In Focus: Propspeed’s CEO on strategy, boat show secrets and Kiwi ingenuity

Propspeed applied to a propellor

After its biggest revenue month ever in February 2023, and tremendous growth in sales more synonymous with a startup than a 22-year-old company, Propspeed’s CEO Chris Baird says the secret of its expanding success isn’t a secret at all. It’s that its strategies are simple.

“Marketing the brand strongly. Product R&D. And, channels to market,” but Baird says that far too many companies “can’t do these basic things.”

Baird (left) is ex-Fusion (now owned by Garmin) and ex-Navman (now part of the Navico Group division of Brunswick). He says he’s following strategies that he put into place in those companies to build Propspeed’s domination of its niche market.

“We concentrate tightly on the underwater assets,” says Baird. “We don’t do hulls.”

Propspeed’s core products are underwater foul-release coatings and as such it produces a biocide-free, shiny, slippery silicone (which doesn’t actually kill any marine organisms) to coat a boat’s assets, like propellers and shafts. If organisms manage to attach to an asset coated with, for example, FoulFree, as soon as the boat starts moving, they are launched off. This means that the system really comes into its own for stopping the transfer of invasive species. In January 2023, MIN reported on a cruise ship which was rejected from four ports because of biofoul (marine growth) – cited as algae, plants, microorganisms or small animals on its exterior.

Baird says Propspeed was set up by “smart little kiwis” who couldn’t clear fouling off their propeller, shafts and underwater metals. Antifoul didn’t work. So they made their own. The product achieved a massive boost during the 2000 America’s Cup hosted by New Zealand. An American-owned superyacht berthed alongside a Propspeed treated boat and couldn’t believe the shine on the gold propellers. The American had it applied to his superyacht and sailed back to San Diego. His propellers were still brilliant, and his hull wasn’t (proving the Propspeed system worked). He became first distributor for the company, which now has networks covering Europe, the USA, Asia and of course its home territories of New Zealand and Australia.

Baird says Propspeed’s strategy is to support the distributor network with additional sales teams (the company is circa 40-strong across the globe) who are brought in to help in the field. “You can get lost quite quickly in a distribution company,” he says. “We match distribution with people on the ground.” He says he doesn’t get why some companies would leave it all to the distributors as that’s “putting their company’s destiny into someone else’s hands.” Most recently (Jan 2023), two new regional sales staff have been appointed to serve customers in the mid-Atlantic and West Coast USA.

He’s also a huge advocate of exhibitions. “Exhibitions are critically important to the marine industry – and not necessarily for the product end users. It’s really good for everyone to be in one place at one time. You need to be seen, for example, when trying to get OEM companies onside, they need to trip over you around the world and see the effort you’re putting in. They need to think ‘my customers will see them everywhere too’. Exhibitions are painful and take time and effort. But it’s still critically important for both the ‘standard white boat’ and commercial industries. It amazes me when our competitors don’t go to METSTRADE and Ibex. Good luck to them.”

Baird isn’t shy about discussing his competitors’ shortcomings. “Our competitors have good products, but they also have 100 other products to promote,” he says. “They concentrate their business on where the money comes from. We are in a niche area, while they’re caught by how many products they need to promote.”

For the past year and a half, Propspeed has been expanding. It’s the same core output (product and specialist application) but moving into the commercial market. “Shipping has the same problems as leisure,” says Baird. “They’re trying to save money with more efficient systems, making sure they’re not punching so much pollution into the air. The commercial sector is on a mission to get emissions down. We can help them have a more efficient arrangement, saving (conservatively) five per cent on fuel costs. Plus, emissions targets are being set around the world, the area is growing really quickly.”

Baird notes that customers want efficiency and to protect the marine environment and says the changing regulations across the world, in terms of coatings, can be challenging. “We try to stay ahead of it. It’s best that we’re ahead of it rather than having a government or an institution make a decision, which then changes what we have to do.

“I believe we’re [the marine industry] doing a great job collectively. We know we have to do things so we are doing them – farmers in NZ are doing exactly the same. They’re ahead of what should happen and have made their farms so efficient. That is answering what needs to happen before it gets pushed onto you.

“I’m proud of what I am seeing our marine colleagues doing around the world to get ahead of the game to make sure we look after the marine environment. We’re not stupid, we’re not out there to destroy what we love. Sure we want to have successful businesses that make money, but we want to protect what our kids and grandkids have. I only have to see what’s happened to this country in regard to weather change. It’s on us now and we have to help to do what we can do as an industry. And we are.”

Find out more about Propspeed product launches – including Stripspeed – in MIN’s extensive archives.

comparison of propeller treated with Propspeed and without
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This article was written and/or edited by the UK-based MIN team.