It's the kind of enthusiasm that radiates throughout the entire dock as those around him can sense it. There is a certain leadership characteristic about him that you can't quite put your finger on, but at the same time you can't help but be in awe of that confidence. Standing near the empty slip at the State Dock Marina on Lake Cumberland, Terry Aff scans the Kentucky horizon looking for one of his houseboats.
Off in the distance, CHAOS comes into view as one of his latest custom-built creations rounds the corner. Even though this boat now belongs to a family, the president of Stardust Cruisers welcomes the sight of this houseboat pulling into the slip, like a proud father welcomes his own child.
Bill Jasper from State Dock is the captain-for-the-day of this beautiful houseboat and he smiles from the helm seat as he pulls into the dock to pick up Aff, as well as the Houseboat magazine crew. The CHAOS houseboat is just one of the many Stardust houseboats at this marina, yet Aff is eager to show off this particular beauty that is a former Houseboat Expo showboat.
Aff is new to the reigns as president of Stardust, but he's far from a houseboating rookie. With four houseboats, two being custom-built, it's clear that this is more than just a job, but rather a passion where houseboating runs in his blood.
"Like most houseboaters, we rented at first and we had a blast," says Aff, who has owned houseboats for the past 25 years. "We raised our family on houseboats and on the lake and I've always enjoyed houseboating. But I especially enjoy building them."
The love of houseboating and that drive led him to Stardust, but jumping into the houseboat industry at a time when other manufactures were struggling, was viewed with mixed reactions from the outside world. But for Aff, he's the type of leader who wants to be on the front lines, and he believes this segment will bounce back strong from this down economy.
"Our biggest challenge is sales, we're down 80 percent from peak by my estimates, but we're starting to see an increase in activity," says Aff. "Financing is available; we need to build on consumer confidence."
Stardust General Manager John Gregory shares that same desire to help build back the houseboat industry into what this segment used to be.
"We'd like to get back to building 20 to 25 new custom boats a year," says Gregory. "We'd be down from just a few years ago, but we'd still be reasonably pleased."
Besides a strong and determined demeanor, Aff also brings with him his experience in the auto industry where he was involved in precision metal working and machine systems that at times needed to be within a few thousandths of a millimeter. He brings this background from his former career with him, believing a houseboat should be durable and long-lasting. His main plan is to build solid boats, while continuing to raise the bar for quality.
"Houseboats need to be precise and built like the machines that they are," says Aff. "Stardust leads in innovative and design. For example the glass sides give houseboats the boat look versus the box look. Our goal is to combine design with performance and function. The way it handles is just as important as how it looks."
Having a boat that handles well is why Aff strongly believes that every houseboat should have bow and stern thrusters.
"Handling is the most important factor and thrusters accomplish that," says Aff. "Another must-have item would be geo-thermal heat pumps. My wife Shelly and I spend a lot of time on the boat all year long and you need to be comfortable, air source heat pumps become extremely noisy in the winter."
The Stardust general manager has his own ideas of what every custom-built houseboat should include.
"Every boat should have an entertainment bar on top and plenty of storage throughout," says Gregory. "I hear that a lot and I believe it's important. I have also had conversations about dumbwaiters with the mechanical variety being optional."
Adjusting To Times
Stardust, like all houseboat manufacturers as this time, continues to find a good balance so they can be profitable at a lower volume. The Monticello, Ky.-based manufacturer used to thrive on a high production rate as it built boats fast and produced lots of houseboats each year.
"Now we have less people doing more with each boat," explains Aff. "The benefits will come in the long-term when the volume picks up."
"Trying to motivate new sales and working to control labor costs on the projects we have are two major challenges," adds Gregory. "We encourage multitasking and when we hire we're looking for a skill set that doesn't limit an individual to one area. Fortunately we have been reasonably successful in the labor area, but the bottom line is sales need to improve."
Part of the success that keeps Stardust moving forward and further cements this company as one of the top builders in the country is its Five Star Renovation Program that was started a few years back. Stardust has done a certain amount of refurbishing older houseboats for over 15 years or so to some degree, but in the last three to four years it's become more of a focus. These refurbishments range from simple repairs to complete interior and exterior renovations.
"We've seen people that really love their floorplan on their houseboat that is ten years or older and if the hull and engines are still in good shape, we're able to successfully refurbish their boat for less money," says Gregory. "By doing remodeling in-house, the boat can be brought in from different lakes and the customer can adjust their budget or wants once we get it out of the water."
Exterior work and outboard maintenance are the two biggest projects that Stardust sees with its renovation program, but other upgrades include A/C units, septic systems and insulation as the goal is to take an older houseboat and make it more comfortable for less money.
Stardust refurbishes its own boats as well as other manufacturer's boats and will continue to give options to houseboaters who might not be ready to purchase a custom-built houseboat at this time.
Price Match Guarantee
Another factor in the manufacturer's success and its determination to succeed is a price match guarantee that it began offering last summer. Stardust feels it can match any houseboat builder's price, feature for feature. They believe that all the builders are working on similar cost structures, and therefore the price of the boats should also be similar. The main idea behind the price match guarantee is to educate the consumer about features and construction. This guarantee from Stardust will insure the consumer is making an educated decision and will obtain the best price for a properly built and equipped boat. This guarantee that Stardust now offers gives consumers the chance to price shop and it enables them to work with customers to get the right price and be competitive.
One other key advantage that Stardust offers is that all of its cabinetry work is completely custom-made in its cabinet shop by experienced professional cabinet makers.
"It is crucial in building custom boats because we can make use of all the space and layouts," says Gregory. "We like to use all the areas of the boats by doing it ourselves in-house. It allows us to customize or meet the needs of our customers, plus it gives us complete control over the quality, material used and customize to a specific color."
Besides in the in-house cabinetry shop, the bulk of the fiberglass work, including fly bridges and top deck bars, are done in-house for the same control reasons.
Stardust Cruisers is committed to the future of houseboating development and that level of commitment starts at the top with Aff. With this seasoned captain behind the wheel the future looks promising for this Kentucky builder.
At the conclusion of our photo shoot on the CHAOS houseboat, we all stroll towards the State Dock marina store when Aff takes a moment to look back at the houseboat that is now tied up for the night at the dock. The pause he offers towards the custom-built houseboat indicates how much he truly cares for this company. And it also gives off that sense of confidence that our industry is heading towards a brighter future.