Charles Pigeon still fondly recalls his boyhood days spending time with his family nearly every weekend at Dell’s Boat Harbor outside Stockton, Calif. As a 7-year-old, he’d inspect every boat that was ready to launch, looking under the hull and asking questions of the owner.
“They say that most entrepreneurs get their idea from something in life that spurred it earlier,” Pigeon says. “Mine was spending family time in that boat in Northern California.”
It’s no wonder that Pigeon spent his career in the marine industry. And it’s no wonder that he struck out on his own in 1989, founding Tigé with $85,000 and an idea to build a family-oriented boat.
“The first boat was most ideal as a slalom ski boat,” says Pigeon, Tigé Boats Inc.’s president. “At the time, everyone was building boats to slalom, jump and do trick skiing. I went after a niche within a niche.”
Since selling its first boat in 1991, Abilene, Texas-based Tigé has grown into a $43 million business that is on track to sell 1,100 boats this year. Pigeon says Tigé is the fastest-growing inboard ski boat manufacturer.
He shaped the company’s first boat with two helpers in a barn he rented for $100 a month. Manufacturing was contracted with a central California manufacturer that had excess capacity, and for the first six months, Pigeon ran the company himself, overseeing production, quality control and sales.
From the beginning, the company has been debt-free, even as it prepares to open a new manufacturing facility.
Tigé has become a force in the marine industry, known for its innovative approach to family fun. Tigé’s LifePlus Lifetime Replacement Warranty, introduced two years ago, is the only such warranty in the inboard industry and covers the fiberglass hull, stringer matrix or floor.
Tom Austin, vice president of manufacturing, says he’s “perfectly confident” that Tigé won’t be replacing boats under warranty any time soon. “We don’t take manufacturing lightly at all,” says Austin, who moved to Tigé because of its reputation for quality. “We have several gateways through the laminating process to make sure the quality is there. Our boats have 400-600 pounds more resin and glass than most other inboard boats.”
The lifetime warranty marks the latest innovation in the company’s 14-year history that started with the patented Tigé Adjustable Performance System in 1995, which featured a variable hull that allowed the boater to change the wake profile. The TAPS2 technology and Convex V hull followed in 2003. The patented systems work together to allow boaters to slalom and wakeboard on the same boat without the need for ballast and drag hardware.
Dealers commit to Tigé — and each other
But no company can succeed solely on the strength of innovative products. It needs a devoted sales force behind it and a commitment to quality customer service. And Tigé leads in those areas, too. “We have an extremely loyal and dedicated dealer network, and we’re dedicated to them,” Pigeon says.
By encouraging its dealers to hold owner reunion events, customers get a chance to meet, share stories and relate how they’re using the boats. Tigé representatives use that information and data taken from customer satisfaction surveys to build better products.
Shortly after starting Tigé, which derives its name from a variation of Pigeon’s childhood nickname, “Tiger,” but with an update to reflect what he calls a little European flair, Pigeon offered Kip Davis, an advertising agency veteran he had worked with at a former company, 10 percent of the company in exchange for preparing brochures and ads for two years.
Davis continued working for an agency until last year, when he moved to Abilene to become director of marketing.
“From my standpoint, the rapid growth has astounded me,” Davis says. “We not only had a good product and good vision of our main market, but in 1991, wakeboarding wasn’t even known.
“It’s a natural progression, taking a product keyed in on a professional-type sport … and morphing it into more than a slalom-type boat,” says Davis, who describes his early efforts as a labor of love, traveling to Abilene several times a year for photo shoots of new products.
Pigeon’s first boat, the 2000slm Comp sold an unprecedented 100 units in its first year, gaining “1992 Rookie of the Year” accolades from WaterSki magazine. Pigeon also traveled the boat show circuit, picking up dealers such as Chris Ainsworth, who will sell up to 200 Tigé boats this year at Tigé Watersports, Corona, Calif.
“Tigé treats you like part of the family, valuing dealer input,” says Ainsworth, a Tigé dealer since 1992. “Customers ask us (about possible changes) and we ask them. Charlie Pigeon is incredible about listening and responding — often for the next model year.”
Pigeon established a twice-yearly dealer council for top dealers, bringing them together to network and learn from each other. The company also holds an annual meeting for all of its dealers in locations around the world, with new Tigé product offerings, seminars on sales training and customer service and another chance for dealers to share successes.
“We all share service issues and ideas,” says Matt Dettman, who owns Tigé Boats of Nevada with wife Ingrid. “I’ve sold a lot of other boats, and none of the other dealers work together like this.”
Pigeon also encourages dealers to help work boat shows for two other Tigé dealers, and he picks up the tab.
Tigé offers its dealers contracts, and Pigeon says the company spaces dealerships out so they’re not in competition with one another and can deliver superior customer service.
“Charlie Pigeon has never once called to put pressure on us to buy boats,” says Ainsworth. “Even at the dealer meetings, we get together to have fun and build friendships instead of him trying to sit us down to write more business.”
Since Ainsworth was one of Tigé’s original dealers, a network that now numbers 80 around the world, he learned the business from Pigeon. But he’s generous with his time for other dealers. “In the Tigé network, dealers can talk over a situation, take out our book of information and share tips,” Ainsworth says. “When I work with other manufacturers, it’s always a competitive situation.”
Like many Tigé dealers, Ainsworth holds an annual owner’s regatta, which now attracts 160 boats and 1,100 participants the weekend before Labor Day at Parker Strip Recreation Area along the Colorado River on the Arizona side of the California/Arizona border. “While it’s not an incentive for purchasing a boat, because we do a great job putting on the event, (owners) feel like they’re part of a bigger family,” Ainsworth says. “It creates a lot of brand loyalty.”
Tigé also makes itself known in the industry by sponsoring national and international events. The company has sponsored five Wakeboard World Cup Championships, but has focused on the Tigé U.S. Open Wakeboarding Championships for the past two years.
The company will take on a higher profile with the opening of its new 135,000-square-foot manufacturing plant and office facility on a 40-acre tract nine miles from its current facility in Abilene, where Tigé relocated in 1995. Before moving from California, Pigeon put out feelers to communities in the central part of the country, and he said Abilene did exhaustive research on Tigé before providing substantial incentives to bring the plant to Texas.
Tigé currently employs 183 in Abilene, a number that’s expected to rise to 250 when the new facility opens. The company also owns first option on 110 acres around its facility to attract suppliers. One interesting feature of the new building will be large glass windows that allow customers and dealers to watch the manufacturing process.
As it looks to the future, Tigé will continue to listen to its customers and dealers to keep abreast of trends on family-style boats. “Growth will come from the inboard niche, but I think we’ll get percentage from the sterndrive market, too,” Davis says. “There’s definitely a lot of growth there.”
But even as Tigé grows, Pigeon is striving to retain the entreprenurial feel of his organization. “When you’re in a situation where everyone knows everyone else by name, everyone gets involved,” the company founder says. “You can change as market conditions change, very quickly, without bureaucracy.”
Recently, younger designers have suggested bold graphics packages that don’t appeal to Pigeon, but they were approved because the company founder felt that’s what the market warranted.
So while the look of a Tigé boat might change, the company’s commitment to family-style boating fun, to crafting quality products, to Pigeon’s vision and to its dealer network remain unchanged.
“We’re only as healthy as our dealers,” Pigeon says. “We’ve grown together over the last 14 years, and we enjoy an unbelievably strong relationship.”
A different boating lifestyle
Tigé Boats has lured several boaters into becoming boat dealers, using their passion for the company’s products to sell to others.
A petrochemical and semiconductor salesman. A party rental store owner. A career firefighter.
This might sound like the start of a joke (“Three men walk into a bar …”) or a new incarnation of the Village People. However, these men represent top Tigé dealers who were drawn into the marine business by the strength of Tigé Boats’ product lineup and the vision of founder Charles Pigeon.
“It changed my life considerably,” Chris Ainsworth says of a chance meeting with Pigeon at a boat show in 1992. “I’ve always been into boats. I grew up around them and later built and drove race boats. Then I went into sales.”
His encounter with Pigeon occurred at a time when the industries Ainsworth was selling to were in a depression and his paycheck was declining.
The petrochemical and semiconductor salesman soon found himself with two Tigés, selling them from his garage before opening his first Tigé Watersports store in November 1992 in Corona, Calif. He now occupies a 20,000-square-foot former Volkswagen dealership and is the largest inboard dealer in Southern California.
“We really fell into this,” says Matt Dettman, who owns Tigé Boats of Nevada with wife Ingrid in Henderson. “In everyone’s lives, there are defining moments. I don’t believe in predestination, but things just fell into place.”
The Dettmans first encountered Tigé boats on Lake San Antonio over Memorial Day 1994, near where they owned a party rental store in San Luis Obispo, Calif., and Dettman picked up a brochure. The following year, he traded a canopy rental for the down payment on a Tigé and became friends with dealer Will Mehring from Los Osos. Dettman helped sell Tigé boats to two friends and helped Mehring staff boat shows.
Dettman was going to buy the dealership, but Mehring decided not to sell the business when he saw the new product introductions in 1995, so the couple decided to set up their own dealership, selecting an area around Lake Mead over the Chicago and Raleigh-Durham, N.C., franchises Tigé offered. The store opened in January 1996, and the Dettmans expect to sell 50 Tigés this year.
National sales manager Terry Barrett is a former career firefighter who traveled from the Phoenix area to the Long Beach Boat Show in 1995, looking for a craft to satisfy his wakeboarding desires and his wife Betsy’s love of slaloming. Barrett met former national sales manager Brett Thurley and Ainsworth, and they convinced him to demonstrate boats in Phoenix, where Tigé did not have dealer presence.
“I had no location, no shop, and I’m selling boats,” Barrett remembers. “I loved it.” Soon, Tigé suggested opening a dealership, which took shape with his wife running the shop while he continued as assistant fire chief in Tempe. Tigé Precision Boats in Mesa was named the manufacturer’s “Rookie of the Year” in 1996, and the dealer began building market share, quickly becoming the No. 2 dealer in the Tigé network.
“When Charlie asked me to be national sales manager, I was extremely flattered,” Barrett says of the job he started in June. “When the opportunity came, I knew I liked the organization and really liked the people I already had relationships with.”
The Barretts recently sold the dealership, where their son and daughter continue to work. “It’s important that I do have that dealership experience,” Barrett says. “When dealers talk about issues, I’m aware of them because I’ve been in their shoes. That’s going to be a big benefit. Leadership experience and dealer experience will help Tigé grow and capture market share.” — by Matt Bolch