J. Orin Edson, founder of Bayliner Boats, passed away in Seattle on August 27, at the age of 87. Edson, a National Marine Manufacturer Association (NMMA) Hall of Fame inductee, will be most remembered for helping to father the boating boom of the 1980s and as a philanthropist in his later years.
His start in the marine industry was humble. Edson was newly married, fresh out of the U.S. Army after serving in the Korean War and attending the University of Washington. He set up a spot in an empty dirt lot in Seattle to sell off some used boating gear. He sold it faster than expected, and then quickly sold the boats of a few friends. Edson realized he might be able to turn his weekend stall into a full-time career, dropped out of college, and hit the ground running.
His first full-time foray into the boating business was purchasing unfinished wooden boats, painting them, and outfitting them with outboards from dealers in the area. Without a storefront or boat line to sell, his success was uncertain, but hard work and innovations like opening on Sundays when the competition was closed got Edson to the point where he became a force in the local market. Eventually he had a Mercury engine franchise and boat lines to sell. His company, Advance Outboard Marine, opened six stores in the Seattle area, then three in Texas, and one in Miami.
His experience in retail gave Edson an accurate perception of what customers were looking for in a boat. Edson contracted with a local boatbuilder to create two low-cost runabout models. Eventually, they took the boat building in-house and named the business Bayliner Boats. At a time when there was an emphasis on customizable boats, Bayliner went in the opposite direction, offering boats that came in one color, one layout, and one engine type, greatly reducing the production cost of their boats.Edson knew reducing unnecessary costs was the path to success for Bayliner, and he looked for opportunities to control more steps of the production process.
When Chrysler was selling their marine engine division, Edson jumped on the opportunity. It was a risky $17 million move, but it got Edson an 850,000-square-foot factory and the ability to control the quality of both the boat and the engine. This all made way for Bayliner’s signature product; a boat, outboard, and trailer all sold in one at a price affordable for the middle class. They even allowed a financing scheme where boat owners could, with minimal money down, pay off the boat for $99 a month, conceivably for years or even decades.
This innovation turned Bayliner into one of the most successful businesses in the marine industry, with three-quarters of a billion dollars in sales each year and a thousand boats built a week in 24 factories across the country. In 1986, Edson sold the Bayliner brand to Brunswick Corp. for $425 million. While most would have considered that a fitting end to an impressive career, Edson couldn’t keep away from the boat business and purchased a majority ownership of superyacht builder Westport Yachts in 1992. He applied his innovations to Westport, and by the time he sold his shares in 2014, Westport was considered the most active superyacht builder in North America.
By this time, Edson had a personal net worth estimated at $1.3 billion, and in his later years, he and his wife Charlene focused on philanthropic activities, giving $65 million to Arizona State University’s nursing program and for research on dementia. The Edsons also founded the Northwest Organization for Animal Help, an animal shelter in Everett, Washington.
Edson is survived by his wife Charlene, sons Jack and Mark, grandsons John and Alex, sister Carol, and brother Walt. A private service in Washington will be held for family members. A Celebration of Life event is planned for a future date at the time of this writing, but until then the family requests privacy.