Pioneer Boats, based in Walterboro, South Carolina is successfully launching multiple boat lines from the Lowcountry. Co-owners Mike Holmes and Roy McSwain, who both grew up in boat-building families, started Carolina Composites, a boat specialty parts manufacturer, in 1999. Now as Pioneer Boats, the company has dealers dotting the entire East Coast, and recently expanded to Texas. Its success has the company doubling employee numbers and expanding with two new models. Henry Sikes, vice president for sales and marketing, guided me on a tour of their 122,000 square foot warehouse located alongside Interstate 95.
Pioneer Boats was originally based at a small warehouse in Harleyville, S.C., until it began producing 22-foot bay boats in 2008, and was forced to move into a larger space in Walterboro. Though the small boats market took a hit that year, co-owners Holmes and McSwain remained committed to the bay boats, a staple of family life on the water in the Lowcountry for many years. The pace of production remained slow in 2009, but became more steady in 2010, and the business plan for Pioneer to compete against other mid-range cost boats took hold.
“Things got interesting when we produced the 197 Islander that still has a cost in the low 40’s,” said Sikes. “It’s by far our most popular boat and I consider it the product that helped us get to the next level of success.” Sikes described the features of this family-oriented center console. “There is a full-bench seat in the back, forward-facing back rests up front, and gunnel padding around the entire boat. The forward storage and anchor box make sure everything can be stowed neatly for those days when you just want to go for a long boat ride.”
“We usually rig the 197 Islander with a 150 hp, 4-stroke motor, and we have multiple motor manufacturer options,” said Sikes. “Our boat model year runs from July 1 through June 30, and for the year 2014, we probably doubled our previous best mark. We build these boats as soon as an order comes through and we have had to expand from 26 employees in January 2014, up to 66 employees in 2015 just to keep up with demand.”
Pioneer launched the Bulls Bay boat in 2013, and are launching the Avenger line this year. The Avenger boat hull has its origins in South Louisiana, a place where they have as many various boat types as they have wading birds. Sikes said Pioneer acquired the Avenger brand so they can build and launch a 26-foot bay boat, with future plans to roll out two smaller models.
“The Avenger Boats will be a high-end offering and the 22-footer can take up to a 400 hp engine,” said Sikes. “All the boats are being built side by side here in Walterboro, so we have assigned dedicated employees to each brand.” As we toured the facility, the fiberglass spraying area was in high gear. We viewed the molding and motor-mounting section before heading outside to the boatyard as a trailer carrying a new boat headed out to Manteo, N.C.
Business at Pioneer Boats is taking shape, which means jobs for local folks and chances for promotion. Jack Fulton was recently named the new customer service manager. Fulton worked and trained others on the production line for many years.
Co-owners Holmes and McSwain take customer service very seriously and trust their loyal and long-time employees like Fulton. If I had to guess, I’d say the folks at Pioneer Boats are having fun right now with the growth afforded their small company by customer demand…all of which sounds like a recipe for success when it comes to giving boat buyers a bevy of boating options.
Jeff Dennis is an outdoor writer and photographer who grew up on a creek in Charleston loving the saltwater, and he contributes regularly to All At Sea Southeast. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com