Jack Brewer on the right people and the marina business

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Sometimes the simplest question yields the most revealing answer. Near the end of an hour-plus-long interview with successful marina entrepreneur Jack Brewer, we asked him what he believed was his company’s greatest asset.

“Our people,” he answered without hesitation. “We’ve had people working with us for 20, 25, 30 years. It’s incredible.”

Soundings Trade Only managing editor Rich Armstrong and I had started the interview with Brewer on a similar theme: the importance of the customer.

“Without the customer, what do we have?” asked Brewer, 72, who during the last half-century has built his company from a single small boatyard to 22 full-service marinas from New York to Maine. “Zip.”

Brewer continued: “Customers are demanding. They want service. They want it done now. They want it done right. And they want it at a fair price.”

And, he noted, that’s the way it should be.

Cash may be king, but Brewer, a pioneer developer of the modern destination marina, added, “You’re not going to have any cash without the customer.”

Brewer has been in the marina and boatyard business since 1964. He is turning over day-to-day operations of his nearly two dozen facilities to Rives Potts, the longtime manager of Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, Conn. As CEO and chairman, Brewer will continue to focus more on the financial side of the business. Yard managers will now report directly to Potts, the new president and COO, who will carry on Jack Brewer’s tradition of regular yard visits to talk with managers, employees and customers.

“I’ll step back a bit and visit half as much as I used to do,” said Brewer, who describes the changes as evolutionary, seeing how closely he and Potts have worked together for years. A modest man who understands the fundamentals of running profitable boatyards, Brewer said, “I’m not much on titles.”

Jack Brewer is a sharp student of this business. He believes strongly in conducting business the right way, which means paying bills on time, reinvesting in your yards and people, taking care of customers and employees and expanding in smart ways.

“Jack has some great, great principles that have permeated down through the company,” Potts said. “He’s a very smart, astute businessman. He keeps his eye on the ball. I think his hobby is business, not just our business, but all business and how it works. We can all take lessons from other industries.”

Brewer essentially learned the business from the bottom up, right when it was undergoing a seminal transformation from wood to fiberglass, from mom-and-pop operations to what the best yards and marinas have become today. He started by running the small Post Road Boat Yard in Mamaroneck, N.Y., which his father purchased in 1964 and turned over to him to operate.

Brewer hammered together floats; learned to scrape, sand, paint and varnish; broke ice in winter when the bubblers failed. The yard had maybe 18 slips. The largest boat was a 48-foot Chris-Craft, and all but one (a Hatteras 34) were wood.

“I had no preconceived notions about anything,” said Brewer, who was then a young man in his early 20s, a graduate of Rutgers with a year of business school at Columbia under his belt, along with a short stint working at Bankers Trust. “I knew I didn’t want to work for a large company, and this was the extreme.”

Learning by first doing the hands-on work himself has served Brewer well. “We know that everything we do, he’s done,” Potts said.

The company will start a year-long celebration of its 50th anniversary in September at the Newport (R.I.) International Boat Show.

“It’s a whole new world,” Brewer said. “Boatyards used to be pretty grungy and not a place you’d want to bring your families. We’ve tried to change that.”

Now most Brewer yards have swimming pools (some more than one), along with a range of activities, from tennis to basketball to bocce and more. Increasingly, they have become destinations in and of themselves.

Brewer remains positive on the future of the industry. “I think so much depends on the economy,” he said. “People need to have confidence in the future and what is happening in the country. I’m definitely a bull.” But, he noted, “It’s good to mix being a realist with being a bull.”

To be successful in the capital-intensive marina business requires watching expenditures carefully, Brewer said. People get in trouble, he noted, when they take money out of the business that they should be reinvesting. Or when they borrow too much or purchase something they really don’t need.

“I think it’s a tough business,” he said. “You really have to love it. Every once in a while I look back, and I’m amazed. I’ve been very, very lucky.”

Look for an in-depth story on Jack Brewer and the company he founded in an upcoming issue of Trade Only.

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