For the last year, the approximately 630 employees of The Hinckley Company continued to work while their leader, CEO Jim McManus, was largely away from the company fighting to overcome throat cancer.
McManus died Nov. 24 after a hard-fought battle at the age of 52.
“The board of directors and the employees of The Hinckley Company mourn the passing of their friend and chief executive officer James P. McManus,” the company said in a statement.
Flags at all of the company’s facilities were flown at half-staff during the first week of December.
“We’ve had our CEO on the bench for a year, and the reason we’ve had our best year ever is because of the team Jim built,” says Mike Arieta, 48, vice president and COO. “We’re so fortunate to have had Jim and so much stronger now because of him.”
Hinckley enjoyed double-digit growth in 2015 from 2014 in all business divisions, according to the company.
McManus was appointed in June 2007 and needed little prompting to refer to his position as his “dream job.” He had a career in the dry-cleaning, food catering services and financial industries before coming to Hinckley.
McManus grew up the son of Irish immigrants in a working-class family in New Haven, Conn. His mother was a caregiver, his father a janitor at Yale University.
“He was essentially the American dream,” says Arieta, who has been with Hinckley for 15 years. “His dad always said Jim would be the kid to get a degree from Yale because that was the family dream. He earned a full academic scholarship to Yale, then on to Harvard Business School. And he took his very blue-collar work ethic and drive, and he hit a home run in the corporate world.”
Although his parents were not boaters, McManus found his way to the water at a young age.
“I grew up boating on Long Island Sound,” he told Soundings Trade Only during a 2012 interview. “I pulled lobster pots as a kid and sailed small boats like Sunfish and Lasers.”
During summers in college he crewed aboard large power yachts chartered out of Manhattan for day cruises and crewed on his father-in-law’s cruising sailboats.
He remained an avid boater who loved to spend weekends with his wife and three grown children aboard his Hinckley Talaria 44.
Those who knew him best say McManus was an eternal optimist and a superb leader. “He had unbelievable energy and an uncanny ability to juggle work with family and friends,” Arieta says. “I worked with him, and I was involved with his family all the time. From my experience, I believe it was rare that anyone in that equation felt shorted, and that’s very difficult to do.”
McManus’ personal skills would be put to the test early in his tenure at Hinckley. He became CEO shortly before the global economy nosedived in 2008 and forced a substantial downsizing and the layoff of 80 percent of the company’s production force.
“I remember when we had to take the Trenton, Maine, plant down — to go from 220 people to 50 or 60. It’s difficult to stand in front of 40 to 60 people and tell them this was their last day,” says Arieta of the time when recreational boatbuilding essentially froze during the depths of the Great Recession.
“He just supported me tremendously throughout that effort. He extended severance beyond what I expected, to six months. He told them, ‘We know our clients will be the first back,’ and they were. He told them, ‘We’re paying you to go home for six months and wait for the phone call because it’s coming.’ In the end we brought the majority of the crew back.”
The Maine facility now employs 260.
McManus was instrumental in navigating the company through the recession, including its acquisition by the private equity firm Scout Partners in 2010.
Under McManus’ leadership and new ownership, the company emerged as a more efficient yacht builder, expanded its service division, and developed and launched a series of five highly successful new models (three Talarias, a redesigned Picnic Boat and the Bermuda 50, the 87-year-old company’s first sailboat model in 10 years).
In 2013 Hinckley acquired Hunt Yachts as a sister company.
“Shortly after he arrived the Great Recession began, and we’ve all been through downturns before, but this one felt different — and it was,” Arieta recalls. “Here comes this guy proclaiming he had his ‘dream job’ and that everything was going to be all right. He made us feel that even though we were in difficult times, the wind was at our back and we could do it.”
Integral to Hinckley’s revival was the management style that came naturally to McManus — to treat everyone in his circle with respect and compassion. He knew the names of the workers on the floor and knew how to relate to them and motivate them, Arieta says.
“I have never been around a more positive force in my life. That by far is his greatest strength as a leader,” Arieta says. “And with him it was not just being a cheerleader. It was genuine. He led by example.”
McManus’ personality also shone with Hinckley clients.
“I know this is an overused term in business, but he treated people like family. It was just in his DNA,” Arieta says. “We were always known for pouring our hearts into building the best boats in the world. What Jim brought to the company is this almost hyperattentive care of the client, so it wasn’t just about the boats anymore; it became more and more about the clients we build and service boats for. He purposely blurred the line between family, friend and customer.”
McManus’ management team knew his mantras, including, “Don’t be passive; drive through,” and he signed off each correspondence to his managers with the acronym IITWI for “In It To Win It.”
“He had a very strong constitution about making all of us believe that no matter how many obstacles were stacked against us, we would get through it,” Arieta says. “That ethos continues to serve us well. I know we’ll find another CEO, but we’ll never replace Jim.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.