Drawing on his marine DNA

Posted on Written by Jim Flannery
Denison carries a number of well-known brands, including Hatteras Yachts. Here, a 45-foot Hatteras charges through the ocean.

Denison carries a number of well-known brands, including Hatteras Yachts. Here, a 45-foot Hatteras charges through the ocean.

From his second-floor executive suite at Harbour Towne Marina in Dania Beach, Fla., Bob Denison can see across the Dania Cutoff Canal to the blue shed where his father, Christopher “Kit” Denison, built yachts with attitude — big, fast and luxurious.

Denison Yachts pioneered jet and surface drives on fast megayacht hulls. “That’s where I grew up as a kid,” says Denison, 39, president of Denison Yacht Sales, a Dania Beach business that has morphed over 10 years from a yacht brokerage to a company with 20 U.S. offices and a menu of services ranging from yacht brokerage and new-boat sales to yacht charter and management, crew placement, owner representation in superyacht construction and service and repairs.

Denison says he worked, mainly during the summers, at his father’s yard, doing “gofer” tasks and sweeping floors. It was a humble start in an industry embedded in his DNA.

On Fort Lauderdale’s New River, not far from Harbour Towne, Denison’s grandparents, Frank and Gertrude Denison, founded Broward Marine, which built 80 aluminum motoryachts larger than 80 feet in the 1980s. And now in Lauderdale’s 17th Street yachting district, Denison’s uncle, Kenelm “Ken” Denison, a former vice president at Broward, brokers, charters and supervises the construction of superyachts at Denison & Daves.

Denison’s brother Eddy and his other uncle, Franklin “Skip” Denison, another alumnus of Broward Marine, are brokers at Denison Yacht Sales, as is his father, Kit, who started the brokerage, retired from it, and then rejoined it in 2012 as a broker in its superyacht division, specializing in Broward and Denison yachts. Bob Denison’s wife, Daniella, is a graphic designer in the firm’s marketing department.

Beneteau Powerboats is another brand Denison has done well with. The Swift Trawler 30 is shown above.

Beneteau Powerboats is another brand Denison has done well with. The Swift Trawler 30 is shown above.

An ‘incredible’ resource

“I stand on the shoulders of giants,” Denison says. “My grandfather, my grandmother, my dad, my uncles. It’s an incredible legacy.” And an incredible resource, he says. “I can call on the family anytime to get advice. They’ve been through some of the best and worst of times in yachting and survived — or sometimes they didn’t.”

They share with him lessons learned from both the good decisions they made and the bad ones, he says. “I’m hard-working, but I’m not as smart (or perhaps just not as experienced yet) as they are. It’s helpful to be able to tap into their wisdom.”

Denison has run into his share of bumps in the road. He joined the brokerage in 2001 and took the helm from his father in 2002. “I jumped into the business just a few months ahead of 9/11,” he says. “That was really terrifying.”

Then the dot-com bubble burst, oil prices soared and the economy plunged into the Great Recession in 2008.

“There have been all kinds of booms and crashes,” he says. “The last 15 years have been a cycle of the brown stuff hitting the fan.” And yet during the past 10 of those years Denison has opened two offices a year and expanded into a host of new client services — yacht charter and management, crew placement, new construction, service and repair. The company’s sales have more than tripled since 2004, its website says.

Bob Denison stands with broker Mike Fine (left) and his uncle, broker “Skip” Denison (right), outside the Montauk, N.Y., office.

Bob Denison stands with broker Mike Fine (left) and his uncle, broker “Skip” Denison (right), outside the Montauk, N.Y., office.

Denison attributes the growth through those tumultuous times to responses on many fronts: acquisitions, aggressive marketing, including emerging digital and Web advertising, a large Internet database of new and used boats, a lean operation, nimble reflexes. “You adjust and pivot,” he says — a relentless focus on customer service and talented employees who doubled down and knew how to do business in lean times.

“We try to fill the seats in this place with the best people possible,” he says. “They do the right things, make good decisions in bad times and good. It really makes a difference.”

Faith in the industry

He thinks it also has been important to keep a fundamentally positive attitude about the economy and the marine industry, even as the bottom seemed to be falling out of both.

“A lot of people were closing down,” he says. “It’s not that they did anything wrong. They just didn’t have confidence in the industry. They didn’t know whether they’d last two years or 10.” Many worried that the economy was on the verge of collapse.

“For better or for worse, I have a lot of faith in our economic system and its ability to rebound,” he says. “But it’s a scary thing. We live in a really unique time with a lot of good things and bad things happening in a compressed time frame.”

Denison works hard to keep the mood in the office upbeat with small but frequent acts of kindness that show his employees he appreciates them.

The Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale’s newspaper, named Denison Yacht Sales the best small company to work for in 2015, a reflection of Denison’s philosophy that the staff should care not just about the customer, though that’s a top priority, but also about each other. “We have people here who are really smart, but they also really, really care — about the customers, about each other, about the business.”

It makes for a good work environment, he says.

A passion for marketing

In 2005 Denison chucked his yacht broker’s hat to focus all of his energy on marketing and management, which means, first, that he is no longer competing with his brokers for sales, but also that he is spending all his time now supporting the brokers and “getting the phone to ring for them.” He says this approach has boosted business and morale.

“My real passion is building the business and developing a good marketing system,” he says. It’s a system that includes print advertising, direct mail, email to a list of more than 25,000 yachting enthusiasts, Internet marketing, boat shows and Web marketing on more than 45 multiple listing services. He says that’s how he gets his brokers’ phones to ring.

He also incorporates social media — Facebook, Instagram and Twitter — into his marketing and communications program to stay in touch with his customers and serve their needs. He says those tools are not vital to the business yet, but he expects they soon will be as younger generations of boat buyers enter the boat market.

Denison’s long-term goal is “slow, steady growth,” and although he is an advocate of digital marketing, he also wants the company’s distinctive orange flag to fly over Denison offices in every major port in the United States — East Coast, West Coast, the Great Lakes.

“We’re perceived as an Internet company,” but it’s important to have brick-and-mortar offices with local brokers who walk the docks, gather local knowledge, solve problems, and nurture relationships with vendors, boatyards and marinas, he says.

Based on the experience of generations of Denisons, the young executive says another of his goals has been to diversify the business. “That’s part of our overall strategy,” he says. “That’s the one thing I hope makes us resilient as a company.”

Bob Denison.

Bob Denison.

Denison Yacht Sales counts blue-collar boaters as well as one-percenters, and almost every class of boater in between, among its clients. The smallest boat it sold last year was a 28-foot Intrepid, the largest a 197-foot Abeking & Rasmussen. The company brokers used boats and it sells new ones, the latter running from Hatteras motoryachts to Beneteaus (power and sail) Dufour sailboats, Marquis, Coauch and Carver motoryachts, and Fountaine Pajot and Privilege catamarans.

It also has dived into yacht charters, and it just hired the director of its new fleet management division, which will oversee yachts in charter for their owners. In its superyacht division, brokers represent owners in custom yacht construction, and in the maintenance department, personnel service yachts for Denison clients.

The expectations of new-boat buyers, especially, are very high, so service is important, Denison says. ”In the last six years we have gotten really, really good at it,” he says. “Our new-boat success really belongs to the service department.”

Global aspirations

The company said in July that it had opened a new office — its seventh in Florida, 20th in the nation — at the Miami Beach Marina, where it will sell mainly new boats. Never satisfied standing still, Denison says he also plans to soon open an office at The Quay on 17th Street as the headquarters of his superyacht division.

He sees opportunities for significant growth in that arena, and as the company gets more involved with superyachts — sales, brokerage, charters, yacht management — he says he will be looking for the right partner in Europe to open his first office there.

Denison aims for the kind of diversity in his broker network that he has in his menu of boat and service offerings. “Our hope is that when anyone calls about any kind of boat, we can match them up with a broker who really knows that specialty, whether it’s a sport fishing boat, trawler, racing sailboat or superyacht,” he says.

Although the company has grown dramatically during the past decade, “getting big is not that exciting to me,” Denison says. “What’s exciting is the opportunity to give boaters a lot of different experiences — exceptional experiences — and to create a culture, a set of systems that can give our clients those exceptional experiences.” Boiled down, exceptional experiences means “awesome service” — better than the client expects.

Denison received a degree in business management from the University of Miami in 1999, a time when many young business graduates were testing the waters of the digital technology boom. He went to work for Dave Parker, an e-commerce entrepreneur in health care, and then Ed Collins, a broker in commercial airliners and plane parts.

“I really value the time I spent with them,” he says. “It wasn’t really what they were doing, but how they were doing it [that was instructional]. They were creative problem solvers. A lot of that rubbed off on me,” he says, and helped him in his own business.

Bullish on boating

It was not preordained that Denison eventually would enter the family business, but “there was a certain amount of obligation, mixed with a passion for boating, mixed with an entrepreneurial spirit” that led him to join Denison Yacht Sales as a broker.

As difficult as the business can be, Denison says he’s bullish on boating in 2016, bullish on the industry and bullish on the prospects for his own business.

“Boating has never been safer, more fun and less intimidating,” he says, and as he looks ahead he sees technology marching on and making boating even safer and easier than it is now and accessible to a lot more people.

Boats that dock themselves and tie up to cleats on command? Denison believes that time is nearer than we might think.

And he knows boating’s appeal remains compelling. “Now that I have a child, I understand the importance of putting the cellphone down and being out on the water with the people I love on an awesome day,” he says.

That has been a core value of a family that has been building, selling, brokering and fixing boats for three generations.

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 issue.

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