BY REBECCA HAYTER – BOATING NEW ZEALAND MAGAZINE
Apparently I am not the first to liken Lance Fink’s office to that of J R Ewing, the Texan oil tycoon of 1970s television drama, Dallas. The desk is large and authoritative; the couches big enough to take several men wearing Stetsons. As founder and managing director of Tristram Marine, Lance, 56, knows he’s a leader in the fibreglass trailerboat industry.
I’ve just walked through the showroom and up a sweeping staircase to his office; the edge of the mezzanine balcony curves over the boats on display. Lance says the best way to look at a boat is from above so this is his viewing platform for customers. From here, he can indicate the attributes of the entire fibreglass Tristram range of 12 models, from the Prima 581 to the Offshore 881.
His face could have been carved out of marble and his opinions regularly boom across the marine industry. “I do have my own beliefs on things,” he says. “I have my own style but you still do that in a diplomatic business way, instead of just screaming at people. You do that when you’re young in business and you actually learn that it’s not effective. Some people who don’t care about things, they drift through life. Well, I don’t drift.”
He is passionate about the industry in which he was raised. It began with the boatbuilding business established by his father, Ray Fink, in 1960. There the young apprentice first set eyes on Bronwyn Bell, the daughter of a customer’s friend. They’ve barely been apart ever since and have built the company, over four successive sites, since setting it up three months before the share market crash in 1987.
“Bronwyn’s the accountant cum financier of the company. She also does sales. She enjoys dealing with members of the public and she’s damn good at it,” Lance says. “We don’t work apart. We like being at work together. We know where each other is every minute of the day. Now that doesn’t suit a lot of people but it suits us.”
Their sons, Tristram, 28, and Kingsley, 24, have always been closely involved in Tristram Marine. As pre-teens they were at boat shows, folding brochures and polishing fingerprints off hulls. Now, Tristram markets the brand, and Kingsley has taken over the role of general manager, including boat design. Lance’s younger brother Andrew and his wife Fleur run Andrew Fink Marine across the road from Tristram Marine in Te Rapa, Hamilton. The family ties are strong and extend to what Lance calls the Tristram family: owners of Tristram boats. Andrew Fink Marine builds the Enduro range of trailers for Tristram boats.
“We design all our own trailers to suit the look of our boats,” says Lance; for example, each trailer’s stem post matches exactly the angle of the boat’s bow: a matched set.
Tristram Marine had a major release on 21 August this year to unveil two long-awaited 701 Tristram models: the Vanquish as a soft top and the Offshore as a hardtop. It was the customers, not local dignitaries, whose names spiced the speeches and who were called up to the dais to receive bunches of flowers, bottles of champagne. Lance’s parents looked proudly on.
As usual he shared his views on the timing of boat shows. “I have my beliefs about when boat shows should be and I don’t agree with the timing we’ve got now, in May. The buying public has changed and where they used to order boats in June or July and manufacturers could go back and have boats behind cars by October, people aren’t buying like that now. Purchasing has become more seasonal. People want to go out and buy a boat and take it home at the start of summer.”
Lance has modelled his marketing strategy around the Tristram family and changed his business model significantly following the GFC. Instead of going to boat shows to meet his customers, he brings customers to him. He supports only one North Island boat show and would like to see it as one large Auckland Viaduct boat show. Internet purchasing has changed retail buying in every sector.
“We pay for the South Island air fares for clients to visit and in some cases free-freight the boat around New Zealand,” he says. “We get to know our clients; they get to know us. We form a relationship.
“I don’t like the term, ex-factory. I want people to come into our show room – which is a boat show every day – and then I’ll take them for a factory tour. There is a difference. There is a gate between the two – and it’s a big gate.”
His family of clients include those who have bought several Tristram boats and still have two or three in different parts of the country. Recently a retired couple visited Tristram Marine and liked the Grandeur 851, but were worried about managing the big boat on their property. Should they select a smaller boat? Lance visited them at Kawakawa Bay and told them how he would manoeuvre the Grandeur in that space. The following week he delivered the boat personally.
“I visit our clients’ properties because if it doesn’t work for them, it will be wrong. I delivered the boat last Wednesday and I did exactly what I told them I’d do.”
The boat package, ready to drive away, can include insurance, finance and a Sensabrakes kit fitted on the client’s vehicle. “It’s just another hassle that we’re taking away from our client. They like to think they’ve got one phone number for their whole Tristram package.”
He is equally hands-on through the design and manufacture of his boats.
“I love creating,” he says. “I’m a bit of a manual boy. I’ve watched things over the years, trial and error and hopefully not too much error. I just have a flair for how a detailed boat should be designed.
“I still have a share in putting the graphics on the boats,” he says, meaning the manual application of stripes and decals, “because I won’t have a boat in the showroom with a wavy stripe on it. It keeps my hand in because I can check the quality before it goes out.”
He used to design in pencil but the latest designs have been transferred to CAD (computer-aided design) and developed from there, with Kingsley doing the deck and interior drawings on CAD; the hulls are drawn in CAD offshore, and five-axis routers create the hull plugs in foam form.
“Plugs made on a router are extremely accurate which is important considering our attention to detail,” he says. “Design has a lot to do with safety. I won’t build a boat with a 23-degree vee. I think it becomes too unstable at rest. I build high cockpit sides, 900mm high, so that ladies feel they are in the boat, not on the boat.”
He describes his management style as directive. “I like things done my way but I still listen because that’s how we learn. I like things as sharp as you can get it. You don’t get paid to do a job twice – although I have to say I’ve got the best crew now I’ve ever had. There’s always room for improvement. The road to success is constantly under construction.”
His management style had its toughest test in 2010 when a fire destroyed more than half his factory. “We had to rebuild everything. The only hull mould saved was our Grandeur and most deck moulds. We had to start again.”
Most of the plugs in hull form escaped the fire, enabling Tristram Marine to quickly rebuild brand new moulds and even add to its range.
“It was hard working through the GFC [global financial crisis] and the fire but we are now well in advance of where we were prior to the fire.” he says. “Hey, we’re back here now. Twelve models. Love it.”
When recruiting, he looks for people who are self-motivated.
“I like to take on apprentices so they learn one way and it’s Tristram Marine’s way. Absolutely, I definitely prefer rearing and breeding my own staff.
“We love it when somebody walks through the door: ‘Can I work for you?’ Not me putting an ad in: ‘Can you work for me?’ There is a difference.
“We get a very good calibre of person in the Waikato, especially when they’ve come off a farm. They’ve been taught by Mum and Dad.”
Just like Tristram and Kingsley Fink – taught by Mum and Dad.
Boating New Zealand Magazine