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Hell's Bay and former employee join forces

Merger of fishing boat companies will boost manufacturing process for Titusville, Fla., business


The recent merger between Gordon Boatworks and Hell’s Bay Boatworks paves the way for stronger customer service and eliminates unnecessary competition, said the leaders of these two shallow-water fishing companies.

His business acumen and Tom Gordon’s boatbuilding expertise complemented each other well, said Chris Peterson of Hell’s Bay.

“I believe the two operations are now greater together than they were separate,” Peterson said, “and we don’t have to spend our energies competing.”

“Overall, it was a perfect little marriage,” Peterson added.

The merger also could be likened to a family reunion.

Gordon once worked for Hell’s Bay, and brings with him two Hell’s Bay models he acquired when he started his own company four years ago. On the Hell’s Bay Web site, in bold letters just below side-by-side images of the two company logos, it says “Welcome Home” as it announces Gordon’s return to Hell’s Bay.

“It’s nice to have a staff behind me,” said Gordon. “And so far all of my customers have been very happy about this.”

Based in Titusville, Fla., Hell’s Bay Boatworks was founded more than a decade ago by Florida fishing guides Hal Chittum and Flip Pallot, along with boat designer Chris Morejohn. The three had one goal in mind: to build the finest fishing boats ever conceived.

But after several years of working together, the three decided to go in different directions and sold the company to a gentleman whose energy was not devoted to building up the company, according to Peterson.

Hell’s Bay ultimately filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after the company’s primary financier received a $2.6 million judgment against Hell’s Bay for unpaid loans.

Peterson ended up buying the assets through a bankruptcy auction late in 2006.

Gordon, who was the plant manager at Hell’s Bay, left the company before it went into bankruptcy so he could start his own boatbuilding operation in Oak Hill, Fla. He has been in the fiberglass industry since 1989 and began his career in the shallow-water skiff market with Hell’s Bay in 1999.

When he formed Gordon Boatworks, he licensed the two popular Waterman (16-foot and 18-foot) models from Hell’s Bay.

“Both are very reliable fishing boats and proven designs,” said Peterson.

Gordon Boatworks also worked with Pallot in launching a new design called the Ambush that has proven to be a popular seller.

“Because he knew boats, the character of the people needed to build them, and because the product was so good, Tom became very successful,” Peterson added.

“Gordon Boatworks has a loyal following among anglers, boaters and guides around the world,” he said. “The Waterman models are popular in all of the Southern coastal states, as well as the Bahamas, Mexico and several other foreign countries where shallow and backcountry fly- and light-tackle fishing is popular.”

As Gordon was working to make his fledgling boat company a success, Peterson was going through a personal crisis of his own — he was coping with terminal cancer. After a lifetime of starting up and running several types of businesses — a media company, real estate development, housing, plastics manufacturing and RV resorts — Peterson began divesting his financial holdings because he thought he only had a few months to live.

But he said his illness took a dramatic turn. He beat cancer and Peterson, a lifetime fisherman, boater and 100-ton Coast Guard licensed captain, took advantage of his second chance at life seeking out a fulfilling future. “When someone told me there was an opportunity to buy Hell’s Bay Boatworks, I just jumped on it,” Peterson said. “It was a product and an industry I had a real passion about.”

He made several offers to the bank prior to and during the bankruptcy filing, but each time the bank turned him down because the offer was too low. Still, Peterson didn’t give up. He waited until the bankruptcy auction Dec. 1, 2006 and placed a bid for all the assets, including the physical plant, the molds, the intellectual property, “even the dust,” he quipped.

He closed the deal in late December and immediately began rebuilding the company from the ground up.

He said he hired back a number of former employees and worked out an arrangement with vendors to pay cash; most would not even take a cashier’s check from Hell’s Bay because they said they had gotten burned by the former owner, who they claim took deposits on boats that were never built.

The former owner “defrauded  approximately 32 sets of purchasers of boats,  having accepted deposits for boats at times when he knew or should have known he would be unable to begin building the boats,” according to  a joint disclosure statement filed in the bankruptcy case by Riverside National Bank of Florida and the committee of unsecured creditors.

In an effort to rebuild trust in Hell’s Bay, Peterson said he honored up to $10,000 of deposits taken by the former owner.

“We wanted to prove to vendors that we’re here for the long haul. We wanted to prove we’re here to do what we say we’re going to do,” he said.

Hell’s Bay reopened its doors in early January 2007 and completed its first boat later that same month.
“We’ve now resurrected it to its old prominence,” Peterson said.

It helped that Hell’s Bay has “an extremely loyal following and great brand recognition,” Peterson said. “We started with something that was already good.”

Some might think buying and rebuilding a company during the onset of a down economy comes with numerous challenges, but Peterson said the sluggish market has proven beneficial.

“The slower economy is giving us the ability to really organize and get this business really in shape,” he said.

“We still have consistent orders,” Peterson added. However, he said, “We’re not growing exponentially, so we don’t have to react to one crisis after another. We have the luxury of being able to do it in an organized, well thought-out manner.”

Discussions of a possible merger between Hell’s Bay and Gordon Boatworks took place on and off for the last two years. Peterson and Gordon began talking more seriously about the idea three months ago.

“Early on, Tom wasn’t ready to sell his company,” Peterson explained. “Now that we’ve been back in the market for a year and a half, he’s seen some of the momentum we’ve been building.”

Given the distressed economy, Gordon said he and Peterson wanted to create one strong company.

“It made sense for manufacturing, for employees, to bring it all under one company,” said Gordon.

“With Hell’s Bay and Gordon Boatworks producing skiffs in separate facilities within 30 minutes of each other, it just makes a lot of sense to consolidate the operations into one company in one location,” said Peterson.

All Gordon Boatworks models and intellectual property will be moving to the Hell’s Bay plant. Also making the move are Gordon and three of his nine employees — joining the 20 workers already at the Titusville plant.

The company has one dealership in Texas, but most of the boats are sold directly. Gordon said there are no immediate plans to add more dealers.

By incorporating the models of Gordon Boatworks, Hell’s Bay will now have 11 models of shallow-water skiffs in the 14- to 18-foot range. This includes the newest design from Hell’s Bay introduced in February at the Miami International Boat Show — an 18-foot skiff called the Boca Grande.

“We certainly have the idea skiff for every type of shallow-water fishery now at Hell’s Bay Boatworks,” said Gordon. “It will be exciting to offer such a depth of product to the fishing enthusiast.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2008 issue.



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