A legacy larger than Larson

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes

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Al Kuebelbeck was known for his strong presence in the marine industry over the course of four decades, but daughter Chris Kuebelbeck-Wittwer says no one will miss him more than the grandchildren he doted on.

“If anyone is going to miss him most, it will be them,” says Kuebelbeck-Wittwer, the youngest of Kuebelbeck’s seven children, who adds that her father was always forgiving, even when his many children made mistakes. “Unconditional love is what my dad had. He believed in giving people second chances. In his eyes, everyone was important, no matter who they were or where they came from. Not a lot of people are able to do that.”

That theme would run through his 42-year career with 101-year-old Larson Boats. After Kuebelbeck’s Jan. 16 death at age 72, which followed a fight with a myelodysplastic syndrome — a group of disorders caused by poorly formed or dysfunctional blood cells — an outpouring of comments came from family, staff and even those who had only peripherally known him.

Kuebelbeck had retired in October. He had also served for a time at the helm of Crestliner Boats, another brand owned by Irwin Jacobs’ now-bankrupt Genmar Holdings. Kuebelbeck continued with Larson Boats when Jacobs bought that company and several others out of bankruptcy in 2010.

Larson Boats has a 101-year history and Kuebelbeck spent 42 years at the Minnesota builder.

Larson Boats has a 101-year history and Kuebelbeck spent 42 years at the Minnesota builder.

After Genmar’s sale of Crestliner, Lowe and Lund to Brunswick Corp. in 2004, Kuebelbeck returned to Larson Boats — the umbrella company for the Larson, Triumph and Seaswirl Striper brands — and continued through the 2009 bankruptcy, Jacobs says. “This was something that Al obviously relished,” he says. “He was committed. He was either totally committed or not committed at all. And if he was not, you knew it.”

Kuebelbeck had been with the company so long that he knew everyone there and had garnered a lot of loyalty that he reciprocated, Jacobs says. “He was totally loyal and passionate,” he says. “He was loyal to employees, to the brand, to the city [of Little Falls, Minn.], to me, to the vendors. Al wore it on his shirtsleeve, almost to a fault. Being so loyal to so many people — it’s hard to do sometimes.”

Under Kuelbelbeck's leadership, Larson developed its new Escape line of pontoon boats in 21-, 23- and 25-foot models.

Under Kuelbelbeck’s leadership, Larson developed its new Escape line of pontoon boats in 21-, 23- and 25-foot models.

In an October 2012 interview with Soundings Trade Only, Kuebelbeck reflected on the recession and the toll it had taken on him. “The past three years have probably been the toughest three years that I’ve participated in this business,” he said. “We landed in bankruptcy in 2009, and we worked our way through, and we’ve repositioned ourselves in the market. We didn’t sit on our laurels. We worked hard on developing new product that we feel is apropos for the market we’re dealing with and the generation we’re dealing with.”

True to Kuebelbeck’s style, he also defended Jacobs, who was criticized after Genmar’s bankruptcy, which resulted in “clawback” lawsuits seeking millions of dollars allegedly paid to insiders and Genmar subsidiaries prior to the company’s 2009 bankruptcy. “Working with him is very rewarding,” Kuebelbeck said. “I fully understand there are a lot of negatives out there, [but] most of the negatives out there — there isn’t much substance to it.”

Says Jacobs: “Al, and I say this in a complimentary way, he was old-school. I’m old-school, too. I come from the same world. When I started with him, he was running the factory up at Larson. It was sometime after that we purchased Crestliner. He took that company from a $10 million to a $100 million company. He didn’t do it himself, you understand, but he was a part of it, and that was one of the companies we sold to Brunswick for $200 million.”

Jacobs says Kuebelbeck had been ailing for 2-1/2 years, but he never let on how sick he was. They sat down one day last fall, and Kuebelbeck confessed that he was having health challenges but said he could push on. Jacobs says he told Kuebelbeck that it was time for him to slow down and enjoy life, something his wife very much wanted him to do.

"He was totally loyal and passionate," Larson chairman Irwin Jacobs says of Kuelbelbeck.

“He was totally loyal and passionate,” Larson chairman Irwin Jacobs says of Kuelbelbeck.

“It’s kind of sad because Al retired and he never got to enjoy life after retirement. It was a matter of months before he passed away,” Jacobs says. “He loved to garden, hunt, fish and be with his wife, kids and grandkids, and all of that went away. He never had the chance to do that. Less than 90 days later, he’s gone.”

Kuebelbeck-Wittwer says her father — who had helped her when she found herself with a newborn, a toddler and going through a divorce — also imparted a less traditional memory that she relives every time she drives past the Larson plant in Little Falls. “I love the smell of fiberglass resin — I know, silly, right?,” she says. “I was probably 5 or 6 years old, and I remember Dad would come home sometimes for lunch, driving his Dodge Omni, with mom, and the smell would [fill] the room,” she says. “Even with the VEC system in place now, I can still smell it when driving past the boat works here in town. It reminds me of my dad, my hero in so many ways.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue.

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