End of an Era

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Irwin Jacobs with business partner, John Paul DeJoria.

Irwin Jacobs with business partner, John Paul DeJoria.

Just days before shipping this issue, news emerged that Irwin Jacobs was dead. I like to think that I knew Irwin after hundreds of interviews over 25 years—many off the record—discussing his latest projects.

To the industry, he was a larger-than-life, loud and often unsympathetic public figure. In print, he could sound like a blowhard, though if you cut the superlatives, he often made sense.

With his booming voice, 6’3” frame and imposing presence, Irwin was living technicolor compared to the gray suits he often saw as rivals.

Irwin, as people who knew him understood, was much more complex than his public persona suggested. Driven, relentless and smart. Willing to spend big sums on big ideas. Always swinging for the fence to drive Genmar forward. Virtual Engineered Composites, roto-molded boats, early adoption of the internet to sell boats.

“Irwin loved the competitive aspect of business, liked winning and always played offense,” says a source close to the company, asking not to be named. “He’d always loved big, transformative ideas. He could throw ten up on a wall, and if five stuck, that was okay by him.”

His early years, when he got the nickname “Irv the Liquidator,” are well known. He acquired and broke up AMF and made unsuccessful takeover runs at several other large companies, including Kaiser, ITT and Disney. At one point, he owned a share of the Minnesota Vikings.

A corporate raider—a dirty word in the business community—Jacobs was arguably responsible for reforming companies that had become a bit complacent.

“I think Disney is better off than it’s been in years,” Jacobs said in 1984, after Disney had restructured itself. “I have served a purpose in that company.” He also reportedly turned a nice profit for his efforts.

In the 1980s, Jacobs had amassed a fortune of $200 million—triple that in today’s money. Not bad for the son of a Russian immigrant, who supported his family by recycling burlap bags. Irwin started working with his father at age 8.

His boating empire began with the bankruptcy rescue of Larson in 1978. He eventually assembled 16 brands, including the former OMC brands that helped Genmar double annual sales from $500 million in the mid-1990s to $1.3 billion in the early 2000s. Irwin sold Hatteras to Brunswick Corp. for about $100 million and Chris-Craft to Steve Heese and Stephen Julius in 2001, just hours after he’d purchased Chris-Craft in OMC’s bankruptcy auction.

Boating was a true love for Irwin, one of the few businesses he stayed in for the long haul.

“He spent much of his career trying to live down the ‘Irv the Liquidator’ image and set up the businesses for his children,” says the source. “He wanted to be seen as a builder of businesses rather than someone breaking them into pieces.”

The source thinks Irwin was a “retail genius” who kept his finger on the pulse of consumer trends and understood the importance of the Internet before the rest of the industry. Genmar’s early online initiatives helpd drive sales to all-time highs, reportedly delivering $500 million in a year when annual sales reached $1.2 billion.

There were other milestones—the anti-dumping case where Jacobs, Yamaha and other builders lined up against Mercury and Brunswick and prevailed by a single ITC vote, the press release when Genmar passed Brunswick in total boat sales, and, of course, the Genmar bankruptcy.

Jacobs called that 2009 bankruptcy the “most humbling and painful experience” of his career, which of course it was, but just as painful for the company shareholders and suppliers who lost millions.

He re-emerged with a handful of his former brands and, five years ago, hired Rob Parmentier, former president of Sea Ray, to run them. The company sold off Larson to Polaris in January, retaining Carver and Marquis, while partnering with Toyota on the Lexus brand.

With Jacobs’ children running his other businesses, it’s not clear what will happen to the boat companies.

What is less known about Irwin was his public generosity. With his wife, Alexandra, he provided funding for the Pacer Center, Courage Center, the Minnetonka Center for the Arts and the Special Olympics.

“He was a great family man—as devoted a husband as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says the source, echoing what many others have said. That makes the April tragedy even more disturbing.

Michael Verdon

Michael Verdon

As an industry, we’ll be poorer without him. Leaving caution at the door, he brought passion and possibility to what Genmar could accomplish. I’ll miss those interviews. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.

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