“It would take a genius to make a new mistake around here,” says Tom Schock of W.D. Shock Corporation. “And we’ve made them all, but I think we have our market dialed in these days and we’re set for 2010.”
And set they may be with the planned introduction of the Harbor 30, the third in the hugely successful Harbor series. Tom Schock stands atop the mold of the new design in his 30,000 square foot boat building facility in Corona, California. “We’ll be ready to introduce this weekender design in the spring when I think the market will be willing to look at new boats again.”
It hasn’t been easy, but W.D. Shock Corporation has managed to stay afloat through tough economic times primarily because they take their business very personally, believe in a business model that has no debt, and stay small and nimble to shift gears quickly. Self-described as a series boatbuilder rather than a production builder, Schock has produced more than 13,000 boats of 70 different models from 8 to 55 feet over the past 50 years, much of it thanks to President, CEO, shop foreman, head salesman and chief bottle washer, Tom Schock, the second generation of boat building Schocks.
“The important thing is to identify the target market and give that group of sailors the best boat of its kind,” says Schock. “You can’t be all things to all people, so each time we launched a new design, we made it specifically for a niche. And we did that well. But in the process, we built so many boats that we’ve done a fine job of confusing everyone as to who we are and what we build.”
Started by Tom’s father, W.D. “Bill” Schock, the business had its humble beginnings in Newport Beach, California where the elder Schock started repairing rental boats for a local amusement park. Soon he started building boats and by the 1950s, fiberglass came into the picture and Bill’s friendship with designer Barney Lehman led to the production of a 10-foot sailing dinghy, the first U.S. built production fiberglass sailboat. The success of the Lehman 10 led to the fiberglass Snowbird, Sabot and the Schock 22. By the end of that decade, Shock rang the bell with the introduction of the boat that put them on the boatbuilding map, the Lido 14 of which 6338 hulls were built. They are still used today in school fleets around the country.
Tom was two when the company was founded and 18 when he was named manager of the firm’s retail shop. At twenty-one, Tom moved from the retail shop to the manufacturing facility where he worked in each production department, becoming the CEO when he was 24.
There was a lot of time spent on the race course too, dialing in the coming designs. Tom became the youngest Snowbird champion at age 12 and went on to win championships in numerous other one-design classes including Thistles, International 14s, Lido 14s, Santana 22s and 20s, and the Schock 35s. He crewed on the 12-Meter Columbia in 1967 in America’s Cup trials and has raced in countless offshore distance races on both coasts including over 25 Newport to Ensenada runs.
Self-effacing and down to earth, Tom Schock is an unassuming presence so you’d never guess at his racing heritage which is substantial or at his clientele which includes some of the wealthiest businessmen and accomplished sailors. His friendship with Gary Mull brought about the development of the Santana 22 of which more than 700 hulls were built. Humphrey Bogart is in the family scrapbooks too, sailing a Lehman 12, and Roy Disney just launched a new Morning Light in the form of a Harbor 20.
Tom was commodore of the Newport Harbor Yacht Club when he and five friends, all world class sailors in their day, lamented how nobody was out sailing and that yacht clubs had become dining clubs because it was just too much trouble to get most boats out for a quick day sail. But these guys did more than complain. They decided that if they were to get their club sailing again, they’d have to design the boat they couldn’t buy. So they spent three years collecting ideas, brochures and price points and in 1997 handed Tom a 20 page document that described what was to become the Harbor 20, the boat that steered Schock in a new direction.
The new design had to be fast, easy to sail, low maintenance and safe. “The idea of hiking out was strictly prohibited,” says Tom. “We built a boat that would be sailed from the cockpit where everyone was safe, dry and comfortable.”
The Harbor 20 became a success with 296 hulls built in just over a decade. But the thing it was missing was a head – literally — a day head that would entice wives to come out for an extended sail. So the Harbor 25 was introduced with a marine toilet, accommodations for four and the same great sailing performance. In the spring of 2010, Schock plans to launch the Harbor 30 in which a 6 foot sailor can stand up, a key feedback point from the owners of the Harbor 25 where headroom is scarce. And with that boat, Shock might just officially step over to the cruising part of the sailing world.
Tom still gets out on the water every chance he gets and he can’t stop tweaking sails for that extra bit of speed. During our tour of Newport on the Harbor 25, I watched the master eek out just a half knot more when I thought all was trimmed to perfection. “I don’t race much anymore,” he says. “I spend more time coaching, teaching and crewing. When you win against your customers, it’s bad for business.”
Tom is building hull #277 of the Harbor 20 for his own use but is having trouble finishing it. There have been at least three boats that have carried the number 277 because anxious customers keep buying the one he’s building for himself and his wife. “Everyone wants our boat because they think we’re putting something special on it,” says wife and chief marketing officer Jane. “The truth is our boat will always get the leftovers — the scratched mast or mismatched parts. The boat is nothing special but we keep the hull number the same for sentimental reasons.”
The factory’s backyard is littered with old jigs and molds for designs that keep having resurgence. “I was going to cut most of these up,” says Tom. “But some of them keep coming back to life as we get orders from one-design fleets and schools.”
Today, the lead time for a new boat is six to eight weeks. That time could be shortened by ramping up production but Schock is not ready to do that, preferring instead to remain small and able to turn on a dime. He doesn’t see any need to move production overseas like many builders have done to cut costs. “I’m not sure what you’re saving when you extend your supply lines 3,000 miles, combine two cultures and add communication problems. We’ll keep building boats right here in California for as long as anyone wants to buy them.”
And it seems there is some pent up demand. Tom is maintaining a healthy file of interested parties who’ve written in to inquire about the new Harbor 30.
Would he go back to building racing one-designs? “We could, and we might at the right time,” he says. “Right now, it’s not a world of instant .com millionaires who buy the fastest and flashiest boats. Today, we’re focusing more on the wealthy, stable, ex- racers who still want to get out and compete or just go cruising for a while.”
What has kept Schock interested in racing and boat building for so many years? “Winning is a pretty good drug,” he says. “So is building better, faster boats. But these small cruisers might be where it’s at going forward.”
And Tom might have something there. At a time when the sailing industry is crying about how few new sailors are being recruited, the boat builders are brining out 60 footers with price tags in the millions. Maybe all we need to grow sailing is appropriate boats that are fast, fun and at 30 feet, manageable and affordable.