In the early 1970s, Bob Soucy was a recently married merchant marine who realized that shipping out for months at a time wasn’t what he and his wife, Joanne, and their young daughter needed. “He would go away and come back, and she was twice as old as when he left,” says Rob Soucy, Bob’s son.
Through his training at the Maine Maritime Academy, the elder Soucy had developed experience with diesel engines. He found a way to stay on shore teaching classes at Southern Maine Vocational Technical Institute, which today is Southern Maine Community College. He became friends with the instructor who ran the automotive classes, and the two developed a reputation for their ability to solve problems quickly for commercial fishermen in Portland Harbor.
They heard that Port Harbor Marine on Front Street in Portland was going out of business and decided in April 1974 to buy it. “They said, we’ll buy it, run the marina and the boatyard in the spring and summer, and teach in the fall and winter,” Rob says. “That didn’t last long. They realized you can’t run a business and be open part-time.”
Port Harbor Marine grew steadily, adding boat sales and slips. In 1980, the company won a bid to build a new marina with the City of South Portland, and Port Harbor Marine moved to its current location on Spring Point Drive. When it opened, Spring Point Marina had more than 18,000 square feet of buildings on six acres, and 250 boat slips. After Breakwater Marina was built adjacent to the Spring Point facility in 1989, Port Harbor purchased 104 of the 121 slips and took over management of the marina, as well.
In addition to Rob, his brothers Marc and Mike grew up working at the family business. Bob Soucy transferred ownership to his sons in 2007. Rob, 53, is president; Marc, 46, is director of sales; and Mike, 47, is director of operations for Port Harbor Marine’s five locations in Maine. There are also two older sisters, Lisa and Anne.
Port Harbor Marine is arguably the biggest marina operation in Maine. How many locations do you have?
We call South Portland the mother ship. This is where it all started. This facility and the Raymond location are on the water. Raymond is on the busiest east-west corridor in the state, Route 302, and we have slips there. We have sales and service in Rockport, and we purchased the Holden facility a couple of years ago and renovated the existing building. And then there’s the Kittery location.
What are the advantages of having multiple locations?
Whether you boat in southern Maine or the middle of the state or northern Maine, we have someone to take care of you. You don’t have to travel hundreds of miles to see our product. We either get it to them or send someone to take care of it.
How has business been in light of the pandemic?
Boat sales have just been phenomenal, through the roof. Everything you’re hearing and reading is true. It’s kind of strange. People ask me how business is, and I almost feel guilty saying how good it is because I know a lot of people are out of work, or their business has failed, or they’re struggling. For us, it has just been generational in a sense. I’ve never seen it like this. I’ve never seen business as strong and vibrant as it’s been. We’re trying to capitalize on it as best we can and, at the same time, keep everybody safe.
How does 2020 compare to a typical year?
One of our better years, if not our best year, was 2018. From a standpoint of sales activity, the last two, two and a half months — this is unprecedented, the number of leads coming in. May and June were back-to-back, record-setting months in terms of new deals written. Our boat rental business is off the charts, and the boat club that we have, we’ve actually had to cap the membership because we like to maintain a certain boat-to- member ratio. We had more demand for it than we had boats available. There are 17 or 18 boats in the club, and probably 40 on the rental side.
How’s your inventory in light of the increased demand?
That’s the concern going forward. Is that pace going to continue, is it going to normalize to a typical July and August, and are we going to have enough inventory to generate the numbers we’re accustomed to? You almost get a little greedy because even though we’re so far ahead of the game, you don’t want it to stop.
I want to continue to introduce people to boating. We do know there’s going to be a percentage of attrition — kids will go back to school, vacations will go again, youth sports will start back up — so we want to try to get as many people into the sport as we can while we can.
We’re like everybody else; we have some major gaps in our inventory. One thing that does insulate us a little is, I have multiple manufacturers. There are some bright spots. We even had stuff on order before this whole pandemic that is being built now, that we never canceled. One thing we’ve always been really good at is selling stuff we don’t have, and going out and finding it.
So you haven’t had to turn anyone away?
I think in the past seven to 10 days was the first time we’ve seen some fallout from not having the right color. It almost doesn’t matter what manufacturer it is; we’re seeing people say, “I want a 22-foot blue boat for X amount of dollars, and the first one I find, I’m going to buy.” There seems to be a lot less shopping, or comparing benefits and features and quality. Just boom, if they have it.
Are you seeing many first-time boat buyers?
We are seeing a lot of first-time boat buyers, or people who had boated before but had gotten out of it and want to get back in. We haven’t seen a lot of trade activity, but that’s fairly common for early summer. Typically this is the time we start to see the trade-in activity pick up. Our brokerage is really busy. People are realizing it’s a good time to sell their boat and get something bigger because they’re getting fairly good values out of it.
You can’t really make many mistakes right now. We’re not perfect, but we’ve had a couple situations where people changed their mind. Normally you’d be fighting to put something together, and now it’s like, well, there’s another guy waiting for it, or you’ll have a backup deposit. We’re constantly monitoring and updating our inventory. Several times this year, we’ve sold the same boat twice. I don’t recall that happening ever, that kind of frenzy over a boat on the same day that it comes in from the manufacturer.
They’re all very good problems to have, don’t get me wrong. When this pandemic started, I saw some of my dealer friends sort of freak out — sent everyone home, shut down and really responded very quickly to how they thought this was all going to play out. We kind of sat back and said let’s find a way to keep our doors locked but stay open while keeping our people safe and continue trying to generate business any way we could. Fortunately for us, we’ve done a pretty good job of it.
What do you worry about going forward?
We’re adding all these new people to the sport, and there are all these dealers who’ve never done this volume before. Is the customer’s experience a positive one, or are we creating a group of people who will ask themselves next summer, why did I ever buy a boat?
What’s it like working with your brothers?
I don’t have to do it all myself. I see that with other marina owners and operators, and a lot of the stuff they have to do on their own. I can leave here knowing that there are two other owners who can take care of things. Because my brothers and I are equal owners, we collaborate. Mike will make decisions that I’m not involved in, and it won’t set me sideways because I know he has the company’s best interests in mind. If it’s a major decision, then he involves Marc and me, but the day-to-day stuff, I let it go.
We have three people who are fully engaged, so if one of us isn’t available, typically there’s one of us here making sure that people are working and living to the culture we want. That’s the biggest challenge of having multiple locations — having the same culture no matter where you go. One of my biggest responsibilities is getting out to the locations to drive that culture.
Do the three of you spend time together outside of work?
We all have second homes on Sebago Lake and try to get out there as much possible to go boating. I have a 23-foot Sea Ray, and my brothers both have Regency pontoons.
A few years back, you made a move that had a big impact on the company’s future.
We became an employee stock ownership plan. We did a lot of research on it and felt that where my brothers and I are in our careers, and what we have going forward, this was going to be a really good option for us. We still want to be engaged with the company, and we still want to work for ourselves, and we wanted to be able to provide something for crewmembers down the road.
What was the driving force behind the ESOP decision?
We had someone who had been with us for 25 years and he was leaving. “We said, what do we do for him?” We have a 401(k) with a 25 percent match, and we offer our employees benefits. Something we inherited from our dad is that he always wanted to do something for the crewmembers down the road, not just now.
Most of the people at this facility are clad in blue shirts. Who are the workers in red?
One thing that sets us apart in Port Harbor is our staff. We call them the “red shirts.” They wear different colored shirts than the rest of us, and they are there to make the docking experience better and serve our customers.
Does Port Harbor Marine have an apprenticeship program? Do you work with local schools to train students?
Our service director developed our own apprentice/mentoring program. We bring in a new employee as a shop helper. He works with a technician, assisting, and we continue to train him. I’m on the board [vice chairman] for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, and we talk about workforce challenges all the time, so it’s always something that’s affecting our industry, and we’re trying to change that.
What are some employee perks at Port Harbor Marine?
We have a crewmember boat club, so after two years, full-time crewmembers in good standing who have boating experience can use the boats. We started it as an employee benefit and saw the excitement it generated among our employees and we said, “Let’s do this for customers, too.” Crewmembers become boat club members, and we’ll adjust the number of boats we have in the club.
The boat club has become a big part of Port Harbor Marine’s business.
It’s different from some of the national clubs because we have a one-time fee that’s paid annually. It’s $3,995 from May to October. There’s no additional monthly fee, and members have their choice of boats at our South Portland and Raymond locations. We also have boat rentals, but that’s a separate operation.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in the marina/boatyard segment?
Back in the heyday, you saw trailers pop up in a dirt parking lot and becoming boat dealers. After 2007-08, we didn’t see a huge bounce back here. The dealers that survived in Maine are the ones who are pretty good. I drive up to the lakes region and I look around, and if there’s one trend I’ve seen, it’s expanded storage. The industry has been on a long stretch of increased sales, and there’s a lot of boats that need to be stored.
Do you have friends at other companies in the industry?
I’m friendly with the other members of my 20 Group, which consists of non-competing dealers who get together a couple times a year to exchange ideas. When you decide to trust someone with your books, that trust evolves into a friendship.
This article originally appeared in the August 2020 issue.