A native of Kansas City, Fred Ross founded Custom Truck One Source, which today earns more than $1 billion in annual revenue. Having vacationed on Lake of the Ozarks for generations, Ross in 2015 partnered with his son and daughter to acquire Big Thunder Marina just weeks before it was to be sold at auction. In 2016, Ross and partners acquired the assets of the Fountain, Donzi, Baja and Pro-Line and organized the performance boat brands under the Iconic Marine Group. We caught up with Ross at the Iconic Marine Group offices in Washington, North Carolina.
It’s been three and a half years since the formation of Iconic Marine Group. Have your expectations changed in that time?
Yes, they have. I’ve been in business since 1976 and built all kinds of things and started several companies but the boat business is different from all the others. I didn’t grasp that in the beginning. In my regular world, I could build a prototype crane for probably a fourth of what it cost to bring one boat to market. When you are building truck equipment and cranes, you start with raw material but it’s not as raw as boat material. We are taking sheet steel and cutting it, bending it and welding it. When you build a boat, you take a barrel of resin and some fiberglass and you make the boat. To compare that I’d have to say I was in the steel business and I mined the ore and I melted it down. It’s really different here. It’s a challenging business but it’s been fun and I enjoy it. I enjoy the fact that we’ve brought several new boats to market from a clean sheet of paper. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another company that’s done that, and these have been big boats, too. It’s harder than I thought it would be in the beginning but I’m getting my head around it and it’s become more enjoyable.
It was certainly difficult when Joe Curran died (industry veteran Curran was Iconic COO when he died at age 54 in 2019). He was a fantastic guy. We really hit it off and to lose him was devastating. I was very lucky to have met Jeff Harris, who had worked here for 20 years and was out of the industry for a time. I was happy to get him back and to have him here as our COO. I think the organization has really gelled.
Iconic has been working hard to re-establish a dealer network.
I originally came down here to talk to them about making Big Thunder Marina a dealer, and saw the opportunities that were here. These were iconic brands that had really closed down because of the Great Recession and it took a real commitment to get floorplan financing in place for new dealers. None of our competition in the sportboat world have dealers, it’s all direct sales and low volume. We’d like to get back to what Fountain and Donzi used to be, selling lots of boats with a dealer sales model. I’m proud of the sales numbers we’ve achieved in a short time but we are looking for more good dealers. Good dealers guide customers and keep them happy. I really value good dealers.
Tell us about your effort to bring new owners to the sportboat segment with more accessible models, reviving the entry-level performance market. A Baja, for example, used to be the Camaro of the sportboat market.
You hit it on the head. A customer who’d buy a Baja has got a Camaro or a Mustang or a Dodge Charger and he’s into horsepower and wants sterndrive V-8s. He wants sporty looks with decent performance. Not exotic performance but decent performance. Bringing that back is important to me because that segment has disappeared. It’s gone. Some excitement has been lost from this market. We are going to bring back the Fountain 35 Lightning with a new deck, new dash, new interior, so it will not look like your uncle’s Lightning. With 430 horsepower engines that boat will run 85 mph, and you can get an eight-year warranty on it. It’s going to cost about $260,000, and that’s a lot of speed and a lot of boat for the price. We’ll offer the same boat with 565 horsepower engines for about $310,000 and will run over 100 mph.
Is there opportunity in the fact that many performance boats built before the recession need to be re-fitted? The nice pre-owned boats are getting consumed.
We sell a lot of used performance boats at Big Thunder. But the boats we are building today have no wood in the construction. They are technologically advanced. The new engines are better and more powerful.
How can you best differentiate your three brands, Baja, Donzi and Fountain?
Baja will be true to its original core—sport style, sterndrive with more power than a standard pleasure boat. I’d equate it exactly to a Camaro, Mustang or Charger. They’ll be fast but don’t need to be the fastest. They won’t have a step hull so anybody can drive the boat. You won’t have to be Billy Moore to drive a Baja. It looks good, sounds good. When it rumbles by with those V-8s and looks sharp the owner will be just as proud of that as a Z-28 Camaro. They are safe, fast and sporty and get you on the water.
Donzi to me is more of a gentleman’s sportboat. More of a refined interior, more comfort and styling. We will not bring back Donzi center-consoles. A Donzi will be fast but with a focus on style, for the buyer who wants beautiful lines and nice styling, like a Lexus or Mercedes. A boat with high style and luxury, but also performance.
Fountain will be focused on performance and advanced technology, with very efficient hulls. We’ll offer blood and guts fishboats, and also fishboats with some luxury and family comfort. They are fast and dry and get outstanding economy. Performance is not all about speed.
In 2018 Iconic came up short in attempts to set a new APBA/FIM Unlimited V-bottom speed record with a 40-foot Fountain. Are you still interested in chasing the speed record?
I probably pushed that a little fast. That was an effort we perhaps should have pursued in the third year rather than the first year. I didn’t understand all the facets it takes to do that. The aerodynamics and hydrodynamics play off of each other, and the smallest changes make such a difference. We attached cameras under the boat and discovered issues with the water pick-ups, for example. We won’t set a date, but we certainly will come back to that effort. It’s on the back burner but the burner’s still on.