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MJM and Gunboat: Like father, like son

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It was one of those moments that doesn’t happen every day in our industry. Two boatbuilders, a father and son, running two companies introduced significant new boats earlier this year at the same boat show. A 50-foot powerboat and a 55-foot sailing catamaran.

Peter Johnstone debuted the first Gunboat 55 performance cruising catamaran built at the company’s plant in Wanchese, N.C., at the Newport International Boat Show in September. This fast, innovative cat won show honors for the best new sailboat over 30 feet, the best overall sailboat and the people’s choice award.

Bob Johnstone, Peter’s father, used the Newport show to debut his new MJM 50z, a roomy, efficient cruising powerboat with lovely Down East lines designed by Doug Zurn. It turned plenty of heads at the Newport and Annapolis shows this fall en route to Fort Lauderdale.

“Tremendously gratified,” says Bob Johnstone, 80, referring to the new-boat introductions at Newport and his son’s most recent accomplishments. “I’m delighted for Peter.” A moment later, he adds, “Our kids didn’t stand a chance.”

Translation: The Johnstones — Peter and siblings Stuart, Drake and Helen — were going to grow up on the water, come what may. And that speaks volumes about the subsequent success that father, son and the other members of the Johnstone clan have had in the industry.

In 1977, Bob and his brother Rod started J/Boats, which became the most prolific builder of one-design keelboats in the world. Peter grew up not just listening to the start-up chatter, but also immersed in it. When he was 12, he gave up his bedroom for what became the first J/Boat office and moved to the attic. “Peter was always involved with ideas and discussion around the table,” his father told me recently.

Bob Johnstone's MJM 50z debuted at the Newport International Boat Show.

Bob Johnstone's MJM 50z debuted at the Newport International Boat Show.

When I spoke with Peter about his philosophy at Gunboat, he, too, made reference to those early discussions around the family dinner table. He referred to it as the “university of osmosis.”

“Just keep thinking,” says Johnstone, 48, the founder and CEO of Gunboat, which builds performance cruising cats from 40 to more than 100 feet and ranging in price from $700,000 to $27 million. “The dinner table is a powerful thing. I see it with my own son and daughter. Looking at things analytically and trying to come up with a better way of doing something.”

It’s proved successful for father and son, who use each other as sounding boards. Both MJM and Gunboat are hitting their stride. “We’re getting to the point where everything we set out to do four or five years ago is coming together,” says Peter. Gunboat, which is 15 years old, built sailing cats in South Africa for 10 years and later moved production to China. Today, the company is happily ensconced in Wanchese.

“It’s time to focus on the U.S.,” says Peter. “I’m done overseas. It gets to the point where it’s hard to make things work in these lower-wage markets.”

Gunboat is currently building in about 50,000 square feet on 7 acres with 140 workers. The builder expects that the workforce will top 200 within the year.

What makes North Carolina click? Peter doesn’t hesitate. “Second- and third-generation builders living in small towns where reputation is important, so there is a lot of pride,” he says. “Excellent productivity. And every single guy is a boater.”

And business is good. “We’re in the strongest demand cycle we’ve ever been in,” he says. “We have a pretty good order book.”

Bob and Peter draw deeply from their extensive time on boats when developing new models.

The first Gunboat 55 that Peter Johnstone built in Wanchese, N.C., attracted attention at the fall shows.

The first Gunboat 55 that Peter Johnstone built in Wanchese, N.C., attracted attention at the fall shows.

“The trick is mating technological advances and ideas with consumer needs and interests,” says Bob. “Or applying technology to solve a user problem.”

The elder Johnstone says there is a “built-in conservatism” to doing things that are new. “The biggest hurdle to coming up with a Gunboat or an MJM is really having the courage of your convictions,” he says. “To strike out with a belief and to disregard what’s out there now. … You really have to believe in what you’re doing, and it’s really tough to do it by committee.”

MJM, for instance, is the first company to offer a Seakeeper gyro stabilizer as standard equipment, on the 50-footer. Incorporating that technology came from user feedback. “All powerboats roll,” says Bob. “You can’t ignore it. But here’s an opportunity to solve a problem that everyone has.”

Peter says he and his father have big advantages over career management professionals who don’t have either the time or opportunity to log the extensive sea time that they’ve been able to accumulate. Without that experience, Peter notes, there’s little chance an office-bound executive is going to risk derailing his career to develop tooling for a different kind of boat.

“I’m living what I build,” says Peter, who has about 110,000 ocean miles under his keel, including four years of living aboard his boats. “I’m using the boats with my customers. The boaters will tell you what they like and what they don’t like. And they’ll ask ‘what if’ — those are pretty powerful conversations.”

Bob says his first career in marketing — he was a marketing executive for Quaker Oats — was very helpful when starting J/Boats and MJM. “I’m used to looking at markets and seeing opportunity,” he says. To that point, he adds, “Just about everything in boating is explained by the baby-boom bulge.” (His son doesn’t necessarily agree.)

When he started MJM Yachts 11 years ago, Bob says he asked himself what the boomers were going to be looking for in their boats as they became older. He predicted they’d downsize and would continue to want to run the boats themselves.

“People are using their boats more like dayboats,” he says. “They want a boat that is more spontaneous, that they can use at the drop of a hat.”

He also had an advantage. “I was born 10 years before the baby boomers,” he says. “So I was able to live what the baby boomers were about to live.” And he was able to design a boat that would resonate with them as their lives changed.

The first MJM, the 34z, grew out of a personal need. Bob Johnstone wanted a boat that was easy to handle, one that his wife could operate by herself. (MJM stands for Mary Johnstone’s motorboat). “I wanted it to be our boat and not just my boat,” he says.

Finding a high-tech powerboat builder that could produce a light, strong, efficient and seaworthy boat that would satisfy Johnstone proved more difficult than he initially thought. He wound up selecting Mark Lindsay and Boston BoatWorks, which had been building offshore racing sailboats for years. Today, MJM Yachts has turned out 181 boats from 29 to 50 feet.

Although Bob Johnstone’s main focus is on baby boomers, Peter looks for his buyers across multiple generations, with a keen eye on millennials. “I think you’ll see a transformation, and the millennials will drive that,” he says. “These are the kind of people who appreciate the finest equipment that can be put together for a given task. Their product knowledge is incredible. It’s extraordinary how much product research they do. They are by far the sharpest consumer we’ve ever seen.”

Peter Johnstone says builders who strive for best practices in every aspect of their design and build processes will produce boats that draw new customers from across generations.

And both father and son are confident they are building boats today in which the “basic platform” will be good 100 years from now.

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue.



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