Robert Stevens founded Tampa Yacht Manufacturing in 2006, intending to sell pleasure boats to rich oil sheiks in the Middle East. The Great Recession soon dashed that dream.
"The global pleasure boat industry went off of Niagara Falls into a pit," Stevens said.
The battered economy could have sunk his fledgling company. But Stevens had made some contacts overseas among connected people who knew he could build small boats. And that sent his business in an entirely new direction. A government in the Middle East — he won't say which one — asked whether he could supply coastal interceptor boats for its military.
So together with three investors, Stevens said he purchased Tempest Yacht, a defunct South Florida contractor that had built boats for the U.S. Coast Guard in the '80s.
Tampa Yacht transformed Tempest's coastal patrol boats into quick, blast-resistant fighting machines.
"We brought it (Tempest) into the 21st century," Stevens said.
The name Tampa Yacht Manufacturing remains, but the mission changed. Stevens found a niche selling small, high-performance boats to the military. The company now produces 23 models, ranging from 24 to 73 feet in length.
Persevering through the paperwork
Since 2006, Tampa Yacht has sold nearly 60 boats and its gross revenues exceed $100 million, according to Stevens. He said 2015 revenues are just above $18 million. His company sells to the U.S. Special Forces, Navy and border security and to U.S. government-sanctioned military allies, including countries near the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Gulf and the Gulf of Aden, among others.
The process, Stevens said, is far from easy.
In 2008, he said it took Tampa Yacht 18 months to put together a bid for work with special operations at the MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. Fifteen hundred pages of contract terms and thousands of backup documents later, Stevens said he wheeled in the paperwork to MacDill on a dolly.
It sometimes takes an average of three years to finalize an agreement, according to Simon Thomson, Tampa Yacht's liaison in the United Kingdom.
"We have reps in all the countries we're bidding for," said Stevens, 66.
Tampa Yacht also plans to expand its product offerings to serve commercial interests.
On July 9, Tampa Yacht secured a contract with South Boats and Alicat, commercial boat manufacturers owned by the marine-contracting company Gardline in the United Kingdom. The deal, which Thomson helped negotiate, allows South Boats to build patrol craft using Tampa Yacht's designs. In return, Tampa Yacht can make boats based on the design of one of Alicat's commercial catamarans, which are transport boats typically used for the growing offshore wind power industry.
Tampa Yacht can now sell these boats in North and South America and Canada under license from Alicat. The deal will allow Tampa Yacht to sell to select commercial markets, as opposed to just military interests.
"It gives us a whole range of craft that can be Americanized and sold to our customers," Thomson said.
Tampa Yacht — which despite its name is located in Pinellas Park — uses its small size to its advantage. Most of its competitors are much bigger than Stevens' firm, which employs only 60 people. Stevens said Tampa Yacht's small size helps the company "move with alacrity" and easily make changes to its business model.
Tampa Yacht's tiny operation, however, may not be maintainable for long. Stevens said the company is looking to hire 90 more employees within the next five years as he expects his company to grow.
"Right now, we all wear 10 hats," he said.
Boats that 'react quickly to threats'
On Oct. 12, 2000, the USS Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer harbored in Aden, Yemen, was attacked by suicide bombers. Terrorists steered a small boat packed with explosives into the hull of the ship, killing 17 U.S. sailors and injuring 39 others.
Since the USS Cole attack, and other similar incidents, Stevens said many governments across the world have increased their demand for small defense boats. The governments call the new threat "asymmetric" because of the disproportionate size of the attacking boats compared to their much larger targets.
With maritime piracy also on the rise, governments are turning to companies to build agile interceptors, Stevens said.
"The defense crafts have to able to react quickly to threats," Stevens emphasized. "The best counter to an asymmetric threat is to create symmetry."
The Indian government currently has 17 of Tampa Yacht's Fast Attack Craft stationed on a 14,000-foot-high lake in the Himalayas. The Indians are locked in a feud with the Chinese, who Stevens said use only reconditioned pleasure boats.
"Both the Indians and the Chinese think they own the lake," he said.
Stevens said his boats give the Indian military an advantage when it flexes its naval muscles.
Partnerships with foreign manufacturers
Because military contractors are often restrained by stiff regulations related to shipping and military products, Tampa Yacht forms partnerships with foreign manufacturers. The company builds about 60 percent of the boat, leaving the foreign company to finish the other 40 percent.
"We build it," Stevens said, "they just dust it off. Our product goes in as their product."
Tampa Yacht is currently negotiating deals like this in South America and Southeast Asia. The agreements will permit the company to sell its boats to the militaries in those regions, without having to pay for import duties or licensing fees.
"We're small risk takers," Stevens said with a smile. "We land enough contracts to keep us in electricity."