Robert Healey is chairman and CEO of Viking Yacht Co. Healey, 83, along with his brother, William, founded Viking Yacht and Viking Sport Cruisers nearly 50 years ago.
After graduating from Camden Catholic High School in Cherry Hill, N.J., Bob Healey attended St. Joseph’s College in Philadelphia and then earned a degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He practiced law in Camden County, N.J., for 20 years before retiring as a senior partner in the firm of Healey, Mueller and Tyler to devote full time to business interests.
In the 1950s, Bill Healey joined Bob in the real estate development business. Among other projects, the brothers acquired and developed Bass River Marina in New Gretna, N.J. At the same time Petersen Viking Builders, a small, local builder of wooden boats, was having financial trouble. The Healey brothers bought the company, changed its name to Viking Yachts and relocated it to their property adjoining the marina. The boatbuilding business soon occupied much of their time, so the Healeys sold the marina and concentrated on building yachts.
Viking Yacht received Cigna Recreational Marine’s Award of Excellence and was awarded Silver Member recognition by the American Boat and Yacht Council for contributions to the advancement of recreational boating safety.
The brothers founded the New Jersey Boat Builders Association and have initiated on-the-job training and school-to-work programs with local high schools and technical colleges, preparing hundreds for a career in boatbuilding. They also are the founders of the Recreational Fishing Alliance, whose mission is to promote sustainable fisheries and a healthy marine environment. They have spent more than $1 million supporting the RFA.
Bob Healey chaired the National Coalition to Save Jobs in Boating. He is president of the New Jersey Boat Builders Association and chairman of the New Jersey Marine Coalition.
In recognition of their contributions to boating, the Healey brothers received the industry’s Chapman Award in 2001. In 2003, Bob Healey received the International Game Fish Association’s Conservation Award for contributions to conservation in the saltwater fishing community and, with his brother, he also was inducted into the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s Hall of Fame.
In the last two years the brothers have built a state-of-the-art service facility in Riviera Beach, Fla., to accommodate Viking owners. They formed Palm Beach Towers, a metal fabrication company operating out of Riviera Beach and New Gretna that builds tuna towers, hardtops and other accessories. They also created an electronics division, Atlantic Marine Electronics, which delivers high-tech marine electronics packages and service to Viking Yacht owners.
The Healey brothers recently bought back the Bass River Marina where the company got its start in 1964. The marina is being renovated and upgraded and has been reflagged as the Viking Yachting Center.
Q: Your company recently celebrated its 48th anniversary. To what do you attribute your longevity?
A: I attribute it to the following: First, we’re a family business and we’ve had the same people running the business for 48 years. What has happened in our industry is over the years many of the companies that were non-family businesses have been bought and sold — different management, different philosophies. Take Hatteras, for example, one of our competitors. They’ve had a number of owners throughout the years; they’ve had a number of different management groups and management styles.
I attribute [our longevity] a lot to my brother, Bill, who’s the boatbuilder, and his son Patrick. I remember during hard times my brother always refused to cut the quality of the boat, no matter how short we were on cash. He maintained that quality of the boat, and every year he would add to [it]. He would improve it. He would see something somewhere and kept improving the boat. Over 48 years we have developed quite a product, and that’s what I attribute the success of our company to — the family continuity and the consistency of building that quality, inch by inch, every year. Every new product has something added to it, something different, something that’s an improvement.
Q: What is it about the boating industry that’s made you stay in it this long?
A: We love the boating industry. We love boats. I could have sold [the Viking Yacht Co.] some years ago to what is the Brunswick group for $400 million. They approached me because they thought I was more flexible because I’m the chairman of the yacht company and we have four or five other divisions that are non-boating. So I was approached and I get letters — up until this economy I used to get letters once a month.
I have a standard answer: The yacht company is not for sale at any price. My brother — it’s his whole life. My nephew, Patrick — it’s his whole life. I’ve always been very enthused about the yacht company. They live and sleep the boat business. That’s why I say it’s a family business. They don’t go to work to put in eight or 10 hours a day. They go to work to build boats and make them better.
My brother stands at the line going out at the end of the day and shakes hands with everybody — he knows all about them. We’re one big family. We love boats. The guys that work for us all love boats. We love what we do.
Q: How would you compare this most recent economic downturn to others you’ve weathered through the years, and what did you do to make it through?
A: We see cycles every seven, eight, nine, 10 years — downturns — and the last real measured downturn I can remember is the luxury tax. I led the industry to appeal that tax and we appealed it and there was light at the end of that tunnel.
The problem today is that we not only have a downturn, but what’s happening in my opinion is that you’ve got a situation where Europe is broke, under the Obama administration we’re broke, so people who even have the money [aren ’t spending it]. For example, 75 percent of our customers don’t finance their boats, and I’m talking about $1 million to $6 million apiece — they’re holding on to their money.
Thank God we’re profitable — we’re profitable this year and we haven’t had a non-profitable year, and one of the reasons for that is the fact that we’ve taken market share from other boats.
The problem we have now is not only the economic problem, but we’ve got the environmental problem, where the environmentalists are extreme and they’re trying to close the oceans to fishing. With the luxury tax there was light at the end of the tunnel. Today I don’t know where it’s going. The problem is there’s no leadership in the boating industry. They’re going along with it all — with the environmentalists.
Q: What more do you think industry leaders can do?
A: The problem is we don’t have any solidity in the leadership and what they’re doing is they’re going along with the environmentalists. For example, Pew [Pew Environment Group, an affiliate of Pew Charitable Trusts] is indirectly funding all these operations. They tried to give money to the Recreational Fishing Alliance several years ago and we said thank you, but no thank you. What’s happened is a lot of these organizations are broke and they’re getting funding from Pew, so they compromise their position and that’s where we are.
Q: You were one of the sponsors of the recent fishermen’s rally in Washington, D.C., which called for reform of Magnuson-Stevens. Why is it important for you as a boatbuilder to get involved in fishing issues?
A: It’s very simple. If you’re building boats and 75 percent of the boats that are built are fished off of — no fish, no fishing boat. That’s why we as a builder were very much involved in that rally.
We’d love [more builders] to come. When you’re at war, you bring everybody together, even though you might not be happy with your brothers on certain issues. You bring them together. You’ve got to get leadership to solidify everyone. The problem with the boat manufacturers is [many] don’t understand the complexity of the fishery laws. There’s nothing more complex than these fishery laws and they don’t understand it.
Q: Recently another New Jersey boatbuilder filed for bankruptcy protection. What does news like this mean for the industry in your state and in general?
A: If you take 400 people [who have lost jobs] and you look at the secondary [businesses affected], it means that it will affect maybe 3,000 to 4,000 people. It’s jobs. Here we’re in an economy where we’re losing jobs, we’re trying to bring back jobs and now we lose 400 and the ripple effect is probably around 4,000. This guy doesn’t go to the bakery tomorrow and buy buns, this guy doesn’t go to McDonald’s — they don’t have the money. They can’t pay their mortgage. They don’t have health insurance.
When you knock down an industry and close plants, the issue isn’t making money, it’s the lives that you’re affecting. Those people from Luhrs would go home — and this is every state and every manufacturer — and pay the mortgage, pay the car payment, buy the groceries, take the family out. You can’t do that anymore. If he doesn’t have his health insurance, what if his children get sick? What I’m telling you is it’s not an issue of money. We [manufacturers] have a moral responsibility to maintain jobs.
Q: An issue that’s being discussed more is the cost of a boat. Do you think people want affordability or all the bells and whistles they can get?
A: It depends upon the people. If they have the money, they want the bells and whistles. If they don’t and they love fishing, they can go with a stripped-down boat.
Fishing is a family thing. If your father is a golfer or plays tennis, when his kid grows up, they’ll probably play golf and tennis. If your father’s a boater and a fisherman and he takes you out, [you ’ll grow up to fish]. I remember when I was a kid my father took me out fishing. I remember those days because I fished with my father all day and my father was a busy guy, and it used to be the highlight just to be with him and putting the line overboard and saying, ‘Hey, I got a fish.’ It’s a family thing, like all sports are.
As far as affordability — a guy that likes to fish will get his boat someway, somehow. He might not have the most expensive boat in the world, but he’ll have a boat that runs and he’ll get out there and fish.
Q: How do you get more families interested in boating and fishing?
A: No. 1 — you’ve got to keep the environmentalists off our back. If we go with catch shares, you’re going to find a lot of people are going to give it up. If you go with closing marine reserves, a lot of people are going to give it up. If you go with non-flexibility, where you’ve got snapper fish by the tons out there and because we’re gauging the quota on 10 years ago and people can only catch three or 10 fish a season, they’re going to give it up.
Another big factor is supporting kids’ fishing programs like the RFA does. The RFA is at a lot of boat shows, and they run a kids’ fishing program where they come in and they have the kids fish out of a little pond, and we draw big crowds of kids and their parents. If we had more kids’ fishing programs like that we would really get some things done.
Q: Viking comes out with new models regularly. Why is it important to always have something new to show consumers?
A: We know that 50 percent of our sales each year is the new product. So the guy who has the money who has a 56 Viking — we come out with a new 60 with more bells and whistles. He says, ‘Oh, man, this boat is great. I’m going to move up to a 60.’ Another thing that moves him up is we have a great resale market for our boats, so he can go into one of our dealers and say I want a 60 — how much are you going to give me for my 56 — and they give him a good price because they can get a good price for it.
Q: How is the health of your dealer network?
A: Our dealers are holding strong because they make a profit on the Vikings. Most of our dealers are basically Viking dealers. Some have other lines, but the heart of their income is the Viking yacht.
We run it as a family — our company is run as a family. If a fellow has a problem, we help him out. If he says, hey, Bob, Bill, I have a little problem financially, can you help me here or there, we’ve helped them over the rough spots.
They’re quality guys. They can sell boats, they’re great advocates of Viking, so it’s a family. You stay together. You stay close.
Q: What do you see as the future of the marine industry?
A: If we have no leadership, I don’t know where the boat industry’s going. And if we don’t stop things like catch shares [one type of fisheries management system], if we don’t stop Pew, I don’t know where this industry’s going, honestly. If we had leadership … I think that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.