Groupe Beneteau is a powerhouse in the world of boat building – the largest builder of production boats in the world, whether power or sail, and a big part of the company is a state of the art manufacturing facility in rural Marion, S.C.
A Lengthy Tradition
The Beneteau family comes from the French village of Saint Gilles Croix de Vie along the rough Atlantic coast. Benjamin Bénéteau, after a stint in the Navy and earning his certificate from the prestigious College of Naval Architure in Rochefort, returned home in 1884 to build fishing boats. Unlike traditional workboats, with finer lines and distinctive hull shapes, his boats sailed closer to the wind and performed in lighter air.
In 1912, Benjamin revolutionized fishing boats in his region, producing a combustion engine-powered boat with no masts. Fishermen were skeptical, but his reputation and reliability convinced the locals. His son, André, inherited a thriving business in 1928. While continuing to design well-built boats, André was not a very good businessman. He turned for help to the next generation in the 1960s, his son André and his daughter Annette.
Growth and Innovation
Annette Beneteau reluctantly took the helm of the family company at the age of 22. In 1964, she recalls, “Pleasure boats were just becoming popular with only one such builder in the Vendée, Jeanneau.” Her brother André had just designed a small fishing boat.
“We built it in fiberglass, adding a little cabin, a mast and a keel,” then showed it at the 1965 boat show in Paris. It was an immediate success.
That same year, Annette married Louis-Claude Roux who owned the second largest chain of hardware stores in France. Madame Roux continued to put her own stamp on the company, building boats for people who now had time for recreation. Ironically, she had to reach back to the company’s origins “to demystify sailing” by building boats that were easy to sail.
André Mauric designed the First 30, a racing sailboat, winning the Salon Nautique de Paris’ boat of the year award in 1978. André continued to design power boats, developing the popular Antares line for fishing and cruising. Bénéteau’s reputation in the world market grew. Two years after going public in 1984, the company opened a new manufacturing facility in Croix de Vie and a U.S. facility in Marion, S.C., as the Oceanis line of cruising sailboats developed.
In the 1990s, Bénéteau acquired Contruction Navale Bordeaux, a shipyard specializing in luxury aluminum sailboats. The company purchased Jeanneau when it went bankrupt and also picked up Lagoon catamarans. Bénéteau ended the decade by creating European Yacht Brokerage and SGB Finance.
To effectively manage the assets, Madame Roux started restructuring the company in 2001, forming four separate divisions: the pleasure boat division with Bénéteau and Jeanneau; the shipbuilding and large pleasure boats division for CNB, Lagoon, Wauquiez, Voyager TM (rapid passenger boats), and Bénéteau Pêche (fishing and work boats); the mobile home division; and the vehicles division.
On the 120th anniversary in 2004, management was turned over to a board. Eight years later, Groupe Bénéteau has reorganized. To reflect its changing markets, Bénéteau Inc. was created as a holding company for Groupe Bénéteau’s North American Boat Operations that includes Beneteau America, Inc., Jeanneau America, Inc., and BGM America Inc. Wayne Burdick, formerly president of Beneteau USA, has been appointed president of Beneteau, Inc.
Laurent Fabre, former director of sales and marketing for Bénéteau’s North American powerboats division, is now president of Beneteau America Inc., and covers sales and marketing for the northern tier of South America, the Caribbean, Central America, Mexico, the United States and Canada. Paul Fenn remains as president of Jeanneau America Inc., and Gerard Martineau is president of BGM America Inc.
Martineau’s new position at BGM gives the Marion factory flexibility and the autonomy to deal with the worldwide offices of multiple Groupe brands, according to Burdick. The factory builds the Bénéteau 31, 34, 37, 41, 45 and 50s (including the new Oceanis 50) as well the Jeanneau 37, 40 and 44 models.
Carla Demaria, head of Monte Carlo Yachts, the Groupe subsidiary building 65-foot-plus luxury yachts, is now the general manager of the Bénéteau brands worldwide.
The Marion Plant
When the boating world was reeling in 2009, most manufacturers tried to conserve money. Bénéteau bucked the trend, investing millions in the South Carolina plant using “American ingenuity with all the work done by our team,” Burdick proudly explained. “We only used one contractor – to install our cranes.”
He describes the renovated plant as a “single line, continuous flow, lean manufacturing methodology that no North American big sailboat builder matches.” Both Bénéteau and Jeanneau have “their individual design attributes and unique features, but both brands are built to rigid superior quality standards and advanced industrial engineering.” It’s all done “by the same great team of dedicated Americans right in Marion, S.C.”
New features in the factory include the unique closed molding process developed over years to be greener and cleaner, which is better for the workers, notes Burdick. The hull and deck are built with an injected resin process so exact that the amounts used for each piece are always the same and there are no voids. The resin, along with the fiberglass, gelcoat and other products used, are proprietary materials formulated for Bénéteau. “The 50 is the largest injected deck in American boat building,” Burdick claims.
In making the hulls and decks, hydraulic adjustable jack stands move to accommodate various molds. Pieces can be tilted at all angles for an easy reach. Overhead cranes on tracks move parts around the building.
Many previously outsourced parts are now made in-house. Computer generated cutting boards create both cloth and wood pieces that are labeled then placed in bins or “kits” marked for each particular hull. The kits are also used to build modules engineered “to be easy to assemble but elegant.” Built outside the hull, workers have 360-degree access to the components. They can build all the modules for a two-cabin Oceanis in six hours and for the three-cabin in 1.5 days. One worker can build a complete galley in less than 10 hours.
Once the hulls and decks are formed, the ports cut out and checks made for blemishes, they are released to the assembly line. A lift elevator brings parts to the line and up to the platform astern of the hulls.
First, a structural hull liner is added for strength and rigidity. Then electrical and engine units are installed, working from bow to stern. “Part of the beauty of the system is that hull to hull is similar,” Burdick said. “The workers know the process is the same for all sizes, and the side by side assembly allows work on all sizes at the same time.”
Modules are installed and structural bulkheads properly lock everything in place. The deck is mounted and keel attached, then to finishing, including a splash in the pool to test run the systems.
Under the old process, with eight lines, one boat was completed every five days. Today’s schedule is much more flexible. Gone is the 25-day wait as one model’s boats moved through the plant, allowing the factory to address customer needs and time for building a stock of smaller boats.
Marion Family Values
Marion is located in a land-bound, rural county. When Madame Roux visited, her welcoming reception impressed her with the conservative values of the community. “Tell me about the people,” she said. “We have money to buy anything. You build a team and you build the people – that is the most valuable thing.”
Today the factory is the third largest employer in the county. Everyone from Burdick on down works together. All are actively involved in the community, acting as mentors and tutors.
“Encouraging kids in school has resulted in improved grades…and improves their futures,” Burdick says.
Bénéteau has grown to 20 manufacturing facilities worldwide. Another production facility for powerboats just started operations outside Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Bénéteau will introduce a new 55’ Oceanis at the Paris Boat Show in December and plans to make a major announcement on new models in Monte Carlo.
As Burdick says, “We’re producing boats that are fun to sail yet safe and secure at the same time.”
Bénéteau sailboats have a great reputation for cruising, a perfect combination of comfort and performance that keeps customers’ needs at the forefront of design. More than 100 models are available from 20 to 60 feet from Bénéteau, Jeanneau and Prestige. The Lagoon cruising catamarans are based under CNB as are the commercially oriented Voyager TM and Bénéteau Pêche.
Many adaptations have been made for the American market. The new Oceanis 50 is a good example. It can be configured a number of ways, starting with choosing whether to have a two-, three-, four- or five-cabin layout.
Then there is the rig choice. The ICW rig has a 5.74’ shoal draft keel and an ICW-friendly mast (63.5’) that leaves room for instrument installation. A taller “not-so-friendly mast,” as described by St. Barts Yachts owner Chuck Laughlin, is available in a roller furling mast or a classic mast with flaked sail. The deeper keel measures 6.89’.
Another nod to the American market is an enclosed shower, separated from the rest of the head.
Creature comforts are important, but the Bénéteau sailboats also have a great track record as racing yachts. In 2011, a First 40, NAOS 2, captained by Charles Devanneaux, completed the Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, then, this year, he took first in his division in the Pacific Cup from San Francisco to Oahu, on a First 30. In this year’s Vic-Maui Race, a First 47.7, sailed by David Sutcliffe, took first in class and second overall while the First 456 Radiance, sailed by Mark Ward, took first place in the cruising class from Victoria, British Columbia, to Maui.