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T-bird still flying, hits 15,500 mark

November 12, 2010

SIGNING UP ... There's plenty of white space on the plastic wrapper of a 35-foot-long boat. The employees of Thunderbird Products signed their names on the wrapper of the 8,000th ship built in the past 10 years. That vessel is also the 15,500th craft built in that facility since 1989. (Photo by Eric Mann)

    It's formally known as TNRD80001011.
    That's the 18,000th Formula boat built since 1989 at the Thunderbird Products plant in Decatur: a 35-foot, twin-engine craft destined to be used on The Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. It has a top speed of 55 mph.
    The large Thunderbird plant on Decatur's far west side, which had 600 workers just four years ago, has almost 200 people employed there now as the business — and the nation — continue to struggle with what company president Scott Porter calls "the longest and hardest recession" of the five he has witnessed in his lifetime.
    The 15,500th boat was bought by Thomas Edwards of St. Louis, who visited the plant on November 1 as the finishing touches were being put on his purchase.
    Thunderbird Products developed from the Duo Boat firm that Victor and Kristine Porter founded in Decatur in 1958. The first boat built 52 years ago is on display in the Thunderbird lobby.
    Before TNRD80001011 left the production building, the employees used marking pens to write their names on the white plastic wrapping that covered the vessel on a trailer.
    Scott Porter, who is part of the family ownership and leadership of the business, told the workers that times are still quite tight, but he has hopes for better sales next spring after the winter boat shows are held. The firm will advertise, promote, and sell its boats as hard as possible, he pledged.
    He pointed out that the words "Thunderbird" and "quality" have been synonymous ever since the company was formed and he compared the level of workmanship on the ships to that of Mercedes-Benz and Porsche. "We do the absolute best that we can," said Porter.
    He also said visitors to the plant, and prospective customers, always remark about how clean the production line is.
    Furthermore, Porter praised the staff's "interaction and enthusiasm" with customers and possible customers on the plant visits.
    Thunderbird Products stayed open, he said, through the prayers of its workers as well as through "creativity and cost adjustments." The company has "a very resilient team" that says, "'We don't give up!'" Porter declared.
    He stated that the company is on "an extended journey" and there is "light at the end of the tunnel," but "we're just not there yet."
    Later, Porter said there are about 20 boat firms making crafts of similar style to those crafted by Thunderbird and he said the firm's current sales are 85 percent in the United States and 15 percent in other countries.

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