Interview with Fred Ross

Iconic Marine’s Fred Ross talks about the past and future for Fountain, Donzi and Baja.

By Gregg Mansfield

When Fred Ross led a group nearly four years ago to purchase Fountain Powerboats, Baja Marine and Donzi Marine, he knew he had a big job ahead of him to revive the legendary boat brands that had fallen on hard times. 

The North Carolina factory needed to be modernized, the boat models were long overdue for retooling and the brands were lacking direction prior to the acquisition. Ross, who grew a family trucking equipment company into a conglomerate that was acquired by the equity firm Blackstone, provided the financial support to take Iconic Marine to the next level. (Ross also owns Big Thunder Marine in Lake Ozark, Missouri.)

Ross installed a new leadership team and the group launched six new models and revived more than a dozen models over the past two years with more to come. Just as Iconic Marine was hitting its stride, Chief Operating Officer Joe Curran died in March after a short fight with stomach cancer.

To find a new chief operating officer, Ross tapped Jeff Harris, who was one of the first Fountain Powerboat employees when the company was founded in 1979 in Washington, North Carolina. Harris is a world championship offshore racer who worked in boat manufacturing, sales and customer service at Fountain.

Poker Runs America caught up with Ross at the Lake of the Ozarks Shootout in late summer to talk about the renaissance of Fountain, Baja and Donzi.

The company has introduced new models including the 43 NX in Fountain Powerboats’ center-console lineup.

PRA: How’s the company doing since the passing of Joe Curran?

Fred Ross: Joe (Curran) was really a force and he helped us in the beginning with relationships, with vendors that we hadn’t used before, hadn’t used in a long time and was such a great guy that had so many relationships around the boating world, it really helped us. It also helped us attract some really good talent. It was a really great thing for us and losing Joe was like losing one of my best friends.

I got to know him really well for three years and it was like I knew him my whole life and it was a blow to us but we’re coming through it fine. We brought Jeff Harris back to Fountain who had been there for 20 years and was there in the very beginning. He’s also brought back some other guys and so I’m excited about the future. 

I’m really sorry for losing Joe, though, it was blow and it was one of those things we took the blow, we’re shaking it off and we’re going forward. We’ve got a lot of new product, we’re excited about where we’re going, we’ve got some new models coming out. Joe did help strategically on some of the products that we had worked through and now we’re following through with that and building on top of it. 

We’re really excited to be bringing back the sport boats and a sport edition on the center consoles, and so there is a lot happening. 

Iconic Marine owner Fred Ross and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Harris with the team from Iconic Marine at this year’s Lake of the Ozarks Shootout. 

How many models are you looking to release? 

The center-consoles we’re starting off with the 34SC (Sport Console), really excited about that. New interiors, some new amenities, different paint—really to go out and compete for the guys who have gotten a little older and they still want performance, but they don’t want a pure sport boat. That’s going to start off with the 34 and come all the way through to the 43 and then we’re going to offer an even deeper version that would be an SSC and we’ll put more power, blueprint the bottom of the boats, really tune the engines and tune the ride heights, get everything to maximize the boat and that will be our performance side on the center console. 

For instance, the 34 is going to come with two rows of Fountain bolsters and the same type of bolster you would see on a sport boat so really a comfortable, great wraparound seat. That will come all the way through the line. Then we are bringing back the 35 Lightning with a couple engine options.

We’re also bringing back the 42 and the 47. We’ve got a new 47, new dash, new interior, new windshield, really updating everything on it. We updated some other things on the boat. The 42, we’re going through that, it had some updates on it now. We are bringing back the Donzi ZRC and the molds are actually done. That boat will be coming out pretty darn quickly and we’re really excited about that boat. 

We’re going to re-release the 41 GTZ, it’s got a new top and a new interior. I’m excited. There’s some other stuff coming that’s too early to talk about but there’s a lot happening. 

The Iconic Marine factory in Washington, North Carolina, builds Fountain, Donzi and Baja Marine boats.

How do you view the three Iconic brands Fountain, Donzi and Baja that you own?

We’re after different buyers. If you are a Baja guy, you like Mustangs and Camaros, you like the sporty look, you like the way they sound. They’re an extremely safe boat with no stepped hull so you’re never worried about spinning them out. They’re just really a great boat with a lot of room that the whole family can enjoy. Are you going to be the fastest guy on the lake? No, but you’re going to have a really neat ride that looks good, that runs good. Again, it’s a Mustang or a Camaro-type buyer.

When you get into the Fountain, you’re a purist. You want speed, handling, all the things that offers. Our 35 Lightning will come back with just stock 430 HOs and is going to run 85 mph, have a five-year warranty. With 565s, it will run north of 100 mph. If you look at our center consoles, they’ve always been fast, dry smooth, so our fish boats can go further than everybody else, they’re faster than everybody else and they’re drier. 

Then we bring in and make it a more family boat with a LS luxury edition that has nicer appointments, nicer interior, your’re still dry, your still fast, you still get great performance and really good fuel mileage. If you’re wanting to run down to the Bahamas or whatever you’re going to do, that boat can do it because it’s so much more efficient than the other boats up against it. Now our NX Series is just really luxury, so it’s luxury, comfort with great performance whether you’re fishing it or you’re using it like a family boat.

Now we’re bringing out those versions in a sport boat so you’ll be able to get that with the sport interior and the graphics and we could blueprint the bottom, we could put the high-performance engines on them so whatever you want whether it’s a pure fish boat or a pure luxury boat or something in between. 

In previous years all these brands would compete against each other but now each brand is focused on a certain market. 

There’s no sense in spending the money that it would take to develop each one to do the same thing, that wouldn’t make sense. We spend our R&D dollars to make them the best they can in the markets we’re in. 

We could go step the hull on a Baja but why? You buy the Fountain if that’s what you want, if you want that ultimate speed, we’ll put you into that boat. The luxury side when we think about the Donzi going forward that’s going to compete with Formula or Chris-Craft or Cobalt, that’s our luxury boat that still performs the way you would expect a Donzi to perform, which is still fast, still sleek, so it’s a different buyer. 

With the exception of the ZRC, which is a classic boat, it won’t make sense for us to go out and compete head’s up with the 42 Fountain or a 47 Fountain because we already have that. 

 Iconic Marine has positioned the Donzi boats as the luxury brand for the company and earlier this year released Icon 44, a high-performance catamaran. 

Do you see the company as a production or custom builder? 

I want an opportunity for 100 percent of the business. I’m never going to get it but if you want something that is all carbon-fiber, we now do that. If you want that, we can build you that 1 percent boat. If you want a 47 Lightning all carbon-fiber with 1650s, we can do that and we’ll gladly run it against anybody. 

We look at it like different divisions. We have a sport division and then we have our production division, so it’s two different things. 

If you think about what it takes and how many new models we brought to market. I mean, we brought a clean sheet of paper 39 NX, a clean sheet of paper 43, not a remake, those are clean sheets. A 41 Donzi, a clean sheet of paper. We’re not just saying, ‘Look, it’s good enough,’ it’s never good enough. We’re constantly tweaking and looking at things, what can we do to make the boat run better, faster, smoother, drier.

What are some of the changes you are looking at for the lineups? 

We’re looking at how do we bring carbon fiber into all of our boats, so you will see carbon-fiber tops come in on the regular Fountain boats. You’re going to see more carbon fiber coming into those across the board.

It doesn’t make sense to bring out a 35 Lightning all carbon fiber, it already runs about 105 (mph) with the 565. We’re not going to ask that boat to run faster than that. It runs 85 mph with black engines. If we make that boat lighter, quite frankly, for a 35-foot boat, we’re not asking it to go faster than that but on the 42 (Lightning) or the 47 (Lightning), that’s a different story.

We’re trying to bring customers back into the industry, so maybe their father had one or their uncle and we’re trying to hit that marketplace. Here’s your entry-level Fountain 35 without a trailer, we could sell it for $250,000 and it’s a great sport boat that runs 85 mph. For ($300,000), we could put you in one with 565 horsepower and run over 100 mph. We’re trying to bring people back in, pull them back into the market and get them the experience of driving performance boats because it’s been, except for the top 1 percent, dormant. 

Iconic Marine COO Jeff Harris (right) with Reggie Fountain Jr. has deep ties to the company, returning to the leadership position after the death of Joe Curran.

Iconic Marine now has a workforce of 230 employees. How do you avoid the mistakes of the past that saw boatbuilders either seek bankruptcy protection or shut down? 

I’ve been in business for a long time. I’m 61 years old, I’ve owned businesses my entire life, so I have a saying, ‘He who controls the most good people wins.’ I try and find the best people I can and put them in position to try and minimize mistakes.

When we’re building a team on a go-forward basis, we’re trying to find the very best people and plug them into the right spot, and sometimes you have to adjust. If you look at a guy like Jeff (Harris) who’s been around, knows the industry inside-out, helped lay up the first Fountain, has driven every type of race boat and is a world champion racer, besides being familiar with the boat manufacturer, seldom do you see that. 

You get a guy that’s a great race driver, great. He doesn’t really know how to build boats. You get a great boatbuilder, he’s never driven one, so they may not understand all the small little tweaks and things you need to do, so it’s fantastic to have him back in the company and leading that charge because he actually understands both sides. Most guys don’t. The amount of R&D that we put in is big, we’re continuing to do that. That’s how we’ll grow the company and continue to bring good product to market. 

What do you consider success for this company? 

Success would be to maintain and bring out new products every year and build the strongest manufacturing company for longevity to be able to create jobs and create value for our customers. I started off with really nothing, I’m a mechanic by trait. I took my family business from zero dollars to $350 million. 

I had 450 employees and when somebody asked me what I’m the most proud of, it’s creating a company that employed 450 families and they know during the Great Recession I wouldn’t lay anybody off. We grew our family business. It’s stability to build the best product for the customer to create value and when you’re doing that, you can weather storms. I run a company that can weather storms.

You have to earn respect and earn loyalty. It’s just not easily passed around. You have to earn it. That’s what we’re doing. The guy on the line who wants to build the best product or the engineer that wants to design the best or the painter that wants to do the best job in paint, whatever it is, you want those guys to want to do their best because they’re proud of what they do and so to create that atmosphere is very important to me. 

I didn’t need this. I did this because I wanted to rescue three iconic brands. I also did it because I thought Reggie got a raw deal. If you ask him, he’ll tell you the story. I wanted him to leave on top.  PRA   

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