Larry Russo Jr. was 14 when he got his first paycheck in 1985 for cleaning boat bottoms at Russo Marine, the company his grandparents had started in 1940.
“My brother and I were at the dealership since we were little babies — it’s the same story as my dad’s,” said Russo Jr., who is celebrating 35 years in the industry as the regional director of MarineMax’s Northeast dealerships. “We really just grew up in the business. I was 14, old enough to get a work permit, and actually get a real paycheck, rather than a $5 bill from my grandfather.”
Thirty-five years after transitioning to his first real paycheck, now Russo Jr. is head of MarineMax’s Northeast region after the dealership chain acquired Russo Marine in 2017.
The family business launched by John and Sandy Russo in 1940 — then called Russo Auto & Marine — is also reaching a milestone this year as it celebrates its 80th anniversary. Larry Russo Sr., Larry Jr.’s father, and his mom, Bee, grew the company after taking over, and Russo Marine was New England’s largest independent boat dealership when MarineMax purchased it.
“When I look at the way the company has transitioned, I think for my grandfather, it was just about building a business with your bare hands, and figuring out how to make things, then sell them and service them,” said Russo Jr. “That’s how he grew his segment of the company’s history.”
“My dad took it to another level from a professionalization of the sales side of what we did,” said Russo Jr. “He was able to do that with different boat lines, and by getting involved in the industry. And then when I came into the business after — not coming in as a kid and painting bottoms, but after finishing school — I looked at it as, how do we really modernize the business?”
In the early 1990s, Russo Marine was still using handwritten ledger accounting systems, and Russo Jr. felt that the business was not fully utilizing new technology to connect various departments digitally and track sales and overhead.
“For me it was how you take the business to the next level, and that was about putting the whole thing on a new platform,” said Russo Jr. “I computerized the whole business, and tied all the departments together to make sure we were growing the business the right way and actually making money. My dad always equated, the more you sell, the more you make, and that isn’t always the case. We tried to modernize the business and put it on a platform so we could grow the business.”
Russo Marine might not have survived the downturn in 2008 without having had that modernized system that created a financially sound company, said Russo Jr.
“It took a beating, but we were able to come out the other side by managing it the right way,” said Russo Jr. “I think ultimately, that’s what allowed us to be attractive to MarineMax too; we ran a really good business.”
Russo says he looks forward to continuing the growth.
“The thing I’m most proud of is really, when I reflect back on it and look at where our business began, and what my grandparents started, I think they’d be amazed at where it is today,” says Russo Jr. “The boat business is still made up of a lot mom-and-pop family businesses. It’s a small industry, compared to lot of others.”
“I think what we’ve accomplished as a family is pretty amazing — to take this business that is now 80 years old this year — to where it is today,” Russo Jr. added. “I always had aspirations of growing the Russo business in a larger footprint in the Northeast, so I feel like the job I’m in at MarineMax is allowing me to accomplish that goal.”