Zodiac Nautic is making a splash as new ownership gets it back to its roots through a determination to take on the future with innovative products and a mission to “ensure everyone easy access to memorable fun and adventure on the water anywhere, anytime.”
The company name Zodiac Nautic may be relatively new to the market, but Zodiac itself has been around for more than a century. Its rich 120-year-old history originates in France. “It made inflatable balloons back in the heyday when there was a race to get people up in the air and flying like a bird,” says Gary Durnan, president of Zodiac Nautic’s Americas division. “Back in the days of the Wright Brothers and the Hindenburg, Zodiac was renowned for making airships and weather balloons – basically, anything that floated in the air with a fabric core.”
Zodiac started by developing fabric-based air-holding products. Then, with both World Wars and the French military looking for vehicles to carry soldiers and munitions in and out of submarines and ships, its products became military tools. Eventually, it progressed to the recreational products used in boating.
“At first, we had invented and marketed the typical inflatable boats with an air floor and air tubes. Today, we still make some traditional products like that, but we also make Zodiac RIBs, which are fiberglass hulls with collars around them,” says Durnan. A RIB, in the industry, is a rigid inflatable boat.
After having had various owners over the last decade, the company was purchased by Dominique Heber-Suffrin, Pierre Bastid, and Florent Battistella in July and now finds itself back in traditional French hands. “We had been stagnant for the last seven years, but since this new ownership, we’ve had the most investments and the greatest vision for the next five years,” Durnan proudly states. “This new ownership is the company’s greatest benchmark at this point.”
Zodiac Nautic has four locations worldwide and over three hundred employees. The company is dedicated to giving its customers the best experience, beginning with knowledgeable staff. “At Zodiac Nautic, we can help anybody get on the water – which is our goal. We want people on the water having fun, and we want to make the jobs of those who work on the water that much easier,” explains Durnan.
The company also has high standards for its staff which are reflected in employee training. “Every new hire or any hire that has been with the company for less than three years will be taken out in Zodiac product and shown how to use it and taught about its benefits. That way, everybody can make sure they pass on the same information to the consumer,” says Durnan.
There are many benefits to Zodiac Nautic products. Zodiac inflatables and RIBs are light weight and have large carrying capacity, which means it takes less horsepower (and fuel) to get the same type of performance or better as some of its traditional fiberglass-type competition.
Zodiac inflatables and RIBs are also customizable. Customers can have their boats the way they want them, with a choice of colors and other features. “We’re one of the most customized boats on the market. You can basically buy it as we suggest you buy it, with set packages, or you can develop the packages from the bare bones of the boat – tubes and hulls, right up to the way you want the boat set up,” says Durnan. “More and more, we see that our customers want something that no one else has, their boat the way they want it.”
Zodiac Nautic offers removable tubes on RIBs 13 feet and larger and it is very easy to replace the tube set. Since the tube set is the principal part of the boat, and it is a slide-on/slide-off tube, boats can be like new again in a short amount of time and at a reasonable cost. The traditional style of Zodiac inflatable boats and RIBs has an inflatable collar with a “U” shape and three to seven airholding chambers rather than one as a safety precaution, so that if one chamber is deflated by accident, the other chambers will still keep the boat inflated to its maximum carrying capacity. “That is a safety measure that the company incorporates,” adds Durnan.
Zodiac offers many traditional type inflatable boats which are completely compactable for travel. “Once you have decided on your inflatable hull, you can have your choice of floor board – wooden, aluminum or a high-pressure air floor system (H2P) – all three of which can be rolled up into a bag,” says Durnan. That applies to Zodiac boats seven feet to 15 feet long. “Even a boat with a twenty five hundred pound carrying capacity and sixty horsepower engine, can be packed up and put in the trunk of a minivan,” adds Durnan.
But is it durable? “We get that question all the time,” admits Durnan. “We’re asked ‘What happens if my fish hook punctures the tube?’ Fact is, the way in which the tube set is made, being round and cylindrical in shape and all, its design immediately prohibits that a hook could ever get into it. Aside from that, this is not the inflatable fabric that we’re used to buying as an inflatable mattress or a pool toy for the kids. Those types of products use what is called ‘unsupported’ fabric – a very thin material that is inflated and expected to last a couple of months.”
The fabrics used by Zodiac Nautic are all supported fabrics. There are multiple layers in all Zodiac Nautic’s hypalon/neoprene fabrics as well the PVC fabrics, so durability is not an issue. “It’s the type of boat used by many professionals day to day,” says Durnan. “If it’s good enough for them, we’re pretty sure it’s good enough for your typical weekend.”
Zodiac Nautic recognizes the importance of social media and digital marketing to boost communications in today’s world, and its new owners’ eagerness to improve online presence has resulted in a fresh website featuring additional content and an impressive configurator.
“We have the first online configurator in the inflatable world,” says Durnan. “A lot of work and investment has gone into the configurator. It’s a really cool tool. Consumers can pick their color of cushions, tube set, console, fiberglass color, and all types of other features. You can build your own boat online, and then, the company will make that boat specifically in your flavor and taste. Basically, you’re able to make your Zodiac, your way.”
The internet is important when it comes to this type of product. Most people go online to shop first, then head to stores to pick it up. “Our largest dealer in the world is Defender Industries in Connecticut. Defender does a majority of its Zodiac business online,” explains Durnan. “For the big RIBs – worth up to $150,000, with single and twin HP outboard engine applications and all – its general showroom where the RIBs are showcased is not open on a daily basis to the public. It’s open by appointment only. So, the consumers will do most of their shopping online before making an appointment.”
Now, with its 120th anniversary coming up in the fall, there are big plans in the works at Zodiac Nautic, not the least of which is a movie about Jacques Cousteau, a famous user of Zodiac products back in the fifties, sixties, and seventies with his television shows and exploration companies. The movie, although focused on the famous explorer, will make reference to Zodiac’s history and how the relationship came about. There is a big correlation between Zodiac and Jacques Cousteau. “To this day, the Cousteau family still works with Zodiac product,” says Durnan.
“We’re launching a new updated version of a Zodiac original inflatable boat – a limited, special edition called the Mark 2 Heritage. It’s a kick-back to the original-type inflatable (boat) that we were selling in the seventies and that is still popular today with the adventure-type boater. We’re going to introduce it in the fall, around the same time as the movie comes out.”
Zodiac Nautic has an impressive international reach. “Unlike any of our traditional competition, we’re not focused on one market; we’re focused on the worldwide market, and we’re focused on many sectors of the market. We like to think of ourselves as a boat for everybody and every need, so whether it is recreational or commercial, we have a Zodiac that will fit your needs,” says Durnan.
With over a million boats sold and seventy-three active patents, Zodiac Nautic is presently taking on the exciting challenge of bringing fiberglass production back in-house to its manufacturing facility located in Summerville, South Carolina. Production had been previously closed down and outsourced in the USA. “This will mean growing the business in Summerville by two-fold in a year, and it will supply the (North American) market which is, by far, the biggest market for Zodiac Nautic looking forward and where the company wants to focus its growth and investments,” says Durnan.
“We are, by far, the largest inflatable company in the world, with more than 1,600 dealers worldwide,” says Durnan. “We own the largest market share of inflatables in North America, and we are the largest in Europe as well.”
Zodiac Nautic continues to grow as it works with renewed vision towards improving and perfecting its products and customer service. And with all hands on deck, this is a world-class operation serving the recreational boating industry.