By Tim Carini
BassFan Sales Executive
Phoenix Boats came about in 2007, right before the big economic collapse. It was not a promising situation for the first new bass boat company to enter the market since Triton, which did so some 10 years earlier.
However, the first few years saw some good sales and promising growth for the new company. So much so that Phoenix recently purchased a new factory and additional land for future expansion.
Intrigued by their success, as well as their boats and the story behind it all, I took a ride up to the new factory to check things out.
For the first few years, Phoenix built boats out of the old Bumble Bee factory in Tullahoma, Tenn. While that facility served its purpose, it was also a bit limiting for growth, as the company could only build 250 boats per year. The new facility in Winchester, Tenn. is currently on track to turn out 500 boats per year, with the ability to produce up to 1,000 boats annually.
In addition to the factory, there are several undeveloped acres that could be used for even more expansion in the future. Obviously, Phoenix has plans to be a major brand in the bass-boat market for years to come.
The Man Behind the Boat
Many BassFans know Gary Clouse, the president of Phoenix, as a boat-building expert with decades of experience in the industry. Some may even know that in 2012 he won the Angler of the Year title for the PAA Tournament Series. What they may not know (and I didn’t either, until recently), is how passionate Gary is about tournament bass fishing and how far back it goes with him personally. In the hours I was with Gary, it was hard to keep focused on business as we were trading fishing stories like two guys in a local club.
“My first big tournament was a B.A.S.S. Invitational at Lake of the Ozarks – Guido Hibdon won it,” said Clouse, harkening back to 1981. “I drew Randy Behringer, who wanted to run upriver. I'd heard about flipping, but didn’t own a flipping stick at that time."
Behringer went on to finish 5th in that event and the experience made a lasting impression on Clouse. During the '80’s he fished several more national B.A.S.S. events as a young man without much financial backing, an all-too-familiar story for many of us who have tried to reach fishing’s top ranks.
We traded stories of him having to borrow money to make it home after one tournament, and of me having to evade tolls in New York to make it home when I was in a similar position. I was starting to see that Gary is just your average diehard tournament bass guy.
Fishing Experience Fuels Boat Design
When I asked Gary how his angling experiences translate into Phoenix’s designs/features, I got a simple and straightforward answer with a classic Southern drawl. “I was a fisherman before I was a boat-builder," he said. “That’s why I got into this. To me, it’s a missed opportunity for a company for the executives to not be anglers. I work harder at it because it’s a passion."
As an angler myself, it’s easy to see some of the features that only an angler could grasp. For example, the ruler is not stored under the tackle lid compartment, but pulls out from the side of the closed lid. This is great because I hate having to lift open my compartment to get the ruler, especially in the rain.
Phoenix recently moved into a new facility in Winchester, Tenn. that's allowed the company to double its production.
“And when you pull the ruler out, you're right there in the cockpit, the lowest area of the boat to measure your fish and prevent it from jumping out of the boat," Clouse said. "Remember Jim Bitter and that famous scene that cost him the Classic?”
I surely do, and I’m sure many BassFans remember it, too, with the voice of Bob Cobb in the background on Bassmaster TV.
Another neat feature that only a true angler would understand is the net storage. The landing net is always in the way when running down a lake. Or for anglers like myself, it's buried in a storage compartment under a deck full of rods and difficult to get at the last minute when needed.
With Phoenix, the net is stored in an easy to access compartment that runs under the seats and livewell and can be pulled out in an instant. Gary explained how they came up with that idea.
“We didn’t use a computer model or anything like that, we just knew that the net is always in the way and there had to be a better place to put it. A few of us were out in the boat and we just used common sense to figure it out.”
Those are just a few of the features of Phoenix boats. A visit to the company's website will reveal many more, such as the rotating tackle system and the Aqua Channel Deck Drainage System to help keep water out of the front storage compartments.
From a purely business standpoint, I’m intrigued by the success any boat company can have in a less than perfect economy, let alone a brand that's fairly new to the marketplace. Let’s be honest here, how many of our fishing friends bought new boats during the past few years? I only know a handful. However, Phoenix has been successful in capturing those buyers.
“We’ve developed a reputation for dealing fair with people and delivering a good product at a good price,” Clouse said.
After a tour of the factory, Gary asked me, “How much cost savings did you see?” While I’m no expert in the cost of building a bass boat, it was obvious there were plenty of places to cut and save money on the building process. “I don’t know, $1,200 easy” I replied.
A finished Phoenix boats contains a lot of angler-friendly features.
“We don’t do that. We aren’t governed by a corporation and bottom line,” Clouse replied.
A testament to the quality of their boats is the all-star pro staff, which includes Aaron Martens, Greg Hackney, Russ Lane, Chad Morgenthaler and the newest addition, Davy Hite.
“Every one of them came to us," said Teresa Johnson, another veteran of the industry who's employed by Phoenix. "They could go anywhere, but came to us first.
"We believe in quality, not quantity. The pros are very important to brand-building.”
The Year Ahead
Before my visit was over (I'd been there for half the day), our conversations reverted back to fishing. Gary will be competing in both the Southern and Northern Bassmaster Opens in 2013. When I asked him if he'd fish the Elite Series in 2014 if he qualified, he said, “Yes, if I can get off work."
“Qualifying and being competitive are two different things … that’s where the real test begins," he said. "Can I be competitive? I’d really like to find out. Those guys are really darn good fishermen.”
Yes they are, Gary, but so are you. I know one BassFan who thinks it would be very cool to see a president of a bass fishing company fishing in the Elites.
> Phoenix has a tournament rewards program called First Flight. Original owners who win Tier One tournaments can earn $7,000. Tier One tournaments include 1-day BFL and Weekend Series events as well as EverStarts, Opens, PAA events, FLW Tour and Elites Series events.