Clemson
Texas State 10/25/14 6:00 PM
(3) Ole Miss 10/25/14 6:15 PM
(24) LSU
(4) Alabama 10/25/14 6:30 PM
So Carolina 10/25/14 6:30 PM
(5) Auburn
(13) Ohio State 10/25/14 7:00 PM
Penn State
(20) USC 10/25/14 9:00 PM
(19) Utah
(14) Arizona State 10/25/14 9:45 PM
Nevada 10/25/14 10:59 PM
Montreal 10/24/14 5:30 PM
Saskatchewan 10/24/14 8:30 PM
Hamilton 10/25/14 3:00 PM
Brt Columbia 10/25/14 6:00 PM
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters





question of the day

Poll: Should the lake where the albino muskie was caught remain a mystery?

Weekly Question