From Mountains to the Sea

Perched in the mountains of Slovenia, Elan Yachts' factory might seem like a strange place to make boats, but the factory has an eclectic heritage.

The company’s headquarters were being renovated during our visit, and the new offices were modern-looking, comfortable and offered a stunning view of the nearby mountains.Mark Pillsbury

Fields of wildflowers and snowcapped peaks greet a visitor to the headquarters of Elan Yachts, a division of the Slovenian manufacturing company whose skis and snowboards are known worldwide, and which also manufactures components for wind turbines and sports-stadium equipment. It’s a setting that would be picture-perfect for a production of The Sound of Music, but a boatbuilding mecca? Well, actually, that works too.

Elan began life during World War II as a shop that turned out skis for Yugoslavian troops fighting in the mountains surrounding its facility located in Begunje na Gorenjskem, a small town near the city of Ljubljana. Production continued after the war as the wintertime alpine vacation industry took off, and in 1949, the company began to build canoes and kayaks, in part to keep its craftsmen busy year-round.

Then, with the adoption of fiberglass, Elan began building larger power- and sailing yachts. Today its sailboats range from 30 to 50 feet and include the E and S series of performance boats; the Impression line, which caters to both the recreational and charter industry; and its new GT5, the first model in a new luxury-cruising range. Rob Humphreys, and Humphreys Yacht Design, has been the company’s longtime exclusive designer.

For much of its life, Elan was state-owned, but in 2015, the company was privatized and sold to investors Merrill Lynch International and VR Capital. This past year, the new owners brought former Hunter Marine president John Peterson aboard to run the marine division, and a decision was made to once again focus on the North American market, where Elan had begun to make inroads with its boats before the economic downturn a decade or so ago.

Elan’s two oldest divisions — its skis and sailboats — and its wind components are built side by side on a 100-acre site that’s home to a sprawling collection of buildings, some of which date back to the war years, in various stages of renovation. Such an eclectic heritage has its benefits and challenges, Peterson noted as we toured the plant one day this past spring. Boatbuilding competitors in France have factories designed for building yachts. Elan’s began with skis, and boat production sheds sprang up around them. On the plus side, many skills have been shared over the evolution of the products.

Before a deck gets glued and bolted into place, equipment such as ports and genoa tracks are installedMark Pillsbury

In total, Elan employs about 700 people at the Slovenia site. Peterson said 125 of these workers are boatbuilders and another 75 work on wind components, though there is a good deal of overlap between the teams when it comes to composites. At the peak of the boating market, Elan produced close to 300 sailboats annually. In 2016, 80 boats were built, but Peterson predicts that number will increase by 30 percent annually in the near term as marine markets rebound.

Like its buildings, Elan Yachts’ production methods are a mix of old and new. Hulls and decks are infused using state-of-the-art technology that’s shared with the wind division. In the wood shop, some parts are cut by CNC machine, while others, such as teak decks, locker lids, and even whole head and galley modules, are put together by craftsmen, most of whom have worked their way up as they gained skills in-house.

“We are the school,” Peterson said when asked about worker training.

Visiting French and German boat factories, one’s struck by the machinery; at Elan, it’s the people who stand out. Women and men were present in seemingly equal numbers, and those not wearing protective coveralls all wore company shirts. Employees get 25 days’ vacation a year, and lunch is served on-site daily in the company cafeteria.

Walking from one building, where we watched a deck being lowered onto a waiting hull, we entered an adjacent shop where women were inspecting skis and sharpening edges on a large grinding machine. Throughout the plant, every request for a photo was greeted with a smile. An on-site company retail store sells a range of skiing and sporting goods.

The night before our factory tour, we visited the nearby resort village at Lake Bled. It was early in the season, so the waterside restaurants weren’t too crowded, and our visit included a stop at Bled Castle, a towering fortress that dates back to 1011.

Castles, skis, yachts — why not?