In this day in age, it's a pleasure and a privilege to witness things being built. It's an honor to watch skilled tradesmen and women, with their own two hands, create durable goods from simple raw materials.
I live in a place where that used to be commonplace. Growing up in Buffalo, N.Y., everybody built cars, locomotives, boilers, steamships, airplanes, appliances, heirloom furniture. They fired steel, baked cereal, manufactured bleach and cut their own meat.
That world started to fall apart in the 1970s, but it finally all came crashing down in 1983. I remember the front page of the Buffalo News that day: The Bethlehem Steel Lackawanna plant, once the largest steel plant in the world with 20,000 employees, had shut down for good.
From that moment on, everything changed.
America's entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in Rick Pierce, pictured here inside the Bass Cat plant.
I won't lament the fact that most things I buy now are made in a foreign country. You really don't have much choice anymore. I buy U.S. or Canadian when I can. Against the China price, my wife and I try to spend more, when reasonable, for a durable product that'll last. And I appreciate more than ever American entrepreneurs who weather the turbulence and continue to build products by hand, one at a time.
Which is why my recent tour through the Bass Cat plant near Mountain Home, Ark., was so moving.
As I toured the facility, I remembered the way things used to be in my hometown, a city now littered with monuments to industrial failure. A place where hulking, half-standing brick shells crumble in the middle of windswept brownfields. A place where indigents collect fragments of copper, brass and stainless steel just to earn $5 for booze. Broken dreams.
That's what happens when industry fails. That's what happens when industry leaders fail.
Think for a moment what it took for the Pierce family and Bass Cat Boats to weather all the storms that sunk so much of American industry. The Arab Oil Embargo. The recessions. The credit crunch. The housing crash. The gas-price climb. The China price.
And think of the temptation they must continuously feel to sell – to live out their days on a sunny beach and enjoy the interest earned on mutual funds.
Yet Bass Cat and the Pierce family are still there in Mountain Home. They still do business in the same faux-wood-paneled back office. Old couch. Old chairs. Old pictures. Not a single instance of extravagance. No self-celebration. The air drips with the history of hardworking people. Decisions are still made in that room – father, mother and son. Sometimes those decisions come down to money. Sometimes they come down to heart.
But each and every day, the Pierce family and Bass Cat Boats build real things. They employ real people. They support real families and put real food on real tables for real amounts of time.
Bass Cat builds dreams for its customers. That's the company motto. But it builds dreams for its employees too.
Want to know how tough things have been in the boat business the past several years? I reported on the bankruptcies, the buyouts and the credit crisis. I knew how bad it was. The bass-boat industry's about 50% of what it used to be, if that.
But I truly saw how fragile it was after my tour of the plant. That night, at the Bass Cat national dealer meeting, the Pierce family named Bowden Marine of Humble, Texas, its 2011 Dealer of the Year. William Bowden, in tears, told everyone how close he was to bankruptcy, and how Rick Pierce and Bass Cat personally helped him ride out the storm. A phone call. A promise. An old way of doing business. Bowden thundered back from the brink and sold more boats than anybody else the following year.
Again, real people making real things and supporting real families through good times and bad.
Can I sit here and tell you that a Bass Cat is the best boat made? No way. I don't know. I haven't owned enough different boats, haven't test-driven every new rig, haven't punished dozens of different hulls.
What I can say is that Bass Cat builds a solid American product. I can say that it employs real, hardworking people through good times and bad. I can say that if you own a Bass Cat and have a problem, you can call and ask for Rick Pierce and he'll probably answer. And if you plan to buy a boat, give Bass Cat a fair shake.
There's a reason that Mountain Home doesn't look like my hometown and I salute those folks who truly do build dreams.