Carolina Skiff founder Terry Stark lived life on his own terms. John Landon, chairman of the company during Stark’s tenure, remembers his colleague’s world travels, including trips to the Bahamas, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba and Thailand before he settled in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he died Aug. 15 after a heart attack. He was 68.
Stark’s words to an old friend, immortalized in an email, conveyed more pride and gratification in his non-working life than in his business endeavors. Stark told close friend Wally Bell in that email that he only started the company because he had run out of money while cruising his sailboat around the world. In the email, Stark’s reflections seem to be those of a man more taken with the time he spent enjoying life than working — a contrast to the pace many businessmen set today.
Stark sold his shares of the company in 1998 to local investors and retired to travel the world, says longtime friend Bell, of Composite Research Inc. Stark began the company in 1982 after two start-ups landed him in Waycross, Ga., in 1991, Bell says.
“It was in Waycross, with the third attempt, that Carolina Skiff finally found its legs,” Bell says. “His original work on inexpensively produced skiffs was pioneering in their simplicity of construction.”
Stark spent the last 10 years or so living in Phnom Penh, where his girlfriend found him slumped over in the midst of making “one of his famous smoothies,” according to Landon.
The very first Carolina Skiff was designed and built to provide North Carolina fishermen with a better option to the aluminum jonboat at a better price, Stark told Bell in an email last year.
“A Morehead City dealer showed me the jonboat he wanted in fiberglass and gave me an order for 10 boats when I gave him the price: 2X materials cost + $25/hr labor. Custom fiberglass fabricating pricing,” Stark wrote in the email, which Bell sent, in part, to Soundings Trade Only. “The product’s always taken more sales [and] market share away from the aluminum boat manufacturers than the fiberglass boat manufacturers. I don’t think the industry ever recognized this.”
By only building and selling fiberglass hulls and accessories, Stark kept it “simple and profitable,” with a gross margin of more than 60 percent on everything he manufactured. Carolina Skiff got to No. 4 or 5 in terms of market share at the time, and did so within five years, Stark wrote.
“We maintained the highest D&B rating throughout my management of the company. Took early pay discounts,” he wrote. “Through a 5-year period of growth industry experts say is impossible without external financing. Not bad.”
“I bought a tin building and walked in with some drawings under my arm and barely enough money to do the tooling and produce something to sell,” Stark wrote. “Didn’t know much about the boating industry. Never had any intentions of being a ‘boatbuilder.’ I was setting up an FRP fabricating factory. I did know a little about doing that. The dealers were the boatbuilders, assembling the kits I provided.”
“I only started the company because I ran out of money cruising my 51 Morgan SailBoat,” Stark wrote. “All I ever wanted out of the deal was the money to get back on the ocean.”
“You ask if I feel ‘proud’ about starting CS?” Stark reflected in the email. “Sure, a little. As proud as one could be over a [relatively] successful act of desperation. There’s PC boards on the moon I designed for Dr. Weber’s Lunar Gravimeter back when I thought going to college was the right thing to do. Not something I think about every time I see the moon?
“I am a lot prouder of the life I’ve led not working, all the years sailing the Caribbean, waking up doing what I want to do most every day. I’m proud I’m in good health, living the best life I know how to live here in Cambodia,” Stark said in the email.
“I’m proud of my mom and dad for keeping me off the rocks till I learned to see some of them for myself and learned how to kedge off and fix the leaks from the rocks I didn’t see. I’ve got a lot more in life to look back on to be proud of other than figuring out how to build that silly flat-bottom boat. I even could do that a lot better now if I ever got bored enough.”
Stark’s ashes were to be scattered on the Mekong River in a ceremony.
This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue.