In the beginning…..
Who would have thought that attaching a wooden platform to two round sealed cylinders would evolve into a modern watercraft that is today known as the Pontoon Boat or Party Barge. Since these boats have become one of the most popular modes of transportation on the water today, it might lead one to wonder just how the idea came about and how different they are today. The earlier years have been covered here, but lets take a look at when they really became popular with traditional boaters and what they have become today.
The beginning of what is now known as the modern Pontoon boat was created by Ambrose Weeres in 1951. At that time, Weeres was asked by a friend to create a platform out of tubes and oil barrels that would float in water. His initial boat was basically a plywood sheet secured to 55-gallon steel drums. Weeres learned that steel pontoons collapsed when they contracted due to cold temperatures. He redesigned the floats to include a vent tube in each pontoon to allow for fluctuations in air temperature. The first boat, later named “The Empress”, sold before Ambrose even had a chance to name it. In his first year, Weeres constructed four more boats. In 1952 he founded Weeres Industries and took orders for 40 more boats. He then took his Pontoons to a boat show in Chicago and rounded up another 100 orders. A company marketing highlight occurred when Weeres pontoons were to be used in water events at the Minneapolis Aquatennial celebration, a week long summer community festival attended by thousands of Minnesotans. After the overwhelming response from that showing, he now had a work force of twenty two employees to keep up with increased demand. The company continued to prosper until sometime in 1954 Weeres sold the business to Ray Knese.
The 60′s, 70′s and early 80′s…
Knese built a large production facility near St. Cloud, Minnesota. Business increased enough that Knese added two more production facilities in 1964. The number of employees grew to 22.
Sometime between 1964 and 1976, Dick Anderson purchased the business. In 1976, Weeres Industries produced more than 900 pontoons. For a short time Weeres also produced trailers for pontoons, water bikes, and snowmobiles. The newer pontoons at this time could accommodate larger motors, making it easier for users to pull waterskiers.
During the years Anderson owned the company, sales ranged from $1 million to $1.5 million per year, and production varied greatly from year to year. At that time, Weeres produced Pontoons from 16 feet to 28 feet in length with a variety of layouts. By this time the competition in the field had grown and at the same time the entire marine industry was beginning to slow down.
There were now again new owners of the company. When Clint Lee and Gordon Brown took over in the early 1980s, the company was near declaring bankruptcy. At that time the company had just 16 employees, and annual sales were under $1 million. According to the new owners, the company had faltered for several years because the previous owners failed to reinvest the profits in the business.
Lee had a background in the boating industry and Gordon had experience running small businesses, so they were looking for a business opportunity in manufacturing that produced a tangible product. So they looked at Weeres.
One thing that attracted Lee and his partner Brown to Weeres specifically was that the company had some of the most expertly skilled aluminum welders in the industry. Aluminum welders were hard to find and difficult to train. In large part because of that exceptional craftsmanship, Weeres had a reputation for superb quality. Weeres pontoons were built like tanks, according to Lee, but they lagged behind the competition in the area of styling.
Lee and Brown focused on improving quality and lowering costs. Early on in their ownership, they invited Weeres and his family for an outing on a large luxury Weeres pontoon. They wanted Mr. Weeres to see how far his invention had come. In 1985 Weeres Industries purchased Palm Beach Boats, which manufactured both salt-water and freshwater pontoons.
In the late 1980s, pontoon manufacturers noticed a dramatic change in the demographics of pontoon owners. Because Pontoons were easy to trailer and were safe and versatile, young families started buying them as well. At this time, boat design, as well as furniture design made great strides in order to attract more customers. In 1991 Ambrose Weeres was among the first four people to be inducted into the Minnesota Marine Hall of Fame. He was lauded for his initial innovation and Weeres Industries was praised for it’s continued improvement on the design. Innovations that the company garnered were the first to use pressure treated plywood and fabricating the Pontoons from aluminum, rather than steel. The company really began to grow between 1992 and 2002. One factor for that growth was that Weeres began selling boats, trailers, and motors in a package deal. This made it much easier for consumers to purchase a complete setup without having to decide piece by piece. Also the economy was much stronger and people began to spend money on recreational activities more and more. In the late 1990s, Weeres saw 30 to 35 percent annual growth, and the staff grew to 60 employees.
The company received national recognition in 2000 when Pontoon and Deck Boat magazine named Weeres the “Best-Built Luxury Pontoon.” By this time Weeres was a worldwide corporation and they made pontoon boat types that suited most everyones needs. They has designs for fishing, swimming, waterskiing, or just for cruising lakes and streams. The specialty models helped to attract new users. Pontoon sizes ranged from 16 feet to 28 feet in length and gave the consumer plenty of choices.
2000 and beyond…
Pontoon have now evolved into much more than Weeres would have thought possible. Accessory selections included portable toilets, changing rooms, electronic fish finders, radios, tape and CD players, roof enclosures, swivel seats, wheelchair gates, aerated livewells for keeping fish or storing cold beverages, and mini-kitchens with microwaves and refrigerators.
The company’s success is based on continually trying to improve it’s product and getting their product in as many dealerships as possible. Also careful scrutinization of employees added to and improved on that. Weeres pontoons had a reputation for lasting forever.
The 50th anniversary of the company was in 2002. Weeres management and employees remain focused on producing high-quality boats and satisfying their customers. Looking to the future, Lee did not expect any dramatic changes in the pontoon boat industry, but he believed the company’s fiberglass offshore business would see growth. Company owners Lee and Brown are still at the helm of the company that started it all.