ShoreMaster, a Fergus Falls-based manufacturer of aluminum dock and lift products, has quietly emerged as America’s largest core brand in a huge, nationwide portfolio of interconnected waterfront equipment companies.

Last year alone the company celebrated its 50th year in business by completing another in a long line of acquisitions — this time a North Carolina fabricator of saltwater docks, lifts, and accessories — and welcomed a new CEO following the retirement of longtime president Don Hurley.

“Not a lot of dock and lift companies have reached 50,” says Chris Winter, ShoreMaster’s VP of operations. ShoreMaster even prospered through the pandemic. “The last years have been record year followed by record year,” he says. “I don’t remember the last time we didn’t beat the year before.”

The secret to continual growth, according to Winter, has been to complement a top-notch product and great people with continuous improvement.

Always bigger, always better

On the factory floor, a flash of blue and orange light ignites from a pair of robotic welding arms working in harmony to join an aluminum frame as long as a pickup truck. Elsewhere, another robot uses wire touch-offs to inspect aluminum fixtures as part of ShoreMaster’s rigorous quality control process. Winter says these automated procedures have elevated the company’s always-high quality control standards beyond what was possible 50 years ago.

“We don’t like anything leaving here that you wouldn’t want in front of your own house,” he says. Any product that doesn’t make the cut is scrapped.

ShoreMaster benefited from the pandemic in a way that many manufacturers didn’t. As more people stayed home, some took to the water for a little relief, and all those aquatic toys needed a place to park. The increasing demand was great until it became a problem, and the robots have helped keep production moving during a time when eager applicants were sparse. Today the company deploys five robotic arms for welding, loading, and handling a portion of quality control, with a sixth on the way. And there will be even more by year’s end.

“With all the labor shortages and some of the quality of labor lately, that’s going to have to be one of our big pushes to stay competitive,” Winter says.

ShoreMaster maintains three facilities (one each for its aluminum, steel, and plastic products) in Fergus Falls, with more than 135,000 square feet of working space. A team of over 130 staff makes it the largest company in the Waterfront Brands (ShoreMaster’s parent company following a 2021 rebranding) portfolio. Staying competitive in a dense market means always seeking new and more efficient processes, and a steady investment in automation is only one example of the ways the company has constantly adapted.

Continuous improvement has always been a company priority, Winter says. “We don’t sit stagnant. The way we do something today might not be the way we’re doing it tomorrow if there’s a better way.”

It’s not so different from the company’s start five decades ago.

Small town, big ideas

In 1972, founder Dennis Tuel, Sr. defied industry norms by designing an aluminum dock and lift system at a time when most competitors were working with steel. Lighter, more resistant to rust and corrosion, and surprisingly robust, the innovative products helped his business grow for over a decade in the small town of Carlos. In the late 1980s, he relocated to Fergus Falls, lured by tax incentives and a larger workforce. He would eventually sell the company, which for more than a decade now has been owned by private equity groups.

ShoreMaster has replaced Tuel’s original designs but has continued reinventing waterfront infrastructure, expanding facilities, branching out into new product lines and processes — like plastics and textiles — and developing a nationwide network of retailers to deliver and support its products.

The business was manufacturing six different brands by 2019, though the ShoreMaster label remained the largest, and what followed was a string of headline-making changes. It began with the merger of Oklahoma-based HydroHoist, a household name in the south whose hydraulic lifts can support enormous 60,000-pound watercraft. HydroHoist’s international sales network made ShoreMaster the world’s largest combined marine equipment manufacturer.

Then-president Hurley knew the opportunities wouldn’t stop there.

The next year, ShoreMaster/HydroHoist acquired Neptune Boat Lifts of Fort Lauderdale. Neptune’s saltwater boat lifts reached new customers in coastal markets. The combined companies rebranded as Waterfront Brands in January 2021.

When Hurley announced his retirement in 2022, the Waterfront Brands board sought someone with similar values to take the reins. They found it in Corey Duke, who was hired earlier that year as executive vice president and chief communication officer. Hurley remains a board member and consultant, and Duke was promoted to CEO in the fall of last year.

Duke spent 14 years with the Brunswick Boat Group, working as general manager for a product line that included the Bayliner and Heyday boat brands. He says he’s excited to lead the company forward, giving a nod to the growth under Hurley’s leadership.

“Corey’s experience and personal style equip him extremely well for this role and positions Waterfront for the next phase of growth,” Hurley says. “It has been a privilege to lead this organization and team. We have faced challenges and diversity, yet through it all, we continued to grow and prosper. I could not be more excited about what’s next for this remarkable organization.”