Boating to a beat: IN THE GROOVE
Global market leader and New Zealand aren’t words often used together in discussions about marine electronics. Fusion bucks the trend.
Ask any Kiwi boatie to name the first brand of marine stereo that comes to mind, and the name most likely to come out is ‘Fusion’.
This market leadership is the result of nearly two decades of continuous growth since Fusion was founded in a shed by Kurt McNall in 1998. He was soon joined by brother Stuart and father Colin, and they worked hard in those formative years to develop a name for reliable and stylish innovation.
The investment in 2006 by Sir Peter Maire, better known as the founder of Navman, gave the company the capital it needed to expand its product range and enter into new markets.
What most Kiwis are probably not aware of, though, is that this domestic market dominance also extends beyond our shores. According to managing director Chris Baird, the company leads the market throughout Europe. In fact, 75 percent of boats manufactured in Europe will likely come with one of Fusion’s extensive range of marine stereos factory-installed.
The USA is an even more competitive market, with 17 or 18 brands of marine entertainment systems available. These include the massive Japanese brands like Sony, Kenwood and Clarion, and yet, even in this heated market Fusion is still the dominant brand. Baird says Fusion’s had steady growth in this region for the last decade, helped by its acquisition by electronics giant Garmin in 2014.
Fusion now focuses entirely on the premium marine audio market; it abandoned its car audio range last year, citing the fact that car audiophiles are in decline and that this had become a low-margin business where price is more important than good sound.
The unforgiving nature of the marine environment means that this is a sector where excellent quality and superb engineering are both essential and valued – cheap-and-nasty doesn’t survive.
Baird says all Fusion products remain designed and engineered in New Zealand, despite the company now being owned by a USA-based mega-corporation with three factories in Taiwan and other manufacturing in China.
An Aussie by birth, Baird says the can-do attitude of Kiwi engineers and innovators is what attracted him to the company.
Our approach of being able to do more with less and becoming world leaders in the field means he has no plans to leave our shores anytime soon.
He is also passionate about what he does, and says that is what he looks for in staff. As a result, many of the lead engineers have been with the company for a decade or more, just like Baird himself.
During the 2008 GFC, when many companies were forced to make large and painful cutbacks, Fusion retained all of its engineering staff. When the economy rallied they were ahead of the competition and have not looked back since.
He says the company still invests hugely in R&D, an extension of the early decision never to do any re-badging of other products or become a ‘me too’ company. This philosophy continues to pay dividends, with the company picking up the Innovation Award at this year’s Hutchwilco Boat Show.
This was for its revolutionary Apollo series of marine stereo, being the first ever marine audio device with a one-piece glass touch display. The Apollo also incorporates WiFi ‘PartyBus’, to enable the streaming of audio to other devices on the boat without requiring physical cabling between the components.
Another standout product highlighted at the show was Fusion’s all-in-one Panel Stereo, which takes care of the cabling issues normally associated with installing an audio head unit and separate speakers.
With a pair of matched speakers and a large surface bass radiator all built into the same slimline enclosure with the Class-D amplifier, the unit can be surface-mounted on to any suitable bulkhead or panel. Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity enables streaming of your favourite music from your choice of device. And of course, it’s IP65-sealed against water and dust ingress.
Baird says Fusion’s market share in New Zealand has been on the back of fantastic support from the local marine industry. “Without it, we wouldn’t have had the base to build our business internationally.”
The acquisition by Garmin, he adds, provided financial stability with a rock-solid company of a size that is hard to conceive for a Kiwi start-up. Headquartered in Kansas City, the company employs more than 3,100 engineers and designers – nearly a quarter of its 11,500 staff and associates worldwide.
Garmin is active in the marine, aeronautical, fitness and smartwatch markets. Its products range to some fairly extreme environments – from 100m below the sea for the Descent GPS
Dive Computer, through to an altitude of 12,000m on the flight deck of an aircraft with its flight deck displays.
The aspect of Garmin’s engineering philosophy that most surprised and pleased Baird was the huge testing regime, and the resources that were made available to Fusion to support this.
A philosophy of extreme testing influences the designs and ultimately enables the company to build better products, not necessarily cheaper ones. Garmin also owns its manufacturing facilities, ensuring it has full control over the quality of the end-product.
Most of its products are manufactured in one of three factories in Taiwan, with the exception of the speakers which are made at the factory in China (as is 90 percent of the world’s production of speakers).
This history of engineering-led innovation has enabled Fusion to pull off its latest coup with SeaRay boats. Part of the massive American Brunswick corporation, SeaRay claims to be the world’s largest manufacturer of pleasure boats.
When Fusion recently visited SeaRay in Knoxville, Tennessee to showcase its latest range, the team was unaware that the company was about to sign up a competitor for a new three-year supply deal for marine entertainment systems for all its boats.
According to Baird, the company put the immediate brakes on that deal, asking, “how can we allow our competitors to have an advantage over us for the next three years?” Instead, it signed a deal with Fusion that will see the products installed as standard-fit audio entertainment products across the entire range of SeaRay vessels, from sport boats to yachts.
Baird believes that the meeting was brought about in no small part thanks to New Zealand’s America’s Cup success. He says his sales and marketing team travels extensively, valuing the face-to-face meeting over any sort of electronic communication, and says many Kiwis may not fully appreciate the response when they introduce themselves as being from New Zealand.
“That’s a clever country,” or words to that effect, is the common sentiment, and companies are more often receptive than not.
Despite the negative points of view sometimes espoused locally about the America’s Cup being a rich man’s sport, Baird says it’s been impressed on the rest of the world that throwing money at something does not always buy the best.
The right attitude, good design and plain hard work are what have made New Zealand world-leaders in so many sectors, and he is excited about Auckland again showcasing to the world when we host the next America’s Cup up in 2021.
Conveniently, Fusion’s head-office is about 800m from the team bases on the Auckland Viaduct. BNZ