Paul Adams considers himself a bit of a fashion industry veteran.

He's been in the business for more than 30 years, but his designs aren't found in the world's fashion capitals, but around the inlets of Alaska, Tahiti's tropical reefs or the Southland coastline.

The CEO of Invercargill-based boatmaker Stabicraft is emphatic that style trends shape the aluminium boats he began building as a 27-year-old.

"I tell people we are in the fashion industry," says Adams. "If your boat is fashionable, it's just like a car."


It was a different story when he and former business partner Bruce Dickens took an idea suggested by a couple of commercial fisherman, to create a robust alternative to rubber inflatable boats.

The solution - to use aluminium rolled into tubes and welded together - sounded crazy at the time, says Adams, but after the first couple were sold to fisherman keen to use the boats as tenders, the pair were in business.

It created a whole new market segment, he says.

At first, sales were to serious fishing and diving enthusiasts who needed a workhorse and weren't necessarily concerned with aesthetics.

It was during those early days, when the business was still working out what it was and who it was selling to, that there was a recognition the boats needed to be visually appealing as well as functional, says Adams.

"A guy came down from Alexandra to look at a particular boat we had, it was our demonstrator, and he said 'this is the one I want, I really like this' and his wife was there.

"She said 'there is no way you're buying that boat, it's way too ugly'." Adams says at that point he knew that if he didn't make the boats better looking, there would be a limited market.

"Thirty years later we're at the forefront of powered trailer boat manufacturing in New Zealand," he says.


"We are extremely design-led, we understand who we are, we understand our DNA and I think we're providing boats to people from all walks of life who enjoy the Stabicraft style."

Today, 70 staff are manufacturing about 600 boats a year from the firm's Southland base, many heading to a dealer network in Australia and North America but also to customers as far afield as Myanmar and Indonesia.

Getting the design focus right led to one of the key turning points for the business.

In 2007 Stabicraft joined NZTE's Better by Design programme, tapping the knowledge of designers Ray Labone and Peter Haythornthwaite.

The pair challenged Stabicraft to achieve a Red Dot award.

At that stage Adams had never heard of the global awards that recognise design excellence.

"Zap forward to 2016 - bang, we did it."

While the intervening years have been a time of zeroing in on what makes the company great, they've also had their tough moments.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, no one wanted to buy boats.

Adams says 2012 was the worst year on record, but it was also the year the company put out several new models.

"In 2012 we finally found ourselves from a DNA point of view - who are we, what is our design, how should we feel? - and then putting that into a product that really represents that, which was quite different from our previous product, from a look and design point of view.

"That was significant.

"That model today is still one of our biggest-selling models."

Despite the hard times, Adams says he needed to get inside the heads of his customers and keep reinvesting in the product.

That agility was described by one of his operations managers as "speed to the loose ball".

"It's like, just do stuff and you'll learn and you'll grow as long as you observe well." He's been rewarded by 2016 being the biggest year of sales for the company.

"Call it intuition, call it gut but I knew what we had to do and we could not take our foot off the 'new design and reinventing ourself' accelerator.

"If we had done, we probably may not be here."

Stabicraft has always resisted the urge to move away from Invercargill, and has found clever solutions to getting its bulky products in the hands of customers.

Virtual reality has become a feature of its boat show experience, allowing the company to take a range of boats around the world.

"Give it a shot" was Adams' approach to introducing virtual reality to its sales pitch.

"I'm a person, for good or for bad, I like being different to everybody else.

"I don't like complying with the norm.

"I like doing things differently and non-conventionally, but hopefully different in a way that is different good not different bad."

Looking ahead, the company is entering a growth phase in the face of a changing marketplace shaped by digital trends, says Adams.

"How do we adapt to those, how do we actually move with those?" he asks.

"Because if you don't and say 'that's not going to bother us or affect us' then you'll probably end up losing.

"We've started down the path of reinventing our business model and I think that's working well."