Kingston shipbuilder makes waves with high-performance vessels

MetalCraft Marine manufactures fire boats and patrol vessels for customers around the world
Metalcraft Marine

On the shoreline of Lake Ontario, the Kuwait Fire Department’s newest ship is taking shape.

Loaded with pumps several times more forceful than those on a standard fire truck, the 82-foot boat must still be capable of racing to emergencies at high speeds – a task that requires powerful engines, high-end navigation tools to locate ships in distress and durable electronics to withstand the punishing climate off the Arabian Peninsula.

It’s a list of requirements that Kingston-based MetalCraft Marine knows well. The Eastern Ontario shipbuilder has already delivered four vessels to the Kuwait Fire Department since 2015 and is drawing on its expertise in designing and constructing high-performance aluminum workboats for governments and organizations around the world to expand into new markets.

“We’re all about growth,” says MetalCraft Marine president Bill Connor, noting that the company’s revenues have more than doubled over the past seven years. “I can’t see us stopping.”

Patrol boats

MetalCraft Marine was launched in 1987, when founder Monty Smith bought Kingston Aluminum Yachts. From there, he and Tom Wroe renamed the company and changed its direction, steering it towards the patrol and workboat sector. 

Metalcraft Marine

Today, the company is equipped to construct custom vessels that range from 25 to 85 feet, priced anywhere from $60,000 to $6 million. And depending on the size, a boat can take from eight weeks to a year-and-a-half (or 25,000 hours) to construct.

While the firm has contracts with the Canadian government, more than 80 per cent of its products are exported to the U.S. – where most major ports have at least one of their fire boats – and other countries including Kuwait, Vietnam, Grenada and Bangladesh.

Up until about seven years ago, most of MetalCraft Marine’s business revolved around fire boats, says general manager Michael Allen. He says the Kingston firm remained at the forefront of the niche industry by continuously making its vessels bigger, faster, capable of pumping more water and outfitted with increasingly sophisticated technology.

300 years of shipbuilding history

At the same time, the company has also dabbled in custom projects, such as constructing a pair of 65-foot glass-bottom boats for a tour company in Tobermory, Ont.

But in recent years, the company has built off its success in delivering on a “big” contract with the Canadian government to provide high-performance boats, growing its product line to include high-speed rigid inflatable boats used by coast guards, police departments and military forces.

“We’ve been able to take that product line and expand it,” Allen says, estimating that roughly 30 per cent of the company’s sales now come from the patrol boat market. “Now we have a very well-known — and it’s becoming better known every day — very high-speed, high-performance patrol boat that (is) getting interest from all around the world.”

Skills shortage

Operating a shipbuilding company comes with unique challenges. It’s a capital-intensive industry in which payments are typically only made once a ship is delivered, meaning cash-flow, construction financing and the fluctuating price of raw materials must constantly be top-of-mind for the company’s managers.

Additionally, MetalCraft Marine – which currently has approximately 80 employees, including 15 in the U.S., where it has a facility just across the border in Watertown, N.Y. – faces a challenge finding skilled workers. One way it’s tackling the problem is by working with colleges to expand its trained workforce.

From the perspective of MetalCraft Marine’s managers, there should be plenty of work for its new hires in the coming years.

With a loyal customer base and some 90 per cent of sales coming through word-of-mouth referrals, MetalCraft Marine has built a solid foundation for future growth.

“It’s been one boat at a time,” Allen says. “It’s a relatively small industry with a few major players, and at the end of the day customer service and quality wins out. And we do that each and every time.”

What’s next for the company?

Finishing that 82-foot long boat for the Kuwait Fire Department. It’s a big job that will take a year-and-a-half to complete, but it’s a tall order the company is excited to tackle.