Legendary Marina in Destin, Fla., has 780 boats housed in reportedly the largest dry stack building in the United States. The marina, part of Legendary Marine, covers 3.8 acres, stands five stories high and can withstand 145-mph winds. Its forklift operators perform 43,000 boat moves annually, including 18,000 launches and retrievals.
Jeremy Holcomb, vice president of Legendary Marina Division, says that keeping the company’s six forklifts on schedule is the equivalent of air-traffic control operations. “The forklift drivers are the fighter-jet pilots,” Holcomb says. “They’re really looked up to, and they’re proud of what they do every day.”
Of the 180 employees at Legendary, 12 are forklift operators, and Holcomb hopes to soon have 16. Each forklift has an iPad with scheduling software so the driver knows the boat he is supposed to be moving, the time it needs to be picked up and where it is going. Legendary Marina has four different bump stops, which are the spots where boats are lowered into the water. Operators spend no more than six consecutive hours in the driver’s seat of a forklift because of the stress involved in the job.
There is an apprenticeship program for the lift drivers. “We bring in 30 people per year,” Holcomb says. “If we end up with eight operators, we have a triple-seven year, but we usually end up with four.”
About seven years ago, Legendary Marina instituted programs that have resulted in consistent retention. “If you have happy employees, you have happy customers,” Holcomb says. “They need to feel refreshed and have something different in their world on a weekly basis.”
Forklift operator training starts with three days in a classroom. All new hires get their Occupational Safety and Health Administration 10 certificate, the minimum that Legendary Marina requires for a worker to be on the pad, which is the area outside the storage building where the forklifts operate. “Them getting that first 10 hours of training makes them say, ‘Wow, these people really care,’ ” Holcomb says.
Additionally, every vendor that comes on the property must attend OSHA 10 training. Each Legendary Marina employee also is trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and automated external defibrillators, and that training gets refreshed annually.
Once they complete the classroom and OSHA 10 training, potential forklift operators start practicing. Instructors are on the machines with them, and the property has practice boats and slips. “We know after day seven or eight if it’s going to be their thing or not,” Holcomb says. “They’re strapped in, and we work off a shadow system with an instructor.”
Generally speaking, Holcomb says, an operator is on his own after an average of 14 days. The forklift program at Legendary Marina is also OSHA-approved. He wouldn’t disclose figures, but says the operators are well-paid.
In addition to practicing, forklift operators learn the differences among boat bottoms. The forks need to be positioned differently for stepped hulls than for a traditional vee-bottom with inboards, and another approach needs to be taken with sterndrives.
Candidates come from a variety of backgrounds. “We love hiring military veterans who have run caravans or heavy equipment,” Holcomb says. Some forklift operators are former crane operators, but it’s not always people with a long history on heavy equipment.
Davis Joiner entered the training program at Legendary when he was 15 years old. He started on the wall, cleaning and flushing boats when they came out of the water. “He said, ‘I know this is what I want to do,’ ” Holcomb says. “We put him on a fork truck, and he’s as good as anyone I’ve ever seen. We’re using him as a trainer.”
Holcomb took Joiner to the International Marina and Boatyard Conference. Other marina employees have attended the annual International BoatBuilders Exhibition and Conference in Tampa, Fla.
Other marinas send personnel to Legendary Marina to observe the operation and how they handle the volume. Some locals sit outside the fence line every day and just watch the forklifts doing their thing. “From Jacksonville to Texas,” Holcomb says, “we’ve trained just about every marina.”
Dock hands at Legendary Marina receive their own training, including safety, how to deal with customers and how to interact with the dispatch center. Because of the size of the marina, dock hands are first trained to operate a golf cart, then move up to a John Deere Gator utility vehicle. From there, those chosen for forklift operation start on 5,000- to 8,000-pound forklifts. The wall employees who do washdowns and engine flushing get their own instruction, as well.
If a young employee demonstrates more of a mechanical aptitude, Legendary Marina has an apprenticeship program for technicians. Holcomb sets up an appointment with the service manager, and if the candidate appears to be a good fit, he’ll get his shot by starting in the rigging department.
There are 35 technicians and service writers at Legendary Marina, and they are separated into disciplines. “If you have an outboard, your boat is going to an outboard tech,” Holcomb says. “If you have a performance boat, you’re going to a go-fast tech.”
The company sends techs to schools for the various engine manufacturers to keep skills current. “You send a technician to Yamaha, Mercury, Yanmar, and they will say, ‘These people put all this into me, and they’re not going to stop. They really care about me,’ ” Holcomb says.
Employees who stand out are sent to Association of Marina Industries programs in Certified Marina Management or Intermediate Marina Management. “They’re wanting to live this industry, and we’re making that investment,” Holcomb says.
Every morning, the marina holds “Toolbox Talk” at 7 a.m. The marina shuts down for 15 minutes, and employees discuss whatever is on their minds. It’s an approach started by Steve Kerr, head coach of three NBA champion seasons with the Golden State Warriors. He starts practice every day with open conversations about whatever is on the players’ minds.
Once a week at Legendary, safety meetings are held, and on the day he talked to Soundings Trade Only, Holcomb sat in on one. He asked employees to write down what they liked about working at the marina. Among the comments were the safety program, the family atmosphere and the frequent evaluations. “I want to know when I’m doing bad,” one employee wrote.
The marina offers such benefits as health insurance, including dental and vision, plus a retirement plan. It has two dual-console boats for employees who are in good standing to use on days off. The workers must be 18 years old and have to pay for fuel.
Legendary holds numerous events throughout the year for morale-boosting and team-building, including an on-property kickball league and renting out the local go-kart track for a day. “We work really hard at taking the robotic feel out of it,” Holcomb says.
The marina also sponsors local events, from golf tournaments to the Emerald Coast Autism Center’s poker run.
Looking at how the training and retention programs are working after five years, Holcomb says they’ve had a positive impact on the marina’s employees, management and customers. “The programs are as good as I could have hoped for,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.