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
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
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
“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
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.
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
“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.