A fourth generation is gradually taking the reins at Billings boatyard, a coastal Maine fixture since 1928
Billings Diesel and Marine of Stonington, Maine, renowned in northern New England for its diesel engine repairs, rebuilds and installations, and extensive on-site and online parts stock, is transitioning the family-owned and operated business to a fourth generation.
Under third-generation owner Harlan Billings, 70, whom many consider a mechanical genius, Billings Diesel and Marine became one of the largest full-service yards between Boston and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The business sprawls across 5 acres in a fiercely independent fishing town on Deer Isle Thoroughfare, Maine’s premier cruising grounds.
“Having investors would have made financing improvements easier, but I don’t want a board of directors telling me what to do,” says Billings, a commercial fisherman who began working at his father’s yard in 1976.
Billings is famous for its old-fashioned, high-quality craftsmanship and Down East work ethic, not only on diesels but also in building, repairing and maintaining commercial boats and yachts of wood, steel, aluminum and fiberglass. Workshops include two climate-controlled spray sheds and a dedicated varnishing area. (Only electronics work is outsourced.)
A dealer for dozens of engine, transmission and gear brands, Billings has a 6,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art machine shop and a chandlery stocking thousands of common and hard-to-get parts. The yard also does engine work for other boatyards, “helping each other with no cutthroat competition,” says Billings.
The business has a 35-ton Travelift, two Brownell hydraulic trailers, two cranes and three railways for boats to 125 feet and 275 tons. It offers 24-hour towing and salvage, and storage for more than 200 boats outside and another 75 or so in nine buildings, one of them heated. Billings hauls and trailers another 120 lobster boats for locals.
For seasonal and transient cruisers, Billings has moorings for boats to 50 feet, dockage for yachts to 130 feet, fuel, showers, laundry, pumpout and free Wi-Fi. “A company is only as good as its workers,” Billings says. “Our employees are the best on the East Coast, like a family. They’re a great team — a good mix of skilled, trained men with a wealth of experience and young fellas who are right up to snuff and can run with the new computer technology. Our certified welder and journeyman machinist can build or repair anything out of metal.”
An on-the-job mentoring program keeps employees current with technological advances. “We train them and hope they’ll stay,” Billings says. “I try to hire local people because we’re part of Stonington and want to help the community. It’s difficult because many young kids [from other places] don’t want to come here, so far [37 miles] from any town with action.”
Neither fancy nor chic, the yard draws clients from both coasts and Europe, especially now that more cruisers are storing their yachts in Maine for the winter. “Once people come here, they come back,” Billings says.
The business began in 1928 when Cecil, George, Edward and Sheridan Billings started delivering and maintaining commuter yachts for New York businessmen who summered on nearby Mount Desert Island. In 1933, the four brothers scraped together $800, bought an abandoned quarry covering half of Moose Island and opened a boatyard.
In addition to serving yachtsmen, they built and serviced coasting schooners, building the last in 1938. During World War II, 450 employees built minesweepers, PT boats and sub chasers. When wartime contracts ended, the yard faltered. In 1966, the bank sold the bankrupt business to Cecil’s son, fisherman Dick Billings, instead of Nelson Rockefeller because Billings promised to reopen the yard and spur the economy by employing locals and serving commercial fishing boats.
Each spring for a decade, Dick Billings hired a dozen extra men to paint 25 to 30 sardine carriers. That era had ended when Harlan took over, so in the 1980s he added services for recreational boats. “Though I like both, the commercial boys come first,” Billings says.
The business is about half commercial and half pleasure boats, says Billings’ son-in-law, Peter Grindie, 52, who is assuming more management responsibilities. “I don’t like to stay in the office,” Billings says. “There’s too much paperwork and hassles these days and a whole alphabet of agencies [DEP, EPA, OSHA, etc.] making rules and regulations we have to follow. So I’ve pushed all the paperwork onto the kids [daughter Suzette and her husband, Peter]. They and my service manager, Greg Sanborn, the glue that holds this place together, are accepting more responsibilities.
“But I’m staying heavily involved,” Billings adds. He’s at the yard almost daily or phoning from his winter home in Florida. “I enjoy running the yard but not as much as I used to. Fifteen years ago, we didn’t have computerized engines with so many high-tech problems.”
Those computerized engines enabled Billings to keep its more than 50 employees working through the recession. In 2009, employees repowered 15 commercial boats with efficient, less-polluting electronically controlled common-rail engines under the state’s Diesel Emission Reduction Act. (The Maine Department of Environmental Protection disbursed federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act stimulus funds for the program.)
Once funds ran out, repowers declined, but they have recently increased. The yard can repair older engines, but new installations must use electronically controlled power plants that meet emission requirements under the EPA’s 2008 Clean Air Nonroad Diesel Rule. From the many engines available, customers are leaning toward Caterpillar and Cummins, Billings says. “We’re very busy this spring, though it was stressful finding enough to prevent layoffs [during the recession],” Billings says.
The yard is open Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. or “whatever it takes to make the deadline,” he says. Employees receive paid sick leave, vacation time, a pension and full health insurance.
“The transition is a work in progress,” Billings says. “Everyone’s doing a fantastic job keeping the yard a premier one-stop shop for yachts and commercial boats.”
On the horizon: grooming the fifth generation, the Grindies’ two children.
This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue.