Ill-Fated Wisconsin Boat Company Is Raised From the Depths

Partners David Ross and Jim Ruffolo set the Burger Boat Co. afloat after it was waylaid by poor management and bad luck.


November 30, 1990 was a sad day indeed for both a famous boat building company and the city of Manitowoc, WI. That day, the Burger Boat Company's shipyard was ordered to be closed down and padlocked by the parent company that had mismanaged it. This ruling had the additional indignity to come via the impersonal route of the fax machine. In all, 167 workers were forced to leave and spend what was undoubtedly a bleak holiday season. It seemed a legendary company, its dedicated workers and a city immensely proud of them had all "sunk" to rock bottom.

But unlike Titanic, which slowly decomposes at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the Burger Boat Company was salvaged and returned to its old glory. It is projecting nearly $20 million in annual sales for 1998 and has picked up where it left off as a leader of yacht building.

"Burger is a respected name in the industry and has been since the turn of the century," said David Ross, the company's president. "It is known for being first in many areas of boat building, as it made one of the first motorized pleasure yachts in 1903, and it was the first to build a motor yacht with all-metal construction in 1938."

Burger Boat was started by Henry B. Burger in 1863 and stayed within the family for five generations. The last Burger who owned the company sold it in 1986 because of failing health.

The new owner at that time wanted to relocate the company close to his Florida home, meeting with obvious resistance from the Manitowoc workforce. He, in turn, sold it to Tacoma Boat Company, which had been building military and commercial ships and wanted to offset dwindling sales by making pleasure craft. Unable to make the transition, Tacoma accumulated many debts and piled them all on Burger, to the tune of $23 million, to keep the parent company afloat. Tacoma foundered anyway and dragged Burger with it.

This is where Ross and his partner and vice president, Jim Ruffolo, entered the picture. Both had been in the graphic arts and digital imaging business and, according to Ross, were always used to the highest standards for quality from their prior business experiences.

"I had been into yachting for most of my life, so I was aware of the Burger name. I also had an offer that I could not refuse to sell the graphic arts business to several large companies. Upon hearing about Burger, I decided that that was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life," Ross said.

Burger was reopened with considerable emotion and fanfare in February 1993. After all, the city of Manitowoc had looked towards Burger as a co nsiderable source of civic pride, as many of its residents built vessels for celebrities and royalty alike. Nearly half of the workers who were from the original company came back to the rejuvenated shipyard. But the company needed some nurturing to become financially viable again.

"We felt the company was more or less abandoned, so we brought it through a Chapter 7 filing which purged the debt," Ross said. "But it took a solid three years of significant losses before we broke even in the fourth or fifth year. Now, prospects for the future are very good."

Currently, Burger builds boats with an all-aluminum hull that are anywhere from 85 to 135 feet in length,

Burger Boat Company president David Ross says that the company uses many different wood species. This 98-foot Raised Pilothouse motor yacht, which is earmarked for a customer in Monaco, features a bird's-eye maple cabinet, a Carpathian elm console and a teak steering wheel. The floors are also teak with a maple spline.

 with an average vessel about 100 feet long. The starting price for

one of these pleasure yachts is about $5 million and up. One of the main features of these luxurious crafts is the extensive woodwork that adorns their interiors, from wall paneling to galleys and heads (kitchens and baths), wheelhouse consoles and soles (flooring). The average, per-boat value of this interior woodwork ranges between $70,000 and $80,000, and this segment of work usually takes about six months to complete.

All work is new construction, but Ross said the company is looking to acquire a shipyard, probably in Florida, which will specialize in service, repair and refitting. The shipyard in Manitowoc will also undergo a complete rebuilding process. The current joinery shop occupies 3,000 square feet; the new facility will allow for a 7,500-square-foot joinery shop.

For the yacht interiors, there are no real trends in terms of one wood species being more popular than others, Ross said. But species choices seem to go in spurts, where several boats in sequence will feature the same woods.

"Five or six boats in a row had cherry, and then two or three in a row had anigre," he said. "When customers come in, they often see the way we're finishing a boat in progress and they say, 'I want my boat to look like that.' But it mostly varies. You name it, we use it on our boats."

Ruffolo said Burger uses rough-sawn hardwood that is personally inspected by the staff so it is of the highest quality. "We use veneers for the walls," he said. "Hardwoods for the cabinetry, handrails and mouldings are matched to them."

Teak and mahogany are traditionally regarded as marine species, and Burger uses them quite often, with teak used frequently on wheelhouse soles. There, 2-inch-wide and 1Ú2-inch-thick teak planks are epoxied together and laminated to 5Ú8-inch plywood. A 3Ú16-inch strip of very light maple is laid in between the teak planks to complete the look.

While species such as teak and mahogany are more appropriate to withstand the elements of marine life, such as humidity and salt air, kitchens and baths on many Burger yachts will quite often feature maple, oak, ash and walnut.

"If there is a trend today, it is to have the boat interior match that of a home, with the species that are used in homes," Ross said.

However, Ruffolo said that "when building a home, all walls are built plumb and square by design. But due to the shape of boats, the craftsmen must contend with walls that are not plumb and surfaces that bend and twist. Also, unlike most homes, these compound surfaces must be covered with exotic wood veneers, hardwood and custom-built cabinetry to fulfill the design wishes of a very discerning clientele."

In addition to the kitchens, baths, flooring and wall paneling, fine woodwork is featured in pieces such as bars, bookcases, bed frames and entertainment centers. Some also have faux bookcases that act as closet doors, with a facade of hardcover books, and Burger will also produce appliance garages.

Initially, the rough-sawn wood earmarked for the Burger yacht interiors is put through a Rockwell planer. Panels are then dimensioned on a Delta table saw and run through a joiner from Northfield Foundry & Machine Co. The pieces then go to an Incra-jig, an indexing system for making accurate, repeatable cuts, as well as inlays, Ruffolo said.

Flat pieces, such as those for cabinet interiors or cabinet frames, go through a Burlington widebelt sander, while raised panels are hand sanded. Other equipment in Burger's joinery shop includes an oscillating belt sander from Ritter, which is designed for doing a bullnose radius or edge sanding, an Ellis drill press, a miter saw from DeWalt, a Delta bandsaw, a Powermatic drum sander and a mortise and tenon machine.

For the finishing, Burger will do smaller pieces in a JBI spray booth, while the large cabinetry pieces, walls and flooring will be finished after installation on the boat. Ruffolo said the rooms are bagged and finished one at a time.

"We try to treat the whole room as a piece of fine furniture," Ruffolo said, adding that most of Burger's customers look for a satin finish. The company uses oil- and water-based varnishes from Epifanes, a Netherlands-based company. Lacquers are also used upon request.

In terms of hardware, the company uses Soss flush hinges and drawer slides and glides from Julius Blum and Accuride.

"A lot of our hardware is 24-carat gold-plated," Ross said. "This ensures a lot less deterioration over the years when you are dealing with the sea environment."

Burger Boats once built pleasure craft for royalty. Now, the company with a new lease on life may not literally build for kings and queens, but is well-known within the affluent circles of telecommunications and software moguls.

"We deal with a client base that obviously has the wherewithal to be in the yachting lifestyle," Ross said. "We will attract people who have an obsession with quality and, basically, we feel that quality creates its own demand. By doing a high-quality product, we've attracted that high-end client."

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