Wearing cowboy boots and blue jeans, fifth-generation farmer Mike Craig, 45, puts the finishing touches on a sleek 32-foot luxury sports cruiser built by Cobalt Boats in Neodesha, Kan. (pop. 2,842).
Craig installs a GPS on the Cobalt 323, then inspects every gauge and component before making sure that every cedar-lined closet is flawless—consistent with the company’s mantra to “compromise nothing” and reflecting the Midwestern work ethic he developed while growing up in rural Kansas.
“Every one of these babies is hand-built, made from scratch,” says Craig, who has assembled Cobalt boats for 25 years and also raises cattle on 240 acres of rolling Kansas prairie.
Craig is among Cobalt’s many farmers-turned-factory workers who build 2,000 boats annually in Neodesha, 1,500 miles from the nearest ocean and a two-hour drive to the closest sizeable lake. With a company culture that stresses ingenuity, pride in workmanship and small-town family values, Cobalt crafts high-end runabouts and cruisers that are considered among the best in the industry.
Starting the boat-building business in landlocked Kansas was anything but smooth sailing, however, for founder Pack St. Clair, 70, a former football star at Kansas University. He always loved boats and, growing up in southeast Kansas, boated with his dad on area lakes. But St. Clair knew nothing about building them in 1968 when he converted his slide-making fiberglass company into a boat factory in Chanute, Kan. (pop. 9,411).
At his first boat show in Chicago, he failed to sign a single dealer, and the headliner on one of his cruisers even fell off during the drive from Kansas. “My wife [Jill] spent the whole boat show inside the cabin,” he recalls. “Every time someone would stop by to look, I’d tap on the side of the boat, and she’d hold the loose headliner in place.”
Undeterred, the rookie boat builder invested the family’s savings into developing a high-end runabout, an undeveloped market at the time, then hauled his new high-performance Cobalt to the West Coast. When dealers in California insisted that their customers would not pay 15 to 20 percent more for a luxury cruiser, St. Clair parked his aerodynamically striking Cobalt at a service station across from San Francisco’s Cow Palace during the venue’s annual boat show. Passersby gushed about the sleek design, and finally a dealer in San Ramon, Calif., took a chance on St. Clair’s luxury boats.
“We’re family-owned, and Cobalt is family-owned,” explains Frank Warn, 82, who signed on as Cobalt’s first dealer in 1971 and continues to sell the boats, as do 125 other dealers across the globe.
Cobalt offers 20 models from 20 to 37 feet in length and ranging in price from $40,000 to $450,000. Unlike builders that use mass-produced parts, Cobalt designs and creates most of its own components. Hand-sewn vinyl interiors are double-needle stitched. Decals are molded into fiberglass bodies rather than glued on. Structural materials are chosen to produce a ride that is quieter and safer than most other boats.
Cobalt employs 400 workers, including many farmers who started with the company in 1970 when St. Clair moved his factory from Chanute to a former Standard Oil refinery in Neodesha. His son, Paxson, 45, became CEO in 2006 and plans to stay the course.
“There’s no magic formula,” Paxson says. “We simply treat our customers with respect, the way we’d want to be treated.”
Eventually, most Cobalt boats are hauled from the heartland to bodies of water far from Kansas. On Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, software developer Neal Trogdon keeps his 2005 model moored for summer outings. The 36-foot, 8-ton cruiser is the second Cobalt he’s owned.
“My boat is my own private island,” says Trogdon, 65, of his Cobalt, which includes a galley and a sleeping cabin. “I love cruising on it with my friends and family. It’s a perfect place to relax and enjoy the water.”