Walking into Hell’s Bay Boatworks in Titusville is like stepping through a time portal of sorts. In the reception area, hundreds of images of folks on boats, kids on boats, dogs on boats, and fishermen – lots of fishermen – are taped to the wall. Some are accompanied with personal letters of thanks to Capt. Chris Peterson for “the best boat I’ve ever owned” and stories (and images) of “the one that didn’t get away.”
The letters go back almost 10 years when Peterson, president of Hell’s Bay Boatworks, and his wife Wendi, vice president, decided to purchase the bankrupted company and bring it back to life. To do so meant making some difficult financial decisions, but one thing they felt they couldn’t compromise on was setting things right.
A number of clients had lost deposits for boat orders in the bankruptcy process and Peterson knew he needed their trust to move forward. “We contacted each of the customers and agreed to honor their deposit if they would continue with the order,” he said. The majority agreed and soon the news was drifting through the boating community. The move solidified the Petersons’ reputation as stand up business owners and launched a following of loyal customers who will only consider purchasing their shallow water skiffs through Hell’s Bay Boatworks.
“These folks,” Peterson said pointing to the picture wall, “they are our family. We know them, we socialize and live in their communities, we owe them the best we can provide.”
Old School Values, Old World Techniques
Old school honesty and decency are part of the company culture, where the atmosphere is relaxed and boats are made by the hands of men to the exacting specifications determined by Peterson and his designers.
“We don’t invite our customers to point out a model in a catalog,” Peterson said, “we talk to them, ask them what they need, what they want, where they want to fish, who will be on the boat with them.”
The 14 employees build 100 of the shallow water boats annually, with design specifications for many of the boats measured and mapped out on the production floor. “This way, we can get it to scale correctly as the client wants,” said Peterson.
Consideration is given to draft, weight, angler’s needs and the boat’s motor – since Hell’s Bay boats are custom made, clients can choose whatever motor makes them happiest and the build process works around that.
Employees work in the production bay behind the showroom, the smell of plastics and the dust of shavings heavy in the air. After the boat plug is built (similar to a wax molding), the boat moves through different stages of build until completed.
Hell’s Bay has a constant improvement program, one that allows design and process flexibility, so that each can be changed as needed. Hell’s Bay has patents for hull designs, and a ventilated tunnel and led the way in lamination technology. They were the first to combine the use of Crestapol resins and Innegra fibers (a polypropylene- based fiber that when woven can be used just like carbon fiber or fiberglass) to create a very lightweight and extremely durable composite structure that has since been adapted for Formula One racecars.
Steve Hobbs, 25, a recent grad from the UCF School of Business, is listening to loud rock music as he vacuum infuses the surface of a boat. He started as an intern a few years back and intends to work in every build phase so he can learn the business from the ground up.
“And then, I want Chris’ seat. I want to run this company and I have to learn everything I can about it to do that,” said Hobbs, who majored in entrepreneurial studies.
“Why not,” said Peterson, clearly amused. “This kid wants my job, I’ll be ready to let it go down the road and then I can get on one of these boats and fish all day.”
Growing and Gator Led
Seems like the approach is working. In 2016, the company was listed as a Grow FL Florida Company to Watch honoree, alongside other Central Florida notable companies Pegasus Transportation and TerraCom Direct.
Hell’s Bay Boatworks also has received kudos from Peterson’s alma matter, the University of Florida.
The Gator100, sponsored by the University of Florida, the Warrington College of Business Administration and the Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation (CEI), celebrates the achievements of leading UF alumni entrepreneurs around the world. The Gator100 ranks the 100 fastest-growing, Gator-owned or Gator-led businesses each year.
Peterson values the knowledge he has been able to glean from mentors and entrepreneurs that have helped him along his business journey. So, giving back is as much a part of the company plan as budgeting, human resources or scheduling.
Each year since 2014, Hell’s Bay participates in a entrepreneurship program through UF’s Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation that provides support to disabled veterans who are starting new businesses. It’s a terrific way to share our experiences and stories with up and coming business owners, he said.
Peterson is also on a number of conservation boards, and serves in the following capacity for them:
Vice President, Coastal Conservation Association of Florida
Board Member, Guy Harvey Ocean Fund
Bonefish and Tarpon Trust
International Representative for
International Game Fish Association
His ire rises when he speaks about water conservation. “There is so much misunderstood about it,” he said, “most people think the bulk of damage is being done by lawn runoff, but really, it’s the antiquated septic systems that are leaking into the lagoon causing the most damage, and it’s much further away than just in close proximity to our waterways,” he said.
Peterson envisions a solution similar to the Orlando Wetlands Park, where wetland communities remove residual amounts of nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from reclaimed water, essentially scrubbing it clean before depositing it back into the St. Johns River.
“We’ve got to do more about it,” he said.
New Boats, Same Waters
Old school honesty and decency are part of the company culture, where the atmosphere is relaxed and boats are made by the hands of men to the exacting specifications determined by Peterson and his designers.Branding efforts will continue to evolve as Peterson and his team look at ways to convey the “lifestyle” message of the boats they craft.
Saturation is a worry, as shallow water anglers almost only turn to Hell’s Bay Boatworks when contemplating a new purchase. To address that, and to attract new customers, Peterson and his crew recently added the 24’ Estero, the largest they produce.
From start to finish, boat/motor/trailer included, the Estero is $110,000. Of course, custom paint, interior design applications, Bimini boat tops – all extra.
But with this, Peterson sees room for growth. “This can be a boat for fishermen but also for anyone who wants a quality crafted watercraft that can be configured to fit the needs of any recreational boater or sportsman. Anything is possible, anything is doable.”
And with that statement, perhaps it’s clear why Hell’s Bay Boatworks continues to innovate and attract new clientele: Anything is possible.
Hell’s Bay Boatworks is located at 1520 Chaffee Drive in Titusville. For more information, call 321-383-8223 or visit online at www.hellsbayboatworks.com.