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Published: Monday, January 21, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Innovative boatbuilder: model entrepreneur, risk-taker

  • This promotional bookmark shows photos of a Glas-Ply boat being dropped from 80 feet from a helicopter to prove the durability of the fiberglass boats...

    This promotional bookmark shows photos of a Glas-Ply boat being dropped from 80 feet from a helicopter to prove the durability of the fiberglass boats designed by Ken Hopen.

  • Ken Hopen (foreground) with one of his boats in the early 1970s.

    Family photo

    Ken Hopen (foreground) with one of his boats in the early 1970s.


Editor's note: This article implies that Ken Hopen was the founder of Glas-Ply boats. Hopen became a partner in the venture and eventually owned the company outright, but the actual founder was Ken Smith. For more on the company's history, read this account by Smith's daughter, published July 29, 2013.

Ken Hopen was a friend like no other. He could tell stories and share insight and wisdom about business and about life. And he would scribble notes and diagrams and tell of incredible innovations that would leave many asking, "Is this for real?" He was a business man, an inventor and an entrepreneur.
At his memorial service earlier this month in Mountlake Terrace, I was reminded of just how special Ken was and how many lives he had touched. He was born in 1934 -- the throes of the Great Depression and the era leading up to World War II. While this may appear inconsequential to some, I am convinced that the difficult economic times helped to ingrain a strong work ethic and sense of purpose in his life.
Ken, a longtime Edmonds resident, reminded me in several conversations how he stumbled upon his dream of building boats. He believed it was through divine appointment. As he attended worship with his parents one Sunday morning, a boy of perhaps 10 or 12, he began staring at the pitched cathedral ceiling of the old Lutheran church in Seattle.
He was hearing a different sermon that morning. His mind was transfixed by this revelation: If the roof of the church were flipped upside down, the truss supports and the framing would make for the ideal structure to build a boat.
He never lost this vision. And his Norwegian roots would constantly draw him to his maritime passion. Ken built his first boat in his garage. He described the experience as a cross between art and engineering -- in other words, blueprints not required.
In the early 1960s, Marysville would welcome Hopen's business, Glas-Ply Marine Industries, which during the peak of manufacturing employed 350 people and generated millions in sales over two decades.
Ken was a genius when it came to promotion. As one of the first manufacturers to build boats using fiberglass and resins, he learned there was an air of skepticism among some boaters who likened the material to plastic. Ken knew he would need to develop a strategy to change the perception of avid boaters if these boats were to find industry-wide acceptance.
He hired Paul Brendle, a well-known helicopter pilot who also provided radio traffic reports in the Seattle market for many years, to act as co-conspirator in a "boater's challenge." This all-or-nothing tactic would either prove to be brilliant or could lead to incredible embarrassment.
Brendle would hoist a 22-foot Glas-Ply pleasure boat 80 feet into the air above Lake Washington with his helicopter, then release the straps, sending the boat into a free fall to the water. You can imagine the spectacle. The boat passed the test that no other boat manufacturer was willing to take on unscathed.
Glas-Ply built many boats to specification for the U.S. Coast Guard, police departments, the Washington state Department of Fisheries and many other buyers. But mostly, Glas-Ply is known as a brand far ahead of its time in terms of design and durability for pleasure boaters from Hawaii to Alaska and all along the West Coast. The company manufactured more than 10,000 boats during Ken's tenure.
Rob Brooks, a Shoreline resident and former Glas-Ply owner, remembers participating in an owner rendezvous in Port Angeles. Proud Glas-Ply enthusiasts would flock to the marina to show off their boats and exchange stories.
"These boats were ahead of their time," Brooks said. "The deep V-hull design is ideal for Puget Sound boating, but these boats have wound up all over the globe."
The company would later change hands as Jerry Caldwell became the new owner in 1991. Sales slowly continued to decline as competing boat manufacturers swallowed up smaller enterprises.
Hopen, though, left a legacy. Glas-Ply owner gatherings will continue for years to come.
Now, I've heard it said of some former boat owners that the best two days of their lives were the day they bought their boat and the day they sold their boat.
Perhaps they should have purchased a Glas-Ply.
Ken will certainly be missed. And his passing reminds me how important it is for a new generation of entrepreneurs to step in to pursue a passion that will create jobs and drive the economy forward.
Juergen Kneifel is a senior associate faculty member in the Everett Community College business program. Please send your comments to entrepreneurship@everettcc.edu.
Story tags » Locally Based CompanyBoatingSmall business

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