American boat makers feel the crunch from Trump tariffs

Newport, R.I. – MJM Yachts has already felt the sting of tariffs.

CEO Bob Johnstone was negotiating the sale of a 53-foot (16-meter), $2.2 million yacht to a buyer in Monaco when the European Union announced a 25 percent tariff on American-made boats as retaliation for the Trump administration’s tariffs on imported aluminum and steel.

The deal is now dead. So is the Rhode Island-based company’s plan to expand sales into Europe.

American boat makers are getting pummeled on multiple fronts by tariffs and stand to be among the industries hardest-hit in an escalating trade war.

President Donald Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on imported steel and aluminum has driven up the price of those essential materials for many boat makers. Europe, Canada and Mexico retaliated with tariffs on American-made boats. Meanwhile, new tariffs imposed on parts such as engines and navigation equipment imported from China are also pushing up costs.

As a result, they are selling fewer boats, considering raising prices and bracing for layoffs across an industry that employs 650,000 people in the United States at manufacturers, marinas and dealers.

“We have the unfortunate situation of being caught up in every part of this trade war,” said Nicole Vasilaros, of the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Industry leaders have met with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and trade representatives and tried to make the case that this is a truly American industry being used as a pawn in a trade war. Ninety-five percent of the boats sold in the U.S. are made in America. They’ve also appealed to congressional delegations, especially in states heavy in boat manufacturing, while watching the trade fight escalate this week as China and the U.S. proposed new tariffs that include some hitting their industry.

Among those who have considered reducing their workforce is Regal Marine Industries, which builds everything from sport boats to 53-foot (16-meter) yachts with price tags ranging from $35,000 to $1.2 million. It employs 750 people at its headquarters in Orlando, Florida, and in Valdosta, Georgia, from factory technicians to engineers to office staff.

Before the tariffs were imposed, around 15 to 20 percent of Regal’s sales went to Europe or Canada. CEO Duane Kuck said orders from the EU are down 90 percent. They’ve seen millions of dollars in of cancelations and delays.

“We were expanding prior to the tariffs. The expansion has been put on hold,” he said.

Asked whether that means layoffs, he said he would have to see whether the company can grow enough business in the U.S. to offset the loss of exports, a strategy several other boat builders are trying.

The timetable for many manufacturers thinking about layoffs is in the next two to three months, Vasilaros said. She also noted that any benefits the industry saw from a Republican-led tax overhaul have been “almost completely negated” as the industry deals with higher prices for materials and components while losing customers to global competitors.

“The president’s trying to help U.S. manufacturing, but we are the key case to show that he’s doing the exact opposite,” she said.

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