A rewarding change from selling cars to designing yachts

Not altogether uncommon, my path to the marine industry required a major mid-career job change when I was 30.

Not altogether uncommon, my path to the marine industry required a major mid-career job change when I was 30.


In 1979, after working in the service department of several GM dealerships, I was able to purchase a part-interest in a small, rundown mom-and-pop GM dealership in northwest Connecticut. After five years I was able to buy out the owner, who was set to retire.

The most redeeming part of the deal was that I owned the property, which I refinanced to capitalize the operation — not an optimal situation, but it was necessary to raise capital.

Three years later, in late 1987, I was facing one of the worst recessions in the automobile industry. A mentor at GMAC, the financial arm (and floorplan giant), called me one day and basically explained the company’s financial projections for the entire auto industry.

GMAC reviewed my financials each month, so he knew my situation. He said to me, “Listen, if you were ever considering selling the company, now is the time to do it, based on our financial forecasts.”

I was married at the time with our first daughter and in debt and made the difficult decision to sell the company. That decision and the next decision I made would change the course of my career.

A bit of background: The dealership was near Candlewood Lake, where my family had summered growing up. We always had boats, albeit small ones. I can remember having free rein of the lake in a small skiff with a small outboard motor at a very young age and learning to sail on a Sunfish.

I continued to use the lake as an adult and after my family had sold the summer cottage and while I was running the dealership. We had a side business at an off-site location building performance boat engines from Chevy big-block engines up to about 750 hp, specifically for lake boats for Candlewood, but also for other area lakes, such as Lake Lillinonah and Lake Zoar.

My interest in boats was evident, but more important, I had a real interest in getting involved in product development, rather than retail sales. I realized that with wife and child I was in no position to start over at a four-year college.

Even if I did and worked toward automobile design, I most likely would be part of a much bigger team with very little control over the product. It seemed that yacht design was a niche where one could be directly involved with the final product.

After I sold the dealership in 1988, I took a year and attended the design program at The Landing School, a trade school in Kennebunk, Maine. I made this decision while getting concerned looks from my parents and wife, as in “What do you plan to do now”? or suggesting that I needed to get a job selling cars or working in a service department because that is what I knew how to do.

I was tired and burned out. I was incredibly relieved to be rid of the albatross of the dealership, and more important, the debt. I stuck to my guns, sold my condo and rented an apartment in Maine. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

My logic was: This was a one-year investment of time and money, and if it landed me a job, fine, and if not, if I failed in my mission, I could return to the car business in some capacity, hopefully after the recession of the early 1990s had run its course.

The Landing School program was intensive and focused. It was very rewarding and gave me valuable time to regroup. Each student is expected to participate in an internship, and I spent mine at Sparkman & Stephens in New York and was offered a job, which I accepted.

I spent about five years as a designer/draftsman and then left the company in 1994 to work at Concordia Custom Yachts to get a better understanding of composite boatbuilding. After a couple of years at Concordia I took a job in the design office of Bill Tripp, where I spent a few years before returning to Sparkman & Stephens as chief designer in 1999. I worked there for 12 more years.

After my most recent stint at Sparkman & Stephens I am working as a marine consultant for three quality boatyards in Maine: Brooklin Boat Yard, Front Street Shipyard and Rockport Marine. The owners at Brooklin Boat Yard and Rockport Marine are also part-owners in the new Front Street Shipyard. Although that relationship exists, both of them operate as independent yards at times, competing against each other for new jobs.

Brooklin Boat Yard and Rockport Marine build with wood; Front Street Shipyard builds and repairs vessels in higher-tech fiberglass laminates, using materials such as carbon fiber, steel or aluminum.

I still live in New York. My primary focus is to help the Maine yards with sales of custom yachts, but based on my background I find myself working on design projects, as needed, or to augment their in-house design capabilities. It has been an interesting change. It is a completely new perspective from competing with design offices globally to after 20 years of getting to know these other designers now collaborating with them on their custom projects.

The past 26 years have been a very interesting ride. My experience in the auto industry was highly useful to my career in the marine industry. Obviously the experience with mechanical parts and systems was useful, but more interesting was how similar the two industries can be; after all, both are service businesses in the transportation sector.

Whether a customer is bringing his boat in for an oil change or wants to build the boat of his dreams, it’s all about providing good service, good value, and most important, building relationships.

Bruce Johnson is the director of business development for Brooklin Boat Yard, Front Street Shipyard and Rockport Marine.


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