KILGORE — It’s the man inspecting a Skeeter boat’s shiny paint job as it makes its way through the production process in Kilgore. It’s the woman following a diagram to assemble a wiring harness. It’s the welders working on the boat trailers produced in-house.
And it’s all the men and women who have come before them, throughout Skeeter Products' 75-year history.
"The No. 1 reason for Skeeter’s success is the dedication and commitment from our current and past employees that have been a part of the Skeeter team over the many years," said Jeff Stone, senior vice president and general manager of Skeeter in Kilgore. "This dedication and commitment continues to provide boats to our customers that create the so many fun and memorable experiences each time they are on the water."
The support offered by Kilgore and other local communities over the years also has been "extremely instrumental in our successful growth and expansion," he said, adding later that more growth is expected in the coming months.
Holmes Thurmond built the first Skeeter boat in 1948 in Shreveport. It was 13 feet long and made of molded marine plywood. The boat’s long nose, which resembled a mosquito, was the source of the boat’s name. It was designed to navigate through the backwaters of Louisiana, which were thick with trees and other vegetation.
"Mr. Thurmond understood that time on the water is valuable, whether our customers are tournament fishing or just cruising with family during the weekend. We share that passion for boating and fishing," Stone said in information about the business’ 75th anniversary. "The legacy he created with the first Skeeter boat is one of reliability, durability, safety, and performance. We strive to elevate those attributes in every Skeeter boat and trailer we produce. We’re proud to celebrate 75 years and look forward to many more opportunities to create unforgettable experiences on the water for our customers."
From Skeeter’s origin in Shreveport, the company moved to Marshall and then to Longview before moving to Kilgore in the 1970s. Today, Skeeter's facility in Kilgore is 240,000 square feet across multiple buildings on a 35-acre site. It serves 150 dealers nationwide and also ships to Canada and Japan.
Through the years Skeeter implemented new boat construction practices and new types of boat designs. Its ownership changed several times over the years, with Skeeter operating under Stemco in Longview at one point and, later, camping equipment company Coleman.
Stone said the company has known stability since it was acquired by Yamaha in 1996. It’s been "extremely positive," he said of Yamaha's ownership.
"We’ve had a lot of owners," said Stone, who’s been with the company for a total of 33 years, including as head of the Kilgore facility — Skeeter’s only plant — since 2001. "Being under Yamaha ownership has definitely provided the most stability we’ve ever had, but also the ability to invest in growth."
Skeeter continues to design its products, with its local engineering, marketing and sales staff, he said, but it’s a parallel process to what Yamaha is designing. Each company knows what the other is working on.
"It takes a lot longer to develop a new engine than it does a new boat," he said, and Skeeter receives new Yamaha products faster than boat companies not associated with Skeeter.
A few years ago Skeeter brought construction of trailers for the boats it manufactures in-house, along with production of wiring harnesses used in the boats. That "vertical integration" allows Skeeter, for instance, to build the wiring harnesses to specific boat orders instead of purchasing them from a vendor.
A majority of Skeeter’s bass boats take four to five days to make their way through the factory, while saltwater boats require seven to eight days. The factory’s 360 employees produce about eight boats and 12 trailers a day.
"We're not like the automotive industry," Stone said. The boat industry doesn't have the kind of infrastructure in place to produce boats like the car manufacturers. "There's a lot of craftsmanship involved, and painting the boats, the graphics, the stripes."
Adding color stripes to a boat is a three-step process for each color, he said. If it has stripes in four colors, that's 12 steps, Stone said.
"We're adding technology where we can, but we'll never eliminate the craftsmanship element that our employees bring to the table," Stone said.
Each June, Skeeter hosts an owners' tournament on Lake Fork — which the company describes as a "family reunion" that attracts some 2,000 anglers. Many owners will bring classic Skeeter boats from earlier years to show them off.
It drives home the importance of what Skeeter employees are building in Kilgore.
The production process results in a "product that some of our customers are just as happy with seeing their boat being observed on the highway as they are putting it in the water." Stone said.
"That's what's so emotional and valuable to our customers, because (Skeeter has) just built up such a following over the years, and it's so recognizable," he said.
Stone also was proud that the Kilgore facility recently achieved ISO certification. The almost two-year process to achieve certification provides a structure that will help the company as it continues to grow.
"In the end, what ISO is intended is to provide the best customer experience that can be provided with our product and continued growth," Stone said, adding that the certification has been an initiative throughout Yamaha and a "very exciting achievement" by Skeeter's staff.
Stone said the company expects to improve one of the processes used in production in the coming months, by adding a robotic component to the production step that involves employees trimming and cutting a part of the boat mold. No jobs will be lost because the change also creates jobs, he said.
"With manual trimming and cutting, you have different levels of how that’s done," Stone said, adding that the new process will reduce the time that step in the manufacturing process takes. "With the robot it’s going to be the exactly same every time. It’s more consistently trimmed."
Stone couldn’t talk about details yet, but he also said that in the next several months he hopes to announce a project that will increase the plant’s production ability to up to 16 boats a day. It would create 80 to 90 more jobs, including more employees in trailer production.
Skeeter has boat orders that carry it through May or June of next year. Economic uncertainties could affect that, Stone said.
"We're still bullish and so is Yamaha and we're still investing," Stone said, with consideration of capital plans to provide long-term growth. "We're by no means pulling back. We're looking at growth opportunities in all facets of our business."