Grand plans for a famed Miami boatyard

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The 125-year-old Merrill-Stevens Drydock Co. is back in business under a new name, Marlow Merrill Stevens, with a new owner, boatbuilder David Marlow, who plans a renaissance for the historic yard on the Miami River.

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“This is an iconic dowager that needs to be put back in shape,” says Marlow, 67, chairman of Palmetto, Fla.-based Marlow Yachts, which builds a variety of boats, from expedition yachts and express cruisers to tenders and dinghies. Marlow owns a service yard in Palmetto and builds at Norsemen-Marlow Shipyard in Xiamen, China.

Marlow bought Merrill-Stevens in June for a reported $6.6 million from the Coconut Grove Bank, which had held the mortgage on the 5.6-acre property and took title to it in February. Previous owners Hugh and Carole Shields Westbrook, yacht owners themselves and the founders of Vitas Healthcare Corp., bought the yard from the Merrill family in 2004 for $10 million. They had planned to offer a full menu of megayacht services — charter and management, brokerage, crew placement and regulatory consultation — and upgrade the yard to service yachts to 250 feet. That plan foundered when the recession hit, as even affluent megayacht owners curtailed their yachting activity and lenders became more cautious.

But that’s all history. Marlow, who built the Chinese shipyard as a showcase of environmental stewardship and won an International Superyacht Society “green boatyard” award for it, expects to bring the same spirit of stewardship to Marlow Merrill Stevens. He says he’s going to turn it into a park-like place, a gleaming gem on a river that the city of Miami wants to rehabilitate by upgrading historic neighborhoods, setting aside riverfront for parks and pathways, and encouraging marine and water-dependent businesses to put out their shingle along the working waterfront.

“The first order of business is to make the place presentable,” he says. That means cleaning up the yard, making it safe, putting in greenery and fixing up buildings. One of his first projects will be to tear down the tall chain-link fences topped with rolls of concertina wire and put in architectural aluminum fencing.

“I don’t like the Stalag 13 look,” he says, glancing at the barbed wire, a reference to the German POW camp in World War II. “In 24 months you’ll be coming to a park with lots of green and lots of landscaping. Everything will be spit-and-polished.”

He says he wants the yard to be a credit to his customers, a credit to the community and an attractive workplace. “From experience, I know [a park-like environment] pays great dividends,” he says. “It really does work. You get better employees. They stay longer, they work better and they take better care of their workplace.”

Meanwhile, Marlow says he’ll be taking stock of the yard and the market and the South Florida business environment to see what directions the yard should go. He already has some ideas. Marlow Merrill Stevens’ north yard has a 500-ton Syncrolift and a 500-ton railway that he plans to upgrade to 750 tons. The south yard has a 100-metric-ton Travelift that will be replaced with a 220-ton lift.

With the upgrades, he says, the yard will be able to haul 115-footers on the south side and 170- to 180-footers on the north side. He says he’ll seek service contracts with the Coast Guard and other government agencies that now contract with a yard in Jacksonville, Fla. He’ll bid for repair, service and restoration work on yachts large, small and super-sized. When the time is right, the yard probably will build boats, too.

“Sail or power makes little difference, as we have built both,” Marlow says. “We have personnel who can construct anything of any materials, so I suppose, to quote George Herbert Walker Bush, ‘stay tuned.’ ”

Marlow has been negotiating with Eastport, Maine, to buy the town-owned The Boat School, which trains boatbuilders and tradespeople. He sees opportunities to bring students from The Boat School to Florida in the winter to apprentice at Marlow Merrill Stevens. “We’ve got to build our apprentice system back up in this country,” he says. “That has been the single greatest element of our success in Asia.”

Merrill-Stevens, established as a shipyard in 1886 in Jacksonville, has operated a yacht yard on the Miami River since 1923. The loss of that yard would leave just one other, Jones Boat Yard, that is capable of servicing megayachts in Miami, says Phil Everingham, who owned a minority share in Merrill-Stevens and worked there for 35 years before leaving in 2005 as a vice president. “The boating industry can’t afford to lose a Merrill-Stevens,” he says.

The yard has a good buyer in Marlow, says Horatio Aguirre, the real estate broker who represented him. “It’s a huge win-win for the industry,” Aguirre says. “He has 43 years of boatyard experience.” And there’s no doubt where his passion lies.

“I don’t do condos,” Marlow says. He does boats.

In its heyday, Merrill-Stevens worked on such famous vessels as Malcolm Forbes’ Highlander and Jacques Cousteau’s Calypso. The company had been paring back since late 2008, when it shed its yacht brokerage, charter and management division. It cut its staff back to 60 for most of 2009 after employing 250 at its height the year before, and it closed its doors Dec. 18, 2009. The following February, John Spencer, Merrill-Stevens’ superintendent when the yard closed, gathered a few former Merrill-Stevens workers and started his own business, Spencer Boat Co., renting part of the Merrill-Stevens yard.

“They laid me off, but I wouldn’t leave,” Spencer says. In June he was employing 32 — and some subcontractors — and was working on 25 boats. He says Marlow told him there would be a place at Marlow Merrill Stevens for him and his staff.

“I’ve got 32 good employees,” Spencer says. “The biggest asset a company has is its employees.”

This article originally appeared in the August 2011 issue.

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