Chaparral/Robalo’s Jim Lane was a leader, mentor

Chaparral and Robalo Boats president Jim Lane of Valdosta, Ga., died March 19, losing a long struggle with leukemia. He was 73.
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Chaparral and Robalo Boats president Jim Lane of Valdosta, Ga., died March 19, losing a long struggle with leukemia. He was 73. Lane came on board with company founder William “Buck” Pegg in 1977 and formed Chaparral Boats. During a career that spanned almost four decades, Lane was widely respected as an intuitive businessman, an insightful leader and an accomplished executive.

“Jim was my business partner and friend for 40 years,” says Pegg. “What started as a chance encounter and a friendly competition on the paddleball courts of Hollywood, Fla., became the longest non-family partnership in the marine industry.”

“Quite simply, we complemented each other,” Pegg says. “My strengths were Jim’s weaknesses and vice-versa. Together we made a formidable team. Jim left an indelible mark on our company and the marine industry.”

Ann Baldree, vice president of Chaparral and Robalo Boats, says Pegg and Lane saw her potential early on and began grooming her for leadership.

“Jim was a great leader, mentor and friend,” says Baldree. “I often told others that working for Jim for 35 years has been the equivalent of a Harvard degree. Jim had a brilliant mind and a selfless desire to share his knowledge with others. Quite simply, Jim believed in me and encouraged me to take on more responsibilities. He gave me wings. I often told him that his belief in me gave me the confidence to believe in myself.”

The loss is a blow to the industry, says Rick Hubbell, president and CEO of Marine Products Corp., the parent company of Chaparral and Robalo. “The boating industry not only lost a great leader, I lost a good friend. Jim’s contributions will live on and he will be missed.”

From finance to boatbuilding

Born James Albert Lane Jr. on Sept. 23, 1942, in Wauchula, Fla., he showed a knack for business at a very young age. He graduated in 1964 with a B.S.B.A. accounting degree from the University of Florida. His father died unexpectedly while Jim was in college and he had to work three part-time jobs to complete his degree.

Lane took a position with the accounting firm Ernst & Ernst, where he was an account supervisor overseeing a portfolio of international clients. In 1965 he earned CPA accreditation, and he advanced to CFO of Delta Corp. from 1969-77.

In 1977 Lane left the financial services industry to pursue a career that mixed his passion for business with his love of boating, forming the partnership with Pegg, whose Fort Lauderdale-based Fiberglass Fabricators boat company was on the rise.

“From day one, Lane and Pegg developed an effective partnership that maximized their unique and varied talents,” Chaparral said in a statement.

Conservative, but cutting-edge

Robalo was one of the early boat brands to completely debut a new boat model online last year. “In one of our meetings we said, ‘You know, we should just try something totally different than we’ve ever done before,’ ” Lane told Trade Only last summer. The company took its Facebook account and tied it in with its dealer network’s Facebook pages to launch the R160 through social media.

Lane’s ability to recognize the growing position of digital and social media was cutting-edge in the industry, says Jared Jester, founder of Jestercom, a South Carolina-based app and website development company. “Jim was the reason I got into the marine industry from the beginning,” Jester says. “We built the world’s first boatbuilder OEM iPhone application for Chaparral.”

They connected when someone from Chaparral cold-called Jester after seeing some of his websites. Jester was operating his tech company by himself at that time. Lane told Jester he wanted “Build a Boat” tools, virtual tours for 30-something boats and two brands. “Build a Boat back then was some cutting-edge stuff; this was a big job,” says Jester.

Lane was so impressed with the result, he called Jester and said, “Jared, you were a little late on delivery, but you exceeded our expectations, and I’m going to be an advocate for you in the marine industry.’”

Lane, known for being true to his word, made it happen. “About 30 days passed, and all of a sudden I had a meeting with Monterey Boats,” Jester recalls. “Jim set it up. This is one of his competitors, but he set up a meeting for me.”

This kind of relationship building was one of Lane’s greatest skills, according to Ron Huibers, president of Volvo Penta of the Americas, who says Lane made “countless contributions to our industry and undoubtedly left a lasting legacy.”

“Though well-known for his financial skills, Jim’s best trait was the ability to lead with a passion that resulted in the development of trusted, long-lasting relationships,” Huibers says. “His wisdom was leveraged within the American Boatbuilders Association to give the organization an advantage and build a stronger membership. All of us here at Volvo Penta are thankful for the time we’ve spent working with Jim.”

Lane often spoke of how much fun the boat business was for him, but he sometimes was nostalgic for the less competitive days before the 2007-08 downturn because it created tension among longtime friends. “Competition is more dynamic than it’s ever been,” Lane told Trade Only in 2012. “I don’t like it nearly as well because you don’t like having to feel like you’re competing for every dealer and every deal. The business isn’t quite as fun as it was.”

Honoring one’s word

In that same interview, Lane and Baldree detailed how the conservatively run company took $18 million from cash reserves to support its dealer network when the recession hit. It was the first time the company had opted to dip into those reserves. “We have shareholders to think of, and we had to tell them that after 450 consecutive months of profitability, we were not going to make money,” Baldree said.

“I told them, we have dealers out there who need our help. We turned the boardroom into the war room,” Lane said, laughing. “We needed the right amount of assistance. It was a big commitment. And the interesting thing about the board of directors was it was never even a question. They said, ‘You guys do what you need to do to protect the business and protect the distribution channels.’ ”

While negotiating the development of the Chaparral iPad app, Jester flippantly said he would buy Lane an iPad. From then on, anytime they crossed paths, Lane would ask, “How about that iPad? Did you get it yet?” Jester eventually fulfilled his end of the deal.

“He had plenty of money to buy his own iPad, but he taught me, and showed me, that no matter what, you stand by your word,” Jester says. “If you don’t honor your words, you’re going to lose your devotion and loyalty.”

A champion for boating

Active in a wide range of industry associations, Lane was finance chairman and also served on the board of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. He also was a founding member and served as chairman of the American Boatbuilders Association. “Jim was a great supporter of NMMA, and I always enjoyed my time with him,” says NMMA president Thom Dammrich. “He was on the search committee that hired me 16 and a half years ago. His passing is a significant loss.”

Jester recounts a story Lane’s son Mark told at Lane’s memorial service that encapsulated his dad’s unending entrepreneurial spirit. While Lane was being treated for leukemia at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, in walked the CEO of Emory. Normally when the hospital administrator walks in, a patient is going to ask about care. “But not dad,” Jester recalls Mark Lane saying. “Dad proceeded to try and sell the man a boat.”

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue.

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