(image Tuffy) Scott Dufrane, above, said he and his wife, Jessie, liquidated everything they had to purchase Tuffy Boats in 2018. Company sales have grown since then and new models are in the works.
New owners upgrading Tuffy fishing boats
Small New London company aims to be among top sellers in five years
Tuffy Boats has a long history of delivering affordable fiberglass fishing boats. Scott Dufrane took over ownership of the business in spring 2018 on a mission to reinvigorate and elevate the Tuffy brand.
Dufrane is a long-time Tuffy Boats fan. He has had direct ties with the company since he fished in Tuffy Boat tournaments and performed field testing and reporting on the boats in 1989. Eventually, both he and his wife, Jessie, became involved.
“Fishing is in my blood,” he said.
Tuffy originated in 1975 when it introduced the Tuffy Roustabout, a Midwest fishermen’s boat. It’s sustained through the decades on a reputation for quality and affordable fiberglass fishing boats for the Midwestern fisherman. The company added the Marauder hull in 1978 — delivering a drier ride and stability — becoming a favorite with the musky-fishing community.
The same design was incorporated into the Esox Magnum and Esox. The Rampage hull came into the mix in 1980. The ’80s were a highpoint in the company’s heyday, delivering quality, affordable fiberglass boats for a variety of fish species fishermen.
In the early ’90s, they introduced the Renegade hull, one that gave them an entry point into the walleye and musky markets. By 1999, Tuffy redesigned the interiors of all boat models including adding its Osprey series to the mix.
In 2000, they introduced a pro-designed, fast and tournament-oriented Pro Series 1990 and then redesigned the Deep V Osprey and Esox Deep V Hulls, but as they marched further in the 2000s, they didn’t deliver quite as many refinements to their hull design, overall performance and interior features.
Dufrane saw opportunity.
“Tuffy had a quality product for years but the company went neutral for about 10 years,” Dufane said. “They needed someone like me to come in and give it a boost so we could compare apples to apples with other companies that make boats.”
Dufrane, who has a 30-year manufacturing business background with several big corporations, had long wanted to take the entrepreneurial route. He approached the company running Tuffy as part of the marine division of FiberDome in 2017. They weren’t quite ready to sell, but with the leadership’s retirement about a year later, they reached a deal. It was a huge leap of faith for Dufrane.
“My wife and I liquidated everything we had to purchase this company,” he said. “It was the right one. The company had one hell of a following and people are dedicated to the Tuffy brand. It got to the point where it made sense to make money for myself.”
The irony in that is that Tuffy Boats tend to cost about 25 percent less than comparable boats, putting them in reach of more fishermen. Dufrane changed up the manufacturing process to making the boats in one facility, from start to finish, at 611 E. Beckert Road in New London. “The boats are made 100 percent here in one facility. We don’t outsource any particular pieces and have on-site controls.”
Dufrane sought to keep the company small so it could continue to offer the customer what they wanted: a North American-made, custombuilt fiberglass fishing boat. That’s made possible — from the seating to lighting to custommade casting decks — because everything is done in-house, Dufrane said.
He and the team spent the first year and one-half focused on making improvements and refinements to the boats. When they bought the company, they had nine boat models; they reviewed trends and sales and reduced that number to five. “It just isn’t feasible or business smart to make something we sell one of every three years,” Dufrane said.
What did make sense was looking at the boats from the perspective of someone who has spent a lot of time in boats, understands the ins and outs from the hull to the finished products, appreciates conveniences, fished for various species and such first-hand. “We made a list of the changes we would like to see; what people were looking to request in the past 15 years,” he said.
After stripping down the boats and assessing performance, the company really concentrated on making improvements inside the boat more than anything.
“We added longer rod storage, more rod storage, more storage in general, centrallylocated live wells and the like,” he said. The five models they’ve been hunkered down working on should be ready to go this year.
The company’s biggest market since the mid-1970s is the musky fisherman and longstanding support for the Esox Magnum. That boat has been around for 40 years and continues to be a big seller for the company – so much so that there’s a body of water in northern Wisconsin called Tuffy Bay because there are so many Tuffy Esoxes fishing on it, Dufrane said.
“phenomenal. We make everything start to finish in a 12,000-square-foot facility that’s been a good location because we’re centrally located in the state,” perfect for serving customers in Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota as well as in-state. That said, the company has sold boats as far away as Texas and into Finland and the Netherlands.
“If you would have told me that two years ago, I would have said, ‘No way.’ We don’t have our website updated yet, and everything I’m getting for sales is word of mouth or someone sending an email,” he said. “I send specs and options, finalize pricing and then we’re good to go and we can start on someone’s boat.”
It’s working. Sales are up 40 percent since 2018, from eight to nine boats a year to 35 in about a year and one-half timeframe. “It’s keeping us busy so you can see why we haven’t gotten to the website yet,” he said.
Managing capacity is important. Dufrane says he could conceivably sit in his office all day taking orders but is the first to recognize “you have to get them out.”
COVID-19 added some snags to the process because they have had issues getting some supplies from vendors, but customers have been understanding if it takes a bit longer as they await a gas tank, trailer or the like.
Tuffy Boats usually has three to four boats in construction simultaneously with eight fulltime employees at task. That’s not to say that the company doesn’t have many pokers in the fire — from new models to completely different models including an anticipated plan to enter the bass-boat market with a 20-foot bass boat this summer.
“We are working on making a good thing better,” he said. “With most of the boats, we didn’t do a lot of changes to the hull but more so on improving the inside of the boat.”
The Tuffy Guide Pro team put some of those boats into the manufacturing queue. The pro fishing guide picks out a boat, a customer picks out the colors and what they want on the boat, the fishing guide uses it for one season and then the customer buys it. “It’s a nice arrangement because their boat is sold before they even step foot into it,” said Dufrane.
The semipro/pro fishermen who fish tournaments also serve as floating advertisements for Tuffy boats.
These fishermen, who fish species such as musky, walleye and bass, get a good buy on the boat and then promote it.
If construction material pricing comes back down in price, Dufrane’s also hopeful to build a showroom on-site with floor models, accessories and clothing. “It would be huge,” he said. “People like to get inside a boat and feel it and touch it. We would have the manufacturing facility and showroom all in one area.”
He's seeing people who had Tuffy boats years ago return to the fold, and people who said they would never buy one look at them now and say, “Wow.”
Last fall, Tuffy’s fiberglass boats were nominated for the Coolest Thing Made in Wisconsin contest sponsored by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC) and Johnson Financial Group.
“One of my sales slogans is, ‘This is not your grandpa’s Tuffy,’ ” Dufrane said. “A lot of time and work went into upgrading our boats. We want to get to the point where we are one of the top sellers within five years.”