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Maintain an even keel

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The message from Lauderdale Marina in Fort Lauderdale is to build up discipline, cash during slow periods

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“This, too, shall pass,” says John Clark, referring to the current slump in the boating industry. “It will pass.”
Clark, 70, ought to know. He’s president of the 70-slip Lauderdale Marina, celebrating its 60th year in business in Fort Lauderdale. After a stint in banking, he joined The Shipyard LLC, the family-owned company that operates the marina, 21 years ago during the industry’s last big shakeout. “It’s just a question of ‘Can a business hold on?’ ” he says.

Holding on. Clark says it’s easier for a company to do that if it has been disciplined and built up an emergency cash reserve during the good times to help carry the business when the economy tanks or if a hurricane roars through. “That way you can keep your employees employed,” he says. “We also put the responsibility on everybody to watch expenses and help as a team. There’s no magic to it.”

The Shipyard LLC employs 32 in the marina, a Boston Whaler dealership, a Mercury outboard outlet, a parts and service department, a ship’s store and a high-volume fuel dock on 4 acres just north of the ship channel leading into Fort Lauderdale’s commercial port. Tenants include a boatyard with a Travelift, a Grand Banks dealership, a yacht brokerage, a towboat business and a U.S. Customs office.

Clark says he learned a lot from the downturn of the 1980s, when some boatbuilders dumped too many boats on dealers who were “gagging on excess inventory.” Dealers and manufacturers are more sensible now about trimming new-boat production and inventory in a down market, he says. Boatbuilders close plants and cut production instead of trying to unload boats on dealers who can’t sell them.

“You have to look at your history and think, This is what I can realistically do without putting myself in a bind,” Clark says. “We’re smarter than we were back [in the 1980s], I can assure you.”

Clark says it also helps to diversify. Lauderdale Marina sells close to 1.5 million gallons of fuel a year from 11 pumps on a 365-foot fuel dock, accounting for 40 percent of the marina’s annual revenue. Fuel sales are down 7 percent compared to last year, which is less of a decrease than Clark expected.

Boat sales have fallen 15 percent to about 60 units sold for model year 2008, he says. Though revenue in the parts and service department is down slightly for the year, this segment of the business has been “very, very active,” Clark says.

Robert Cox, 90, founder of Lauderdale Marina, says the marina is Fort Lauderdale’s longest-running business operated under one owner — his family. At a time when corporate owners are gobbling up marinas, Lauderdale Marina remains a mom-and-pop (and nephew and niece and in-law and children and grandchildren) marina. Three generations have a hand in it. Clark is Cox’s son.

Some family members operate their own businesses out of the marina. Cox’s son-in-law, Ted Drum, an owner with his son, Kelly, of Drum Realty, manages the marina’s slips and tenants, and brokers waterfront and other premium properties from offices at the marina. Kelly Drum and Scott Clark, John Clark’s son and general manager of the marina, are partners in the 15th Street Boat Company, which rents Boston Whalers. The 15th Street Fisheries, a popular seafood eatery now owned by the family, overlooks the Intracoastal Waterway from the marina.

All of these enterprises are part of the marina’s diverse mix. Clark has divided the marina into four profit centers: boat and engine sales, fuel dock and ship’s store, parts and accessories, and service. He has assigned a manager to each of them, and he has set realistic revenue goals for the managers to achieve.
Clark says he tries to keep fuel prices “reasonable” and doesn’t change them daily or weekly, unlike some fuel retailers. This maintains volume at the fuel dock and draws boaters to the restaurant and ship’s store, where they can buy bait and tackle, groceries and accessories.

Clark is anxiously awaiting this month’s Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show to see how many exhibitors turn up and to see how sales fare. “That’s a good bellwether for next year,” he says.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.

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