“Those who do not want to imitate anything, produce nothing.”
– Salvador Dalí
When aboard with time to reflect (i.e., not in a regatta, foul seas, driving, etc.), I often find myself fixated on some component on the boat, often ingenious in its simplicity and utility. A car running on a track. The simple mechanics of a seacock. Heck, even easily overlooked things like fenders have a whole story behind them, a nautical lineage that may go back to when humans first took to the sea.
Everything on a boat is the product of real people’s ingenuity and effort. Somebody, at some point, invented component x. Other somebodys, probably with praiseworthy trade skills, made it, and teams of somebodys got the component x out to the world for me to encounter. I try to take time to appreciate this insight, that this or that clever contraption in my hand is an extension of humankind’s talents, dedication, and seafaring desires. I’m just the shmuck who gets to step in at the last phase of the process to benefit!
To peel back the curtain on the world of marine manufacturing and distributing, I met with one of the greats, Frederic Laffitte, founder and co-owner of PYI Inc., a Lynnwood, Washington, company. After living a sailing centric life, French-born Laffitte settled in the Pacific Northwest after meeting his wife in Victoria when getting ready to skipper a Vic-Maui race (which he won aboard Bravura in 1978). He founded PYI Inc. in 1981, a marine parts distributor that’s grown into a manufacturing force as well. Now with a European office, subcontractor gigs with Boeing, in-house fabricated shaft seals for everything from recreational sailboats to commercial fishing vessels, and top-quality brands including MaxProp, KiwiGrip, Jeffa Steering, and more, PYI Inc. looms large on the global marine scene.
As of last summer, Laffitte can also add Transpac winner to his list of achievements, crewing aboard the J/125 Hamachi that broke the all-time speed record for the legendary course. As the Hamachi crew reportedly said, when Laffitte “The Godfather” speaks, you listen.
NWY: It’s fairly uncommon for a business to both act as distributors of imported products and manufacturers of marine components, correct?
Yes, but 60% of our business is manufacturing and 40% is distribution, import. A key part of it is that we’re always able to change gears. Of course, we haven’t only hit home runs; we’ve had plenty of failures along the way. After a failure, you’re forced to switch gears, and you look at something and decide the best thing to do is to make it yourself. Other times, a product is great and it’s better to just distribute it.
NWY: What are some of the key things you distribute, and why don’t you make them in house?
Some products are too complicated to make in house. This is true for products like the MaxProp or the R&D products, which are related to engine noise reduction. Sometimes the products are protected by a patent or trademark or what have you. Or sometimes you just don’t want to get into the complications of manufacturing a product that’s basically a copy of the original. We invent products, but I never just copy. That’s just not our style.
NWY: Is copying a big part of the marine industry?
Yes, tons. The propeller for example, MaxProp. We’ve been the MaxProp distributor for about 37 years now. Those are made in Italy and were the only feathering propeller on the market when they started. Now there are seven different manufacturers of feathering propellers, and pretty much all of them are direct copies of the MaxProp. Fortunately, we have the name and the reputation, and we have what I think is a better product. Quite often we are not the cheapest and we lose sales due to price competition. That’s normal. We try to be the quality guys. No product here at PYI has ever been at the bottom of the scale.
NWY: What’s special about MaxProp?
MaxProp is the original feathering propeller. Basically, you have three types of propellers for recreational sailboats: you have a fixed blade propeller, a folding propeller, and a feathering propeller. Fixed blade props work great going forward, but are not that great in reverse and they drag a lot under sail.
Folding props work very well going forward, drag very little under sail, but they are very poor in reverse. The feathering props, the MaxProps in particular, are very good moving forward under sail and drag very little like a folding prop, but they work the best in reverse because they have the same configuration in both directions. So, that’s the three types of props, and we have the slot in the middle for cruising boats and racers, which are our markets.
NWY: How exactly does the manufacturing side of things work? Does PYI Inc. have a bunch of patents?
Well, we have some patents, but not too many. If I take the shaft seal for example, which is our biggest manufacturing product by a longshot, we make that seal for anything from a Catalina 30 sailboat to a Foss Tug with an eight-inch shaft and everything in between. We make everything right here, and we sell it all over the world. Big markets are in Europe, where we have another distribution company over there and Southeast Asia. We do a lot of work with commercial boats now, whether it’s the fishing fleet or, the fastest growing fleet from our perspective, passenger ferries. If you look at the Victoria Clippers, those kinds of boats are using our seals. We make seals for both shafts and jet pumps.
NWY: What makes a good seal? Why are yours so successful?
Years of tinkering with it. We’re unique in the way we make these extremely simple seals, and it drives some competitors crazy. They make these complicated seals that are much more expensive than us but serve the same purpose. Maintenance is where we shine, for our seals have little maintenance. We’ve had fishing boats here, big crabbers, that have 100,000 engine hours on our seals. The engines run 24-7 on those kinds of boats, so it’s pretty impressive.
NWY: What are some of the most important components in your shop?
The assembly for the shaft seal is always kept as clean as possible. A few years ago, we started another product that we’ve subsequently sold, the Seaview line of products which are antenna and electronics mounts. We actually sold Seaview to our own people who used to work in our office and were a part of inventing it. They are in Spokane now, thriving and doing very well. The idea was that these guys did basically all the work and it made sense for them to have the product. I mean, we make money on it, of course, as we sold it to them. They are doing well, and they deserve it.
Whenever you see a radar or antennae, between the boat and the antennae is one of Seaview’s parts. We have only one competitor in England making something similar and we’re kicking their ass. I’m a Frenchman, so it always feels good to kick British ass.
When we sold that, our shaft seal line was growing more and more, and we were at the mercy of the machine shops in the area. We decided to buy a machine shop and bring it in house, and now we have six C&C machines here and we make our own parts. We make our parts for miscellaneous people who want us to do a machining job, including a small company north of here called Boeing. We are a subcontractor for them, and they help keep the machines running all the time.
NWY: Did you have problem with staffing the machine shop after you acquired it? A lot of local marine industry businesses are hurting for skilled tradespeople these days.
Absolutely, that’s a big reason why we decided to buy a shop and not just build a shop by buying the machines and finding the people. The key for us was the guy who came along with it. We handcuffed him, nicely, with a progressive payment plan so he was getting paid while the shop was getting (up and) running. He’s a genius at machining and I hope we never lose him. The bottom line is that we have great people in the shop, three guys right now and they’re busy all the time.
NWY: What are the industry trends that you see going forward?
We do three other products. One is KiwiGrip, a unique nonskid paint and we’re the global disturbers and owners of the brand. We own the name. We don’t make it, it’s made in New Zealand, but that has a lot of applications outside of the marine industry, whether it’s a houseboat or even parks and recreation areas. Anywhere you need nonskid, it’s a simple product that’s nontoxic. So, this is a good product for us.
We will be doing the Jeffa Steering, a small business for sailboats. It’s fairly small because there are so few sailboats built in this country, but we do a fair amount of business with one off and small custom production sailboats and rudder bearings. We are the only rudder bearing supplier for these sailboats in the country.
The boating industry is a tiny industry. Whenever we go to a parks and recreation show, we realize how small the marine industry is. But we have just started with a new product that will put us on the map even more. It’s a textile inflatable fender called Fendertex® Fenders. It may sound like a trivial thing, why would you do fenders? But that’s until you see the product and understand what it does compared to anything on the market. On that we have a patent system in Asia, Europe, and the states and nobody can duplicate it. It’s an enormous opportunity for us. It is a 100% reinvention of the fender.
NWY: A lot of what you do seems to be to know what boaters need and then get it to them.
Yes, this is a big part of what I do here. I have a great business partner, Kevin Woody, and my son, Nic Laffitte, works with us, along with the rest of a great team. We may not be huge, but we are 26 Yes, this is a big part of what I do here. I have a great business partner, Kevin Woody, and my son, Nic Laffitte, works with us, along with the rest of a great team. We may not be huge, but we are 26 people, so it’s a fair number. Plus, eight in Europe, so we’re not that small anymore.
Whenever I see something that people need, I’ll see what’s being used, pick up the concept, and try to make it better. Sometimes I see something that I just know I’d want on my boat just the way it is, and that’s when distribution is the way.
If I need a product, I know I’m not the only boater. Other boaters need it too. That’s why being able to change gears between distribution and manufacturing has been so critical to our success.
NWY: Sometimes I feel like I see a lot of new boat stuff that seems superfluous. Do you see that also in the industry?
Truthfully? All the time. I’m going to the Metstrade show in Amsterdam, and 50% of the products are pipe dreams. They may be cool or nice, but because of the realities of the market, they just won’t ever make it.
NWY: Do you have any tips for consumers to buy smart?
I’m not sure about tips, but think about how much stuff a lot of people buy on Amazon that they don’t really need. When you see a product, it’s probably best to think of it in terms of ‘do I need this?’ or is it, as you said, superfluous? It is probably best to start with a problem or need on your boat and work backwards to a product. That’s the only way I do things, not just say ‘oh, I just got this cool thing, where do I put it on my boat?’
NWY: Final question, how do you win a Transpac?
The owners of the Hamachi have become really good friends, but the funny thing is that I only raced with them once when the whole thing came about. It ended up becoming a team effort with everyone participating financially in the whole race. It is something I’ve done when chartering boats, so I have no problem paying, and I think that put a will to win in there. We all shared in the win, more so than just temporary crew. We had skin in the game.
We got the crew together and bottom line, we won the right way and sailed fast. We did not follow any specific guidelines. We hardly followed the instruments because half of them were not working, so we sailed the boat like a dinghy all the way to Hawaii. We sailed the thing to its potential all the way. We just finished the calculation, and we sailed 105% of the boat’s theoretical potential. That’s 5% above how fast the boat is supposed to be sailed.
We only broke one sail, and we had the same sail up pretty much the whole way, the A 2.5. All the way! We broke one, put the other one up, fortunately had a spare, and finished the race. The race was easy on the crew, but we went the right way. It was a J/125 race, just look at the results. We started on the right day. But the other crews were no slouches, and they were all professionals and we were all amateurs. Matt Pistay may have been the closest thing we had to a real working pro, but he had never crossed an ocean before, so I don’t think we could call him a pro just yet. The real professionals had very long faces after we finished.
There are a few key points in the race, I’m not going to tell them all, that I told the owners about. I did the race five times before, and the Vic-Maui once. I put a list together of locations where the race is going to be won, and it turned out just like that; just outside of Catalina Island, getting in the slots, and then the finish. The middle is irrelevant, just sail fast.
Somehow, we were able to connect the dots on all three and that’s why we won. Not by much though, 40 minutes!