Westerbeke Corporation History

Myles Standish Industrial Park
150 John Hancock Road
Taunton, Massachusetts 02780

Telephone: (508) 823-7677
Fax: (508) 884-9688

Public Company
Incorporated: 1937 as J.H. Westerbeke Corporation
Employees: 79
Sales: $25.5 million (2002)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
Ticker Symbol: WTBK
NAIC: 335312 Motor and Generator Manufacturing

Company Perspectives:

Westerbeke Corporation is committed to providing its customers with engine products of outstanding value, superior quality and performance, supported by superior customer service worldwide.

Key Dates:

The company is formed by John Westerbeke, Sr.
The company offers new sailboat propulsion engines.
John Westerbeke, Jr. joins the company.
Westerbeke, Sr. turns over the company's presidency to his son.
The company is taken public.
John Westerbeke, Sr., dies at the age of 90.
Steps are taken to return the company to private ownership. Corp, a North Carolina-based regional brokerage firm, about taking Westerbeke public. The board agreed, and in preparation J.H. Westerbeke Corp. was reincorporated in Delaware as Westerbeke Corporation. An initial public offering was then conducted, led by Carolina Securities and First Albany Corp., and the company's stock began trading on the NASDAQ. With the proceeds from the offering, Westerbeke retired some debt and laid away working capital, but it made no use of its stock as a way to pay for acquisitions. External growth was never a major part of the company's strategy. In 1990, Westerbeke completed two acquisitions. In January of that year, the company paid $195,000 in cash, plus the issuance of a $115,000 subordinated note and assumption of $220,000 of liabilities, to acquire Rotary Marine, Inc. As a result, Westerbeke entered the marine air-conditioning market. However, the company's success with the product never approached what it achieved with marine generators and propulsion engines. Later in 1990, Westerbeke bought the Universal Motors product line from Medalist Industries, Inc., paying $1.13 million in cash and assuming another $150,000 in warranty liabilities. This transaction gave Westerbeke the rights to an engine it had formerly distributed.

For the most part, Westerbeke continued to focus on internal growth in the 1990s, as it had throughout its history. During the economic boom years in the second half of the decade, one of the company's greatest worries was simply keeping major customers happy by meeting the high demand for Westerbeke products. Net sales grew from $26.2 million in 1998 to more than $34.5 million in 2000. Business was so strong that the company made plans to move into a larger facility. At first, the intention was to develop a greenfield site, but an ideal existing structure was found at the Myles Standish Industrial Park in Taunton, Massachusetts. At 110,000 square feet, the plant was nearly three times the size of Westerbeke's longtime location in Avon. According to John Westerbeke, Jr., when he first showed his father the company's new home in 2000, they stood in one corner and looked across at the opposite corner of the massive structure. The elder Westerbeke simply muttered, "Oh, Johnny," which his son interpreted as concern that he might have taken too ambitious a step.

John Westerbeke, Sr. was now 90 years old. He had launched his business during the Great Depression and nursed it through a number of changes in the marine industry before turning over the reins to a second generation. Only in recent months had he given up his driver's license, but he continued to come into the office a day or two each week, a limousine providing his transportation. Some weeks after visiting the company's new facility, on May 8, 2000, he died in a hospital in Milton, Massachusetts.

When the economy slipped into recession in 2001, Westerbeke, like many companies, felt the effect on its balance sheet. In addition, the company lost a major customer in Brunswick Corporation. Revenues dropped to $28.7 million in 2001 and $25.5 million in 2002. Nevertheless, Westerbeke remained profitable. At this point, there was little reason to remain a public company, especially in light of the expense corporations now faced in complying with the new reporting requirements following a spate of corporate scandals such as that which led to the collapse of Enron. Thus, in 2003, John Westerbeke, Jr. began the process of taking the company private, forming an entity named Westerbeke Acquisition Corporation which then offered $3 a share. Although he controlled nearly 60 percent of the company, completing the transaction proved troublesome. Suitors emerged, attempting to buy the company, only to be rebuffed. One shareholder initiated a lawsuit. As of December 2003, the plan to merge Westerbeke Corporation with Westerbeke Acquisition Corporation had yet to be finalized, but John Westerbeke was confident that the company his father founded would once again return to private status.

Company History:

Based in Taunton, Massachusetts, Westerbeke Corporation designs, manufactures, and markets diesel and gasoline marine engines and generators, as well as marine air conditioners and industrial diesel generators. The company's business is organized under two segments: Marine Products and Industrial Products. On the marine side, Westerbeke is a well-respected brand, supplying propulsion engines and generators to high-end boat builders--including Hinckley Yachts, Little Harbor, and Grand Banks--and production boat builders such as Bayliner, Beneteau, Chris-Craft, Catalina Yachts, and Sea Ray. The company's generators are also used by houseboat manufacturers such as Lakeview, Sharpe, Somerset, and Stardust. In addition, Westerbeke supplies the engines and generators used in the United States and other countries for harbor pilot boats, police boats, fire boats, and high speed drug patrol boats. The company also provides an extensive line of spare parts and accessories for its 22 models of propulsion engines and 26 models of electrical generators, plus discontinued models. To market its marine products around the world, Westerbeke maintains a distribution network that includes more than 65 master distributors and their dealers, as well as warehousing in Europe. All told, the company supplies marine products to some 65 countries around the world, plus the 12 islands of the Caribbean and certain islands in Europe and the Far East. A more recent product offering, marine air conditioning, accounts for a negligible amount of business. Westerbeke Industrial Products segment converts the company's marine generators for land use, resulting in nine models of electrical generators used as a secondary power source at a fixed site or installed on fire trucks, rescue vehicles, motor coaches, refrigerated trucks, and other specialty vehicles. The Westerbeke family owns nearly 60 percent of the public company and in 2003 launched an effort to take the business private once again.

Founder Born in 1909

The man behind the company's name was John Henry Westerbeke. He was born in Fairhaven, Vermont, in 1909, and four years later moved with his family to Meredith, New York, where his father bought a farm. In 1918, his father became a victim of the great flu epidemic that affected one out of every four Americans, killing 675,000 in the United States and 20 million worldwide. Westerbeke then went to live with his grandparents in Opelika, Alabama, until he went off to college in 1927. With limited funds, he was forced to borrow money to attend St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. After his freshman year, he turned to his "Uncle Bill," William Westerbeke, for a summer job in Boston. The summer job turned into full-time employment, and John Westerbeke never returned to college.

William Westerbeke owned a number of fishing gear stores in the Boston area, as well as a fishing trawler named the Vagabond. John Westerbeke signed on as a deckhand on the Vagabond and gained a practical education about fishing, the sea, and--by necessity--marine engines. During his time on the Vagabond, Westerbeke displayed a penchant for prescient thinking that would mark later achievements with his marine engine business. For example, in the autumn of 1930 the Vagabond encountered large schools of undersized haddock. He recognized the danger of catching these fingerlings and allowed them to reach their market weight of five to eight pounds each. Not only were current catches reduced, but future fishing would also be affected. Westerbeke wrote and published an article on the subject in the April 1931 issue of Fishing magazine, titled "The Fisherman Speaks--A Warning." In it, he presented his concern about overfishing--an issue that would gain greater currency decades later. Around 1933, when he was still only 24 years old, Westerbeke became the captain of the Vagabond. While that may have been the height of ambition for a man raised in the fishing trade, Westerbeke decided to pursue his future on land. With his uncle's backing, he bought the United Welding Company, a Boston business that made trawlboards, which were used to weigh down fishing nets and prevent them from floating to the surface.

In 1936, Westerbeke learned about a revolutionary new diesel engine, the GM 71 Series (also known as the Detroit Diesel 6-71), capable of delivering much greater power for its weight than other engines of the day. From his time spent on a fishing trawler, hampered by heavy, low-powered diesel engines, Westerbeke knew the difference the GM 71 could make if it were converted to marine use. In 1937, he discovered that the Gray Aldridge Marine Corporation owned the distribution rights to the engine. Westerbeke sold United Welding and bought Gray Alridge, which was folded into a corporation he formed, J.H. Westerbeke Corp. He was now in the engine business.

Although he was not trained as an engineer, Westerbeke was able to adapt the GM 71 for marine use, installing his first engine after being in business only a year. He enjoyed success in growing the company, but World War II intervened. The government commandeered all GM 71 engines for wartime use, forcing Westerbeke to scramble to find something to sell during this period. For a time, he distributed Hendy, Gray Marine, and Continental diesel engines.

Postwar Prosperity

It was during the postwar years, when he once again had access to the GM 71, that Westerbeke's company began to prosper. He expanded beyond propulsion engines, turning to generators for both land and marine use. In 1951, he bought a Boston company called Smallcraft, picking up an outboard motor line and two lines of boats, one of which was a sailboat line that became Westerbeke's passion for the next several years. He championed the sailboat, branded the Thistle, in the Boston area until 1957, after which he abandoned this market. In the meantime, his company fitted lighthouses all along the East Coast with new generators.

The company reached another turning point in 1959 when Westerbeke read about the latest development from England-based Perkins Engine Company: a small block, 4-cylinder, water-cooled diesel engine known as the Perkins 4-99. It was an engine intended for general industrial purposes and was especially suited for power tractors. However, Westerbeke immediately recognized the potential for the 4-99 to provide auxiliary power to sailboats. For some time, there had been a clamoring among sailboat makers and enthusiasts for a suitable diesel engine that could replace the gasoline engines that were in common use. Gasoline fumes, if not properly vented, would pool below the deck of a sailboat, and all too often an unsuspecting owner would start the engine and cause an explosion. An engine using diesel fuel avoided this serious danger. Westerbeke immediately flew to England to secure the import rights to the Perkins 4-99. In addition to converting the engine for use on sailboats, he also built marine generators from the 4-99. For several years, Westerbeke had a clear field for exploiting the marine uses of the 4-99 in America. Of note was the solid contract business he developed supplying engines for the 26-foot whaleboats used by the U.S. Navy and lifeboat engines specified by the Coast Guard. By the mid-1960s, however, his supplier, Perkins, became his competitor, offering 4-99 engines designed for marine use under the Perkins name.

In 1966, Westerbeke's son, John Henry Westerbeke, Jr., joined the company. Over the next ten years, he held a number of managerial positions as he was groomed to succeed his father in running the business. During this period, the company sought new sources of engines in an effort to wean itself off the Perkins 4-99. It purchased "long block" engines and added systems and components of the company's own design and manufacture. In 1976, John Westerbeke, Jr., at the age of 36, replaced his father as president of the company. Westerbeke, Sr., although of retirement age, retained the chairmanship and remained highly active in the company's day-to-day affairs.

John Westerbeke, Jr. Continues Tradition of Growth

By this stage in the company's history, three-quarters of Westerbeke's revenues were derived from propulsion engines and the balance from generators. There was a great deal of potential in the generator market, but the company was restricted to producing engines in the ten to 45 kilowatt range, which were suitable only for the high end of the market. In the late 1970s, Westerbeke became one of the first Western companies to turn to Japan as a source for engines appropriate to serve the major part of the marine generator market (requiring less than ten kilowatts). Moreover, this new line of generators was a major advance for the marine market. They were the smallest available--lightweight, quiet, and dependable. As a result, the generator portion of the company's revenues began to increase steadily. Westerbeke moved into a larger facility in Avon, Massachusetts, roughly 34,000 square feet in size, providing greater production capacity. The company also eased away from distribution, thus freeing up additional space. Westerbeke was developing such a strong name in the marine generator business that customers asked the company to develop a line of gasoline marine generators. With this additional product launched in 1983, the company enjoyed annual growth in revenues in the 20 percent range over the next few years. By the end of 1986, generators accounted for two-third's of Westerbeke's sales and propulsion engines just one-third, a major change in the company's sales mix accomplished in just six years.

In 1986, John Westerbeke, Sr. stepped down as chairman, replaced by John Westerbeke, Jr. The elder Westerbeke stayed on as a board member, holding the title of chairman emeritus, and continued to come into the office several days a week. Also in that year, the company was approached by Carolina Securities

Further Reading:

  • "John Westerbeke," Patriot Ledger (Quincy, Massachustess), May 11, 2000, p. 28.
  • "John Westerbeke, at 90, Pioneer in Marine Industry," Boston Herald, May 13, 2000, p. 51.
  • "John H. Westerbeke, 90, Was Designer of Marine Engines," Boston Globe, May 12, 2000, p. B13.

Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol.60. St. James Press, 2004.