‘Landlocked’ yards are moving inland to expand business

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A boatyard is a good place to be in April, with the whine of a buffer, the smell of bottom paint and the rhythmic report of a pile driver echoing in the distance.

Yards and marinas across much of the country are working hard to catch up after a hard winter and a late spring. “The winter held us up a bit,” says Tom Donoghue, operations manager at the Frank Hall Boat Yard on the Pawcatuck River in Westerly, R.I. “But we’re moving along.”

The 105-slip yard had eight to 10 boats launched as of mid-April, with more going in each day. “We want everybody in by May 15,” Donoghue says.

In the yard business, only time will tell.

The activity at the Hall yard this spring is only a small part of a larger trend developing here and at similar businesses around the country. Last fall, the yard acquired a 6-acre off-site property with a 20,000-square-foot office and storage facility — about 17,500 square feet of it dedicated to heated indoor boat storage, large enough for 45 or 50 boats, depending on their size.

The 3-acre boatyard has been at capacity for years, storing about 100 boats on the hard during the winter.

The second site, 2.2 miles from the yard, is the key to future growth. “This is my vision of where things are going, where the industry is going,” says John F. Hall Jr., a third-generation boatyard owner, standing in the large storage area where a fleet of 45 boats, from a little Boston Whaler to a Hinckley, spent the winter.

Hall envisions the property becoming a boating center, home to marine-related businesses from rigging to canvas to outboard repair. “This,” he predicts, “is the next key to the industry.”

There is outdoor storage on the property for 200 to 300 boats and room for an additional two or three buildings, Hall says. The yard plans to offer in-season storage for trailer boats this year so people who live a good distance away won’t have to haul their boats back and forth to their homes each weekend.

In parts of the country such as New England, where most usable waterfront property has been developed and yards are essentially “landlocked,” Hall says upland alternatives are the solution.

“This part of the business will grow,” he says. “This expands the industry.”

The alternative? With limited opportunities to expand on the water, he notes, “we’re pretty close to be being an endangered species.”

Having grown up in the business and run a boatyard his entire life, Hall, who turns 74 in May, has acquired some hard-earned perspective.

“Everybody has to find his niche, even in this industry that’s been around forever,” Hall says. “Things are still changing.”

Hall’s yard already has a good range of revenue-producing services: brokerage sales, storage, slips, repair work and a ship’s store. “You have to cover a lot of bases,” he says.

The longtime operator has ridden the roller coaster of boating trends and cycles — wood to glass, booms and busts, ups and downs. “And they all come back again,” he says.

Hall says the three “demons” that the marina industry has little control over, but that push costs ever higher, are property taxes, environmental regulations and rising utility costs.

Although things are improving, operations manager Donoghue says folks are still getting their sea legs back. “I think we’re still suffering from [difficult] economic times,” he says. Customers are more careful. “The days of ‘Just go through my boat and do whatever is needed’ are over,” he says. “Owners are being more cautious. That’s probably not a bad thing.”

The yard has nine full-time workers, and Donoghue notes, “Keeping good help is a big part of the business.”

With boats and systems rapidly growing in complexity, Hall says workforce training is a necessity. “On-the-job training doesn’t work anymore,” says Hall, a former ABBRA president and a strong advocate for training. “It did for a hundred years.” But not any longer.

And the days when a knowledgeable boat owner knew as much or more than a good yard tech also have mostly vanished, he says.

“It’s a funny thing,” Hall says as he muses about the notion and perception of becoming a wise old-timer himself. “I always wanted to be a little older. When you’re young, your customers say, ‘What does he know?’ But when you’re older … well, I finally got there.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue.

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