At 90, marina founder has seen it all

Posted on Written by Jim Flannery

Robert Cox used to keep a loaded Colt .45 caliber revolver and a thick piece of fiberglass in his desk at Lauderdale Marina, which he established 60 years ago in Fort Lauderdale. When a client challenged whether this newfangled hull material could stand up to a Gulf Stream crossing, he’d take out that piece of fiberglass, lean it up against an old piling and let the customer shoot at it.

“Those were the days when companies would throw a fiberglass boat out a second-story window [to prove its strength],” says the 90-year-old Cox. “You were selling the material rather than the brand for years.”

 

Cox has been a prominent player in Fort Lauderdale for decades. He was a founding member of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida and a co-founder of what is now the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, which still helps fund the association. Mayor of Fort Lauderdale from 1986 to 1991 and a member of the city commission for 20 years before that, Cox has been a key figure in building Fort Lauderdale’s reputation as the “Venice of the Americas.”

For example, Cox pushed for dredging the city’s waterways so deeper-draft boats could use them. He also lobbied hard for tearing down low bridges that weren’t needed and that blocked boat access to residential canals, another indication of his foresight.

Cox didn’t start out as a Fort Lauderdale mover and shaker, though, nor did he plan on opening a marina. When he arrived in Fort Lauderdale in 1946 aboard his 83-foot motorsailer, Ungava, he thought he might start a business building small engines with a partner. Legal troubles scuttled the idea. He had no job prospects, and he couldn’t find a marina deep enough for Ungava’s 9-foot draft, which was a problem because he was living aboard. There were no fuel docks, either.

“There wasn’t a gas pump on the [Intracoastal Waterway] from Palm Beach to Miami,” says Cox. “There was one lousy marina in Fort Lauderdale.”

Huss Marina, built 12 years earlier on the ICW at the Las Olas Boulevard Bridge, was nearing the end of its useful life. Its slips were shallow, the wiring was bad, and it boasted a single shower stall reputedly built by a boat owner in exchange for a bottle of whiskey, Cox recalls.

It was not a pretty picture, but where some might have seen a dead end, Cox saw opportunity. The one place he could find with docks deep enough for Ungava was a semi-abandoned Navy torpedo research station on the ICW, just north of Port Everglades Inlet. The Navy had installed fuel tanks there for its boats, run a water line half a mile to the remote property, and erected a concrete-block building to serve as offices. It looked to Cox like an ideal spot for a marina.

Fort Lauderdale still was very much a diamond in the rough. Developers had dug a network of canals in and around the city to fill surrounding swamps, most of which stayed undeveloped after the great Florida land bust of 1926. “I looked at those hundreds of miles of canals and saw that the only way for boats to get to the ocean was past this [Navy] dock,” he says.

He saw dollar signs.

A graduate in engineering from California Institute of Technology, Cox had helped design the Flushing Boat Basin for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Later, he joined an aircraft engine company, then worked as chief engineer at a defense plant in New York during World War II. That’s when he acquired Ungava, a William Hand-designed motorsailer that had carried scientists on prewar expeditions to the Arctic. The government used it for wartime coastal patrols. Cox bought the boat after it was released from duty, and he lived aboard at the marina in Flushing.

“I spent two winters in the ice,” he says. “I hated New York.” After the war, he made a beeline for Florida.
Cox docked Ungava at the Navy station, and when the property reverted to its prewar owner, he negotiated a deal to open a fuel station there — Lauderdale Marina. His first sale was 48 gallons of gasoline. On his second day in business, a boater asked Cox if he carried ice. “You couldn’t get cake ice anywhere,” he says. So he bought a surplus military trailer with a freezer to store ice. He installed cigarette machines and bait wells, and he supplied anglers with box lunches ordered the night before. He kept his cash in a cigar box until he found out he needed a cash register to record revenues for sales tax purposes. It was a fun learning experience, Cox says.

Today, what started as a mom-and-pop marina is still family-owned. Three generations have a hand in it, and a fourth is coming up. “I believe in nepotism,” Cox says.

The property, one of the city’s prime commercial parcels, is listed at $7.7 million by the Broward County appraiser’s office. While many mom-and-pops are perpetually for sale at the right price, this one isn’t — and that’s for real.

“It’s a great piece of property that will only become more valuable,” says realtor Ted Drum, a member of the Cox family. “We all like what we’re doing. Why would we sell it?”

Indeed, why? Lauderdale Marina’s Boston Whaler dealership perennially ranks among the top five in single-location sales. The fuel dock is the busiest in Florida and one of the largest on the East Coast. The marina’s 15th Street Fisheries restaurant is a Florida landmark. The 70 slips and deep-draft face docks are 10 minutes from the ocean.

The marina, operated by the Cox family’s company, The Shipyard LLC, houses a boatyard with Travelift, a Grand Banks dealership, a yacht brokerage, a towboat business, a Mercury dealership, an outboard service shop, a ship’s store and a U.S. Customs station — all just inside the 17th Street Causeway Bridge.

The marina complex has grown with the city. Cox says there was no Bahia Mar Beach Resort & Yachting Center, Pier 66, or Fort Lauderdale Marina Marriott nearby when he arrived in Fort Lauderdale. He was the first boat dealer in the Southeast to introduce fiberglass boats, at the 1949 boat show at the seaplane hanger in Coconut Grove.

“I was an engineer,” he says. “I had some exposure to this new stuff.”

He introduced three fiberglass boat brands at Miami, and during the course of 60 years he has represented some 40 brands, though the marina has sold just one — Boston Whaler — since 1973. Many of the boat companies are long out of business. Cox counted 200 fiberglass-boat builders between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

“There was a fiberglass boat company in every two-car garage in Florida,” he says. “You couldn’t get good fiberglass boat franchises.”

In the 1960s, Cox started a side business designing vertical dry stacks — all wood, three tiers and for boats to 21 feet.

In the early 1950s, gasoline sold for 39 cents a gallon. Now, it’s pushing $5 a gallon, a price many boaters find hard to swallow. Tough times are nothing new to Cox. He has seen six decades of business cycles, and he opened his marina when there was just a fraction of the 50,000 vessels now in and around Fort Lauderdale.

“[Cox] hung in there,” says Dave Bearden, Cox’s Boston Whaler sales manager, “and prevailed when it was hard to do.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.

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