Last year was “an extraordinary year” for Bob Johnstone, who founded MJM Yachts in 2002 and was co-founder many years earlier of J Boats Inc.
Bob and his brother Rod were recognized for their contributions to sailing with Mystic Seaport’s 2016 America and the Sea Award and were inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame. Bob also was named by Yachting Magazine — with the likes of Ted Hood and Mercury Marine’s Carl Kiekhaefer — as one of the industry’s seven top innovators. “It’s wonderful, but still overwhelming,” Johnstone says of the accolades.
Johnstone, 83, grew up around boats, building his first at age 13 and learning what not to do, he says. “I ate, drank and dreamed boats as long as I can remember.”
During the summer of 1953, as sailing instructor and harbormaster at the Hay Harbor Club on Fishers Island, N.Y., he met Mary McAvoy on the club dock. She was a nanny for children who took sailing lessons from Johnstone. They married three years later.
A few intercollegiate regattas followed, along with a summer as paid captain of a 54-foot Herreshoff yawl and a short-lived stint as a foreman in Bob Derecktor’s Mamaroneck, N.Y., boatyard. But life among boats was interrupted by a degree in history at Princeton, a stint as a second lieutenant at Fort Sill in Oklahoma and 17 years with the Quaker Oats Co., where he started as a sweeper in the world’s largest cereal mill in Cedar Rapids Iowa, and ended up, at 23, running the company’s operations in Colombia and Venezuela.
Years later, Johnstone became marketing vice president of AMF’s Alcort division, which made his favorite boat, the Sunfish. But within 18 months he concluded that two brothers with a unique new boat and $20,000 could do a better job than a $2 billion corporation. AMF did not want to invest in his vision of a high-performance 24-footer as the next step up for all of the Sunfish, Hobie and Laser sailors. “Funny, the guys at Harley-Davidson, another AMF division, had a similar problem,” says his website bio.
In 2002 came MJM (Mary Johnstone’s Motorboat) Yachts. When Bob and Mary couldn’t find the powerboat they were seeking, he decided to go ahead and build it. A series of successful launches has followed.
We sat down with Johnstone to learn more about what has driven his innovations through the decades.
Q: I’m really interested in the fact that AMF didn’t want to invest in your vision, and so you launched the company yourself with your brother — and now it’s a case study at Harvard Business School and the University of Virginia. Can you tell me more about that?
A: Harvard Business School professor Robert Simons was a sailor and owned one of our J/105s. He became interested in how a five-person company could leverage resources to become a leading world brand. At the time HBS was experiencing more entrepreneurial interest among incoming students than the more traditional Wall Street investment banking path. Professor Simon’s specialty was leveraging resources to create profitable businesses. So “HBS Case Study on J/Boats” was taught there and at UVA’s McIntire School of Commerce.
Q: You’re one of the rare people with a passion for both powerboats and sailboats. What do you like about each?
A: There is nothing that beats sailing a responsive boat, hand on the tiller, being at one with the water, wind and the motion of your boat propelled by natural forces. The act of sailing itself is a joy. You don’t have to be getting anywhere fast. On a powerboat it’s more about doing something like fishing, water skiing and getting from point A to B. Yes, being on the water is wonderful and can also be great fun with the right powerboat, surfing down 6- to 8-foot waves in total control at 25 knots, somewhat like skiing — or surfing.
Q: Why did you make the shift from building sailboats to powerboats? It would seem pretty prescient, given what the sailboat market has done over the last 10 years.
A: Not really … more the luck of my birth date. I thought we’d be the last in the world to ever own a powerboat, and didn’t until our 40th wedding anniversary. Then it was repeating the J/Boat track, creating the next boat that Mary and I would enjoy owning, but couldn’t find on the market. I’m grateful to mom and dad for bringing me into the world 12 years before the boomers. By the time I figured out what we wanted, created it, got others to go along with building it— here comes the market to make it a business.
Just about any phenomenon in boating can be explained by where that 74.9-million population bulge, the baby boomers, was. In the early 1970s they were in their late 20s, and 100,000 Sunfish, Snarks and Hobies were selling. In the late ’70s they wanted to sail with their spouses and kids in street clothes and not freeze to death in a bathing suit on Long Island Sound, or near metro areas where 85 percent of the U.S. population lived. Planing in one of those off-the-beach boats was exciting. A J/24 became the answer.
Then on through the ages, until hitting their 60s, and long-term cruising years on 40- to 50-foot sailboats or Grand Banks trawlers was coming to an end; wearing foul weather gear had become a bit tiresome, and nobody was becoming more agile. Rather than give up boating, they’d ask, “What next?” Go larger and get a big yacht with captain and crew. Or go smaller to something still comfortable, but easier to handle and maintain. MJM Yachts answered the latter. It didn’t hurt that MJMs were more environmentally responsible, being fuel-efficient with a smaller owner’s carbon footprint and built of epoxy for longer life in a design with timeless styling.
Q: What do you think about the sailing now and the market overall? How can it bounce back, do you think?
A: I still love sailing and take vicarious pleasure with Mary and friends comfortably spectating in our MJM 50z Zing with Seakeeper gyro no-roll, shaded, all-weather, comfort at the end of a starting line with Volvo Penta DPS holding us in place — thinking I’ve really outgrown the dog-eat-dog pre-start maneuvering — but it’s great fun watching others at it.
Deja vu all over again? I just read that the millennial generation of 18- to 34-year-olds, at 75.4 million, now tops the boomers in numbers. All those old Hobies and Sunfish must be getting a bit tired by now. Are 100,000 small boats a year possible again? Certainly the J/70 phenomenon worldwide has nearly duplicated the J/24 feat of 40 years ago. But I’m really excited by the new 40-foot J/121 with water ballast to replace four heavyweights on the rail.
I told my nephew Jeff Johnstone, president of J/Boats, that I’m almost ready to go back to sailboat racing. This design is literally a game changer, purposely designed to be sailed fast and more easily by a smaller crew of four or five friends and family on more fun, adventurous, open-course distance and pursuit races involving a bit more luck allowing anyone to win.
This is huge. It opens up the sport of sailboat racing to the recreational sailor by getting away from needing 10 professional crew on a 40-footer to compete in boring windward/leeward closed-course races.
As for cruising sailboats, the boomers may still support larger 50-foot-plus designs with cabins for pro captain and crew or all-weather piloting stations. Wearing foul-weather gear 24/7 is not in the boomer’s lexicon. The 45-to-55 cruising market may flatten out for the next 10 to 15 years, waiting for this next big population wave to grow out of their smaller, all-family fun boats.
Q: Can you talk about people who’ve inspired you over the years?
A: I’ve had a lot of heroes. My uncle Dave Johnstone, former mayor of Stonington, Conn., and Phi Beta Kappa graduate of MIT, was a role model in terms of extracting the last ounce of speed from a boat. Before a race he would tip his Lightning over on the beach and go over the bottom with rotten stone. That’s a pumice finer than 600 w/d sandpaper, which was thought advanced 20 years later. Manfred Curry and his book about the science of sailing; Paul Elvstrom and Bob Bavier with their books on racing tactics; C.S. Forester’s Hornblower series — read all in a month at age 10. I ate, drank and dreamed boats as long as I can remember.
Q: There is a thread of innovation running through all your projects. You have a history degree from Princeton, but seem to have an engineering mind. I love talking with people who have this ability to look at anything and see ways to improve it, no matter how outside the box it is — pardon the cliche. Can you first talk about the sailboats and how you decided to redesign them, and how influential that has been to modern sailboats?
A: The J/24 was an idea confirmed by consumer research. Where were all those off-the-beach Hobie and Sunfish sailors going next? Fifty percent of the people thinking about buying a boat between 20 and 30 feet chose a J/24 or a Farr IOR 1/4 ton — neither of which existed — nor a Catalina 22 or Paceship 23, typical of the market at the time. No brainer. A 50 percent market share target vs. 5 percent? From there it was reacting to sailor feedback: After 10 people said “Love the fractional rig, the performance, the one-design, but I want to go cruising with my family on my month’s vacation and need six berths and standing headroom.” So let’s come up with a J/30. Bob Bavier owned a J/30 and complained about its light-air performance on Long Island Sound and advised, “The 12 meter is a really good light-air boat; you need to come up with a taller rig for better performance.” The J/36 was born, etc., etc.
Probably the biggest leap which restaged the company was the need for an exciting new product after the the 10 percent luxury tax was imposed on boats, cars and planes costing more than $100,000. The answer, inspired by son Peter’s and Jay Cross’s One-Design 14 high-performance dinghy, was a retractable bowsprit and asymmetric spinnaker. The J/105 in the early ’90s was first in the world. Now everyone is doing it.
The primary impetus had been my frustration with the J/35 class in not imposing a crew weight and sail purchase limit. Instead of racing with 10 people with a dozen sails and all those logistics and expense, we came up with a 35-footer — J/105 for decimeters — that could be sailed by four or five people with a four-sail limitation and no overlapping genoas. Furthermore, one person could jibe the spinnaker instead of eight, a cruising couple could manage it with snuffer, so they wouldn’t have to turn on the engine going downwind. The J/105 is now the most popular keelboat of its size in the world. Key was coming up with solutions to make sailing easier, more enjoyable with greater performance.
Q: I’d love to hear about your ideas for powerboats. In your words — “prettier, faster, more seaworthy, quieter, more comfortable, more versatile, more fun to drive.” How did you come up with this? Were you the only one doing that at the time? I assume you were since you were able to patent the design.
A: Just a matter of doing the same thing with MJM Yachts as when at J/Boats — create the best-performing, easiest and most fun-to-drive boats that any family member can operate solo and confidently by leveraging available technology. The new MJM 35z, launching this month, uses twin 300 Mercury Verados and 250 gallons of fuel to reach a top speed over 50 mph, with a range of over 350 miles cruising at 38 mph.
An established leading brand can’t match that with triple 300s and 400 gallons of fuel. Anyone can put six 350-hp outboards on a heavy barn door and go 50 mph. That’s not “performance.” Putting more and more horsepower on heavy, low-tech hulls still characterizes the powerboat industry.
Epoxy composite construction by Boston Boatworks is right out of the sailboat world and key to MJM performance. MJM’s master builder, Mark Lindsay, built Olympic and World Championship sailboats, along with an America’s Cup contender for Bill Koch in the Nevada desert. MJMs are significantly more fuel-efficient than the latest diesel-electric hybrids touting themselves as “green.” Along those lines MJM Yachts is the sponsor for the Sailors for the Sea pamphlet “10 Eco-Smart Ways to Protect Our Waters and Your Boat!”
As for the U.S. design patent, when designer Doug Zurn and I came up with goal No. 1, a pretty, signature MJM look, we didn’t want to suffer the same legal battles that Hinckley went through with the Picnic Boat. So we applied for and received a design patent, which is far more onerous to infringe than some clever widget. If you infringe [on] the widget, it’s just the profits from the widget at risk. If you infringe a design patent, which relates to brand image, the infringing company risks their entire company profits.
Q: You don’t often see big, dramatic changes in the boating industry. Can you speak to the risks and advantages of taking this approach?
A: Maybe it’s doing what seems right or what should work, rather than what others are doing. There’s not much new in boats. It’s a matter of recognizing how a bit of technology, construction method, etc., may help. What got me into epoxy composites was it was the only way I could think of making a powerboat more agile for my wife to operate solo, pushing off a dock or piling. We couldn’t locate any production powerboat builder in the U.S. with experience in epoxy composites, which I knew from building J/Boats was the way to go. So I fell back on sailboat friend Mark Lindsay to transform his custom sailboat-building company to one making series-built powerboats.
Q: I understand the MJM 50z was the first design worldwide to have a Seakeeper gyrostabilizer installed as standard equipment. Your website also says that “MJM has become synonymous with fuel efficiency, ease of handling and exceptional comfort. The brand has led with other features, such as side boarding doors and electric-powered fully opening windshields and flush decks.” I know this isn’t easy to do. How were you able to pull it off when others didn’t or couldn’t?
A: Or didn’t think to or care to. Two things at play there. As a sailor you hear that some people are unhappy with a sailboat heeling. Yet a sailboat is far more comfortable in a seaway than a powerboat because it doesn’t roll. It’s stabilized by the pressure of the wind on the sail, counterbalanced by the keel. Powerboats may not heel, but they all roll. Seemed a no brainer. We could offer the MJM 50z as the best of both worlds: no roll, no heel. It’s here to stay. Of the 70 MJMs ordered since, only two aren’t equipped with Seakeeper gyros.
As for the side doors at floating dock height and flush decks from wheel to transom — it’s right out of the “honor your elders” playbook. Address the aging boomers and their older parents, small grandchildren, dogs, etc. One of the biggest nuisances of boating is climbing over coamings to board a boat or jumping down several feet to sprain ankles when docking. Just didn’t make sense. Don’t accept the status quo when the status is unacceptable.
Q: Can you explain MJM Yachts to me? I know once I made an error saying they were semicustom, but you corrected me.
A: MJM Yachts are series-built designs. They are built to a tight schedule that’s laid out over two years, and we’re trying to manage 20 to 25 percent annual growth rates without compromising quality. They are semicustom in the sense that we offer standard options for owners to select off an order form and some custom options.
Q: I’d love to come see the process of production at Boston BoatWorks, which to this day I’ve never ever witnessed. What led you there?
A: You are welcome at any time. One of MJM’s great strengths is the dedication and enthusiasm of the building team. They love talking about it. No one else was available with 35 years’ experience building epoxy composites to start building MJMs at the time in 2002. We went from tooling to the launch of the first 34z in eight months for the Rockland, Maine, boat show.
Doug Zurn had interned at BBW as a young designer, and communications were good. Mark Lindsay and Scott Smith were excited to build MJMs, and to this day engage with owners on plant tours, boat shows and owner rendezvous. The building facility has moved from an old Navy electrical plant in East Boston to a brand-new 35,000-square-foot boat plant on the water with its own marina and Travelift under the Tobin Bridge in Charlestown.
Q: Can you talk about the processes at the plant, and what made you decide to shift in a more sustainable direction?
A: MJM’s licensed builder, Boston BoatWorks, is MACT-compliant. This is the Environmental Protection Agency’s Maximum Achievable Control Technology rating. Because of their record and practices related to employee health and safety, the state of Massachusetts Department of Labor has invited Boston BoatWorks to apply for their SHARP — Safety and Health Achievement Recognition Program — certification and become one of only nine manufacturing companies in the state to so qualify. The side benefits are lower workmen’s comp insurance rates, lower product costs through higher productivity and morale, better employee retention and lower training costs, improving the value of MJM yachts to their owners.
Q: Do you think the upcoming generations, specifically millennials, will automatically demand more sustainable forms of boating as they reach boat-buying age?
A: There’s a real disconnect between cars and boats when it comes to mileage per gallon. We’ve been hammering away at fuel efficiency for 14 years now, and it hardly seems to make a dent. Yes, our owners love it on yacht club cruises when they don’t have to fuel up until they get back home while their friends wait in line at fuel docks several times during the trip. I think people care, or have become accustomed with larger motoryachts to spending the money. But it’s hard to imagine the owner of a 100-foot yacht burning more fuel in a day or two than the family car burns in a year — and at the same time be enthused about being the owner of a Tesla.
Q: Every time we see a boatbuilder go out of business, someone buys the molds and resurrects it. Do you see this much fragmentation as sustainable?
A: No. If a boatbuilder goes out of business, it’s usually because the boats aren’t selling — and for a reason. There are brands out there that have been resurrected several times by enthusiasts for that brand, but it’s rare to see them take off again to their former glory with the older molds. There may be cases where the brand name is applied to newer designs, where it can work.
Q: What do you identify as trends in the powerboat industry?
A: The boating industry is a fairly reactionary arena, not quick to change. I’d like to think MJM Yachts is on the right track addressing the boomers aged 51 to 71 with a classic, attractive and highly functional design that addresses the digital luxury of today, rather than the layers of varnish, analog luxury of yesterday, a design trend in the broader world.
The convenience of servicing, functionality and performance of the new outboards is impressive, causing outboard designs to show good growth. MJM Yachts is entering this market in 2017 with the new MJM 35z with twin 300 Verados and the MJM 43z with triple 350s to improve brand penetration in areas where shoal draft and turnkey convenience is a consideration.
Q: Of all your industry-related accomplishments, which do you most value?
A: A phone call or an email from an MJM or J/Boats owner who just had to tell me of the great fun they had on an extraordinary day on the water.
This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue.