The SlickCraft Boat Company
The Slick Craft Boat Company first offered production models in 1955. That year their founder and leader, Leon Slikkers, made up his mind to build quality boats that were affordable to consumers.
In 1946, 18-year old Leon R. Slikkers left his family farm in Diamond Springs and began working at the Chris-Craft Corporation’s Holland, Michigan, plant. It was not a difficult decision for Slikkers. First of all, he was following in the footsteps of his brothers, Gerald and Dennis, at one of Holland’s largest factories. In addition, he desired to build things out of wood and not be a farmer. In a 2002 interview, Slikkers explained, “I love working with my hands, and making and creating. So when I got a job at Chris-Craft, I really fell in love with it, because it was making things out of wood, which I like best of all.”
At Chris-Craft, Leon Slikkers was assigned to the joiner department to make cabin tops. As the months went by, he quickly learned and refined his craft. By the age of 24, Leon had been promoted to assistant foreman of the joiner department. His career continued its successful path and Leon thought little of changing jobs until the labor strikes of the past returned to the plant.
In 1952, during a company-wide labor strike, Leon and fellow Chris-Craft employee Jason Petroelje decided to build their own boats. While the strike lasted, approximately ten run-abouts, made of sheet plywood and averaging 15-feet in length, were made under the partnership. The painted hulls and varnished mahogany decked outboard motor boats did not contain a brand name and were sold out of Leon’s garage. After the strike ended, the two men decided to end the partnership; Petroelje wanted to leave Chris-Craft to build boats full-time under the Skipper-Craft name and Leon wanted the security of a paycheck from Chris-Craft. Leon recalled, “I still kept building some boats from the design we had, and I would sell them and work on the weekends. I started to build contacts.”
By June 1954, Leon started thinking more about his future and what he wanted to do next. The periodic work stoppages due to labor strikes and success with his after-hours boat building business finally influenced his move to leave Chris-Craft.
By January 1955, a 27-year-old Leon Slikkers had left the training ground of Chris-Craft and began making boats full-time on his own. His dual cockpit runabouts were made out of mahogany plywood decks and molded plywood hulls purchased from U.S. Molded Shapes, a wholesale supplier of molded hulls located in Grand Rapids. Soon after, he rented a small building with an upstairs apartment and a vacant space below for making boats. Once he settled his wife and two sons into the apartment of the boat factory, Leon began building his first official model year of molded plywood runabouts and started experimenting with a new boat building material that had been used to build boats since the 1940’s - fiberglass. The SlickCraft company was born.
During the 1955 model year, he built thirty-five boats, an ambitious number for his small company. As the company continued to make boats, Leon’s friends frequently visited and inquired about his progress as an entrepreneur. Over time, Leon hired many of these men and women because they showed a desire to work in a small, family-oriented factory, a place where craftsmen were valued and management endeavored to build and sell quality boats.
In December 1955, Leon contracted with local fiberglass boat builder Clyde Poll to build fifty hulls for his fledgling company. Poll in turn had Jason Petroelje design the plug from which a mold would be made. Leon received the hulls from Poll a few at a time. His crew then added mahogany wood decks, chrome deck hardware, and seats that were often produced by a local upholstering company, AutoTop. The final result was either a 14-foot Caribbean or Cubana model, depending on the options the customer requested. The Keywester and Bermuda models were also 14-foot but built of molded plywood. The next year, only molded plywood models were offered. Later that same year, Leon contracted with Zeeland-based fiberglass manufacturer Camfield Manfacturing Company, to make between twenty-five and fifty fiberglass hulls and decks for the 1958 model year. Those hulls integrated color in the gel coat for the first time. Later on, some deck molds were designed to simulate the striped deck look of the wood-decked models, except more color choices were available, like black, white, light green or salmon.
Following the 1958 model year, Leon brought the fiberglass construction phase of the production line under his direct supervision using his own design and tested techniques.
“It intrigued me because we were always trying to bend wood that didn’t want to bend to some of the curves, and so you’d have to saw it out. And I was thinking, if you could just lay this material in, wow, you could really come up with some fantastic shapes that are more conducive to a boat than to have to bend wood or cut wood or shape wood. Plus the fact is that the talk was that it would last forever. And I knew that the boating business required a lot of personal attention. You know, when I was making wooden boats, the people actually spent more time working with their boats than using their boats. But that was what they enjoyed. People were craftsmen themselves; they like to tinker and all that stuff. You know that’s what make the industry- I’m convinced, the small boat industry. The person could take care of the boat himself.”
For the 1960 model year, Leon eliminated all of his molded plywood models and offered only fiberglass models. Deck and seat color choices included Titan Red, Ermine White, Honey Beige, Tropical Turquoise, and Black.
During the 1962 model year, Leon moved production to a former skating rink, located in Holland Michigan. There, his growing staff enjoyed a much larger building totaling 29,000 square feet. This building would be expanded two more times making it 42,000 square feet by 1965.
In 1963, Leon introduced the inboard / outboard motor as an option on three of his company’s 9 model line. Motor options include the MerCruiser brand. With this new technology and the proven outboard line of boats, company production grew, and the business continued to expand to include its first cabin cruiser model, the 18-foot Royal Express.
The following year, Leon eliminated the practice of naming his models and simply used the SS designation along with a number that denoted its length. Late in 1965, SlickCraft boats had become so well respected that the Century Boat Company, a long-time wooden boat builder and located in Manistee, Michigan, contracted with Leon to build their first fiberglass boats, the 17-foot fibersport.
In November 1966, growth once again caused Leon to expand his company and he decided to build a 65,000-square-foot factory designed for boat building. The 1967 model year saw the company in its new quarters.
In 1969, the rich offering of well build designs at an affordable cost gave the boating enthusiast 12 models to choose from as the decade came to a close.
Throughout the late 1960s, the SlickCraft name became synonymous with quality and affordability. It also attracted the attention of conglomerates interested in acquiring boat building companies in attempts to diversify their holdings into the recreation market and attract potential stock holders. After much thought and prayer, the Slikkers family decided to sell the company to the AMF Corporation in September 1969. As part of the sales agreement, Leon would stay on as president of the SlickCraft Divison of AMF. A further stipulation required Leon not to build powerboats for five years from the date of the sale, should he leave AMF. After only a short time with AMF, Leon began to see that the new company did not plan on using the same quality materials in their SlickCraft boats that he had. A little over four yars later, he left AMF and immediately began experimenting with a fiberglass sailboat design that would not violate his non-compete clause with AMF.
After Leon left AMF, he implemented his plan to begin a new Slikkers family boat building company. On February 18, 1974, S2 Yachts, Inc. (Slikkers’ second company) was born. With the help of family members, friends and others, Leon began a new chapter of success that continues today.