The marine industry was built on a foundation of mom-and-pop shops nurtured by the same families over generations.
One of them is Lamb’s Yacht Center in Jacksonville, Fla., a well-known waypoint for snowbirds and transients on the Ortega River dating from its founding in 1960 by the late Bronson E. Lamb Jr.
“I was here in the 1960s when Dad bought it,” says Peggy Sue Williams, 59, one of five Lamb children. “Dad worked seven days a week, and we’d hang around on Saturdays and had the run of the place. Some of us worked here in the summers, earned some pay, along with a bottled Coke and a pack of peanuts. I was always here, pumping gas, painting the lines on the parking lot, knocking cobwebs down — kind of the nitty-gritty stuff. I had a great time. It was a good way to grow up.”
The marina and boatyard left the family’s hands in 2003, sold to another local family. Timing was not on the side of the new owners, however, and Lamb’s steadily declined during the downturn in the economy.
“They never really caught back up after the recession,” explains Williams. “A lot of the maintenance was deferred, and this is an old facility, built in 1941.”
This is where the story takes a turn for the better.
In March, at the urging of her husband, John, the Williams family bought back the family lineage for $7 million with a five-year plan to turn the 7-acre, 242-slip (most of them covered) facility into a world-class marina and boating center.
“The best news, it’s just got good bones. Papa Lamb would invest in infrastructure and support,” says John, 62. “Because it was built well to begin with, it’s easier to freshen up. In the end, it’s going to be an elegant old lady that people can be proud of and will be glad to keep their boats there.”
The Williams family is a tight unit, so the purchase became a rallying cry that drew their three adult daughters back into the fold. Maggie Williams, 30, left a career at a boutique in nearby Avondale.
“For me, it was about being able to come to work and be with my family, to be a part of this unit and to honor my granddad and get things back to the way he would have wanted them,” she says.
Nadia Williams, 27, left a sales position at Trinity Industries in Texas. “That was the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make. I had just earned a new promotion and was living the fancy life in Dallas with a group of friends I called my family,” Nadia says. “And then I got the call from my dad, and he asked me to come back. I missed my family — my parents and sisters are my best friends — and I missed the water.”
Murphy Williams, 21, will begin her senior year at the American College of Healthcare Sciences, finishing an online degree in applied science in holistic health care. “When I am in town, I’m working alongside my mom and sisters, as well as delegated side projects. We paint, water plants, run parts to the yard — I did some website writing and changes to our Facebook page. Whatever needs to be done, I lend a hand with.”
Lamb’s never closed its doors, but since the purchase the Williams family and a diverse band of extended family, friends, former customers and nostalgic locals have chipped in sweat equity — cleaning, sweeping, scraping, sanding, painting, pounding nails — in an effort to return the luster to Lamb’s.
“Its unbelievable,” Maggie says of the small army of supporters. “My family has always been here and a part of the community, and I guess people just want to come and be a part of this. People around here have a love and affection for this place and want to be a part of this resurrection.”
The Lamb family has a marine pedigree in Jacksonville dating even further back than Lamb’s Yacht Center — four generations, to be precise.
Peggy Sue’s great-grandfather’s father-in-law, Bainbridge Richardson, a sailor who kept a houseboat in the Everglades, started the St. John’s Boat Co. in 1936 in downtown Jacksonville at the foot of Gilmour Street.
His son-in-law, Bronson E. Lamb, known as Butch, liked to race the newly emerging outboard-powered boats and loved being around the water. His father rewarded his passion by passing on his marine business to his son.
Although Butch would later sell the business to a local family named Knight, his only son, Bronson E. Lamb Jr. (Peggy Sue’s father), bought the business back in 1960. As the construction of I-95 was rolling through Jacksonville, he moved his business to its current location and renamed what was Knight’s Boats & Motors as Lamb’s Yacht Center. Beyond a full-service marina, Lamb’s showroom sold Chris-Crafts, Old Towne canoes and Sperry Top-Sider shoes.
“Father ran it like it was, sold new boats and did service on them,” says Peggy Sue. “He grew the service department, then built the concrete docks in the early 1980s and no longer sold new boats, focusing instead on storage and service.”
The old man still looms large in family lore.
“Granddad was the king. He was everything. Everything good he was. Everyone respected him and wanted to honor him,” is how Maggie describes her grandfather. The entire Williams clan recalls the patriarch with reverence.
“In our family, he was the main man,” Maggie continues. “Above the marina and business, people respected him as a person, as a business owner, as a dad, as a granddad and as a friend.”
Sister Nadia concurs.
“My grandfather was a mentor to me, and I feel honored to come back and carry on his legacy. It’s like he’s here every day,” she says.
The circuitous timeline of Lamb’s took another turn in the mid-1980s. Bronson Jr. sold the marina to his only son, Bronson III — “Yes, another Bronson,” Peggy Sue says of her younger brother — who kept the business in the family until he sold it in 2003.
Blood, sweat and paint
The best window into the resurrection of Lamb’s Yacht Center is the Facebook page, where Nadia is posting photos almost daily of the beehive of activity the property has become.
Images of painting, carpentry and landscaping dominate the page.
“I get sweaty and covered in paint and don’t make any money, but it feels good to be a part of the family affair,” she says. “There’s heart back in this company again. That’s a big thing for us. It’s important to show the employees that they come first and show the community that we’re back and bringing back Lamb’s to the masterpiece that it was before.”
Some of the wooden docks were in such a state that about 20 slips are considered “unrentable,” some roofs leak and some of the equipment needs repaired. The front landscaping is nearly finished, as is the asphalt patching of the parking lot.
The family has earmarked about $25,000 a month just for improvements.
“We’re making some headway,” says Peggy Sue. “We have a tight budget, but we’re doing what we can. It’s not a barn raising, but there’s a lot of energy and heart here that people are buying into and want to be a part of.”
Since the acquisition, slip rentals have risen from 60 to 67 percent of capacity, and the service department has risen from 50 to 70 percent capacity for billable hours. The goal is to elevate both of those areas to 90 percent.
“We’re making money every month, but we have to be discriminating on what we spend each month,” says John, noting that “two or three” calls come in each week from prospective customers.
Employees are another vital part of the marina’s ultimate success, and each one stayed through the transition.
“We have an amazing staff — they are what has kept this place alive over the past few years,” says Nadia. Mechanic Lee Ness just celebrated 50 years and mechanic Ray Bordeaux 35 years with Lamb’s. “Many were present during my grandfather and uncle’s eras. We have over 320 years of collective experience within our team of 23 employees.”
Peggy Sue says she can sense a collective increase in pride and joy among the staff as Lamb’s revival takes flight.
“I used to play on the rug in the parts department, pretending like I was painting boats with all of the new paint brushes for sale, hang out on boats while Lee was working on various projects,” recalls Murphy. “I used to follow Ray around, asking him all sorts of silly questions, and he put up with me for years.”
The end result of this Herculean effort, says Peggy Sue, will be a clean, well-run facility known for a welcoming vibe, quality service and excellent customer care.
“There was always a good reputation about Lamb’s, so we’re trying to build that up with good customer service and communication,” she says. “We’re not growing size-wise; we’re just maintaining what we’ve got and getting it back on course.”
That section of the Ortega River, about 13 miles from the ICW, is known as Marina Mile for its half-dozen marinas, dealerships, boatyards and other marine businesses along Lake Shore Boulevard and Lakeside Drive.
“We’re hoping to work with all of our neighbors to create some synergy,” says Peggy Sue.
It’s clear from speaking with family members that it was John Williams who pushed the idea of buying back the family business. He’s legally a co-owner with Peggy Sue but maintains ownership of another business, Transquip, which provides parts and engineering to railroad companies.
“There are a couple of passions behind our buying back the marina,” John says. “For starters, we both have a passion for boating. Peggy Sue is on the water almost every day. She likes to say, ‘Take me anywhere, but take me by boat.’ ”
The family fleet includes a 54-foot 1979 Huckins Sport Cruiser, a 2000 Intrepid 377 Cuddy with triple 225 Mercury OptiMax engines and a 22-foot Boston Whaler Dauntless. “We like to pop down to the Bahamas in summer or water-ski on the St. John’s River. It’s our passion, it’s our hobby, it’s how we raised our kids,” he says.
The second motivation for the acquisition was the neighbors.
“Our community has shied away from boating a little bit in recent years. In a way, we were the quarterback boaters in that area, from big boats to fast center consoles to trailering little boats for shallow water,” John says of Lamb’s being by far the largest marina in the vicinity.
“And Peggy Sue and I agreed that if we were going to go broke, we might as well do it doing something we love,” he adds.
For now, the work goes on, under the direction of a trio of women, with Peggy Sue the de facto CEO.
“We don’t really have positions, so to speak. We all chip in to help with the restoration,” she says. “I have all daughters, but they’re all very different from one another, and they all have wonderful gifts. I’m real tight with my family, and I think my dad established that.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.