Once we decided to have a new barge constructed the choice of builders was a relatively easy call. The 2007-2008 economic downturn had been the demise of many barge manufacturers. An industry known for its sketchy business practices was not well suited for surviving a prolonged business slump. Many customers were caught in the shake up. Though clients, through their stage payments, own title to the bits of a barge under construction that they have paid for, a boat builder’s bankruptcy puts all assets in dispute.
At best a builder’s bankruptcy will result in added expenses and a serious delay. At worst customers can find they have been defrauded. Under financial pressure, some builders resort to smoke and mirrors. In a boat builder’s version of a shell game, a single engine is shifted between various barges under construction just in time for the next client’s site visit. Each customer believes that that the expensive motor they see in their engine bay is the one they paid for. But in truth the funds from their engine stage payments went elsewhere. Only in the bankruptcy proceedings does a customer learn the bitter truth; they do not own all that they have paid for.
For us, reducing the risk of being subject to the throes of a boat builder’s financial collapse was a priority. Add in the combination of trying to manage a build from 5,000 miles away and not having a tad of experience doing this sort of thing made minimizing our exposure essential. But how do we do this? How do we reduce our financial risks?
Though we asked many times, no one could give us a completely reassuring answer on how to mitigate the business risks. Guidelines were offered. Suggestions were made. But no over arching panacea was offered. Having a barge built would inevitably entail a certain level of financial risk. Whether we were comfortable with it or not, that was the way it was going to be.
Of course choosing a builder goes beyond the financial considerations. We needed a company that builds a quality product and that can customize their product to our desires. We needed someone who wouldn’t cut corners in unseen areas that would later present problems. In the end all roads led to Biddulph in the British Midlands and Piper Boats LTD.
Piper Boats is a leading constructor of the latest generation of Dutch-style barges. When we visited we found Piper’s workshop on a hill in North Staffordshire. The location is far from the waterways navigable by the large boats they build. It may not be the last place you’d expect to see large canal barges being built but it is not far from it. To launch a new Piper barge, the boat is craned onto a truck and slowly hauled hundreds of miles to the water.
At Piper Boats we were lead upstairs to meet Simon Piper. Simon is larger than life and full of energy. His extra dose of boyish mischievousness is quickly apparent. As the head of a family run business at the awkward middle stage of growth, Simon is demanding and uncompromising. He drives the “lads” hard in the shop. With customers he is reasonable and open to new things. Employee or customer, he’s a hard man to say no to.
Even in the midst of the downturn, Piper Boats was busy. Five boats at various stages of completion were in the two shops when we visited. Many more build slots had been reserved; on the wall a computer printout out listed the barges queued up for production. For us the promise of a full queue and a four-month build time limited our financial risk. Further, Piper’s reputation was good. Customers we talked to reported being happy with their boat. We were told that Piper Boats customer service was excellent. It seemed like a good place to have a barge built to our specification.
In the end, there seemed few other good options for having a new barge constructed other than Piper Boats. Now it was time to question whether we are really prepared to go forward with this folly. After our visit to the plant in Biddulph, we imposed a self-enforced cooling off period. In the end, sound reason did not set in. The fantasy of having a barge built would not go away. We contacted Piper Boats and committed to a build slot. Our names were included amongst the others on the printout queue taped to the wall. In February of 2013 Piper Boats would begin construction our new floating home. With luck our barge would be floating on the Thames by the end of June. What the hell had our dog Gigi gotten us into?