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Personnel file - December 2008: Marine Industries

Steve Heese
President and CEO, Chris-Craft Corp.
Kings Mountain

Tough times call for creativity, particularly when you’re selling luxury items. Steve Heese, who runs Sarasota, Fla., boat builder Chris-Craft from its plant in Kings Mountain, is banking on cooler designs to keep the business afloat. In November, it unveiled the GT Lancer model, a collaboration with General Motors in which boat and car have a similar look, with a vintage feel including leather seats and chrome steering wheels and controls. “In order to spark that ‘gotta have’ urge in a customer, you need to deliver that wow factor,” Heese, 48, says.

The new model is one of many the company has cranked out to weather the sour economy. In July, it laid off 80 workers, 40 in Florida and 40 in Kings Mountain, mothballing its North Carolina manufacturing and shrinking its work force to about 200. About 40 designers and sales-and-marketing personnel remain at the Tar Heel site, a 220,000-square-foot former axle factory. Chris-Craft came in July 2006, and according to Heese, once the economy shows signs of recovery, boats will be built there again.

Born in Whitefish Bay, Wis., and raised in England and Florida, Heese is a lifelong boat aficionado. He earned bachelor’s degrees in accounting and mechanical engineering from Tulane University in 1983. Before graduating from Harvard Business School in 1988, he met future business partner Stephen Julius. Heese spent the next 12 years in Australia, Asia and England with a construction-products company before tiring of the travel. He and Julius bought Chris-Craft in 2000 for $10.5 million from Waukegan, Ill-based Outboard Marine Corp. They have reversed years of losses by returning to its roots, with 1950s-style dashboards and covered decks. In the last five years, it has nearly doubled revenue to $55 million. In 2004, they purchased Indian Motorcycle Co. — they won’t say what they paid — which Heese also runs.

He is clear that Chris-Craft wants to maintain a presence in North Carolina. The Tar Heel state was his first choice when Chris-Craft expanded manufacturing outside Florida. “It’s business-friendly, and it’s a beautiful place.”