For as long as Jeffery Huntley Jr. can remember, the family business, T-H Marine, was part of his life. He played in the company’s offices as a child, and during the summers of his high-school years, he sweated in the warehouse.
So when he headed off to Auburn University, many people assumed that he would get a business degree and come back to join his father, Jeff, the CEO and president, along with his grandfather, Bill, who founded T-H Marine. “I could not wait to get the hell out,” Jeffery says. “I was so sick of working in production and the warehouses every summer.”
He did come back, though — in a different capacity. “No one inside our office knew what Facebook or Instagram was,” he says, “so they brought me in to launch our social media campaign.”
Now 31, he joined the team as general manager in 2010 and today is vice president of operations. His father is 52, and his grandfather, at 86, recently retired to a standing ovation at the company’s annual sales meeting, as a member of the Bass Fishing Hall of Fame.
T-H Marine is one of many examples of businesses in the marine industry that span multiple generations of families. Chaparral Boats, Mercury Marine, SeaSucker — all have seen fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, sisters and brothers come into the fold, bringing new skill sets along with a balance of continuity and new ideas. And while each family has endured challenges, they’ve all taken different paths to success.
From Trim Handle to ‘Hunting’
Bill Huntley and two friends founded T-H Marine in 1975. They came up with a trim handle (the T-H in the company name) that fit over the throttle control. “The trim control switches were awkward and mounted on the dash,” Bill says. “Driving fast boats like our bass boats, you needed to get to the trim quickly on the throttle.”
The company failed to patent the switch but continued to develop products, including the Hot Foot throttle, which Bill calls his favorite product to this day. In 1994, Teleflex Marine made an unsolicited offer to purchase T-H Marine. Bill’s son Jeff, with degrees from Auburn and the Harvard School of Business, was working for Bain and Co.’s Dallas office, doing corporate consulting. “Since Dad paid for me to go to college to learn how to do evaluations, he thought that I should look at the deal to see if it was a good one,” Jeff says.
The son did one better, putting together a leveraged buyout of the father’s partners and purchasing the company. Since 1994, he has worked side-by-side with his father.
Jeff has been aggressive, acquiring companies to help make T-H Marine more self-sufficient. In 1999, the company bought Innovative Plastics so T-H Marine could control injection molding for its live wells. In 2008, T-H acquired CMC Marine to increase machining capabilities.
In 2012, Jeff estimated that 75 percent of T-H Marine’s business was as an OEM supplier. He felt that increasing its aftermarket presence would give the company a better chance to survive another downturn. Acquisitions from 2009 to 2018 included Bluewater LED, Trail Perfect, Tonka Customs, Hydrowave, Loc-R-Bar and the Oxygenator, all aftermarket suppliers. “I really enjoy the acquisition part. It’s almost like hunting,” Jeff says. “We still grow organically, but when you can layer on these acquisitions, it accelerates our growth even more.”
T-H Marine has close to $60 million in annual sales and employs about 175 people. Looking forward, Jeff’s son Jeffery says the company has to focus on conservation and products that help protect fish for the next generation, which includes his 6-year-old son, Jeffery III, and his daughter, Lily. “I look forward to getting them into fishing to enjoy it as much as their great-granddad and granddad,” Jeffery says.
The Girl with a Plan
Taylor Scism checked out other career paths during her time at the University of Mississippi but ultimately decided that she wanted to be part of the team at Marine Technology Inc., the company her father, Randy Scism, founded. “It wasn’t my number one direct path. I explored some other options, as well. But going into college, it was something I wanted to be an option,” the 22-year-old says. “I just love boating, and I just kept coming back to MTI and was able to ride in and drive the boats.”
At Ole Miss, Taylor was one of 50 students selected to participate in a focused engineering program at the Haley Barbour Center for Manufacturing Excellence. Toyota sponsors the program, which includes a daylong session in which students are told to create a car company.
“I was at a table, and there were 13 boys, me and one other girl, and everyone just kind of sat there staring at each other,” Taylor says. “I said, ‘Why don’t we do a high-end luxury car?’ It was when Tesla was just starting. I stuck to what I knew about high-end boats and made the car.”
She wound up being one of 10 students offered a full scholarship, and she earned her degree last spring. “I majored in marketing and corporate relations, and minored in manufacturing engineering to get that holistic perspective,” she says.
Throughout college, Taylor also gained experience working at MTI headquarters in Wentzville, Mo., during summers. After her freshman year, she put together a build book for production of the company’s 42-foot center console. “We didn’t have a production manual on how to build the boat,” she says, so she and another intern composed a 100-page guide.
Additionally, she took over the MTI Instagram account and increased it from 3,000 to 13,900 followers in four months. She also helped launch the company’s apparel website in December.
Even with her experience, Taylor didn’t feel like she was ready to take on marketing MTI by herself, so she went to The Creative Circus in Atlanta, a six-week workshop for the creative side of marketing. “I understood the definitions and what they meant, but I didn’t know how to personally lay out an ad,” she says. “This was Photoshop, InDesign, so I could accumulate that experience.”
Once she proved herself in the company, Taylor persuaded her dad to let her get some more time at the helm of MTI boats, namely the twin-outboard 34-foot catamaran that can run in excess of 100 mph. “That’s my go-to boat, so I’ve been using that to get more seat time and gain experience,” Taylor says.
She drove, and her father throttled a 34-footer with twin Mercury Racing Verado 400Rs during the company’s fun run from Miami to Marathon, Fla. At last summer’s Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, she and her father made 10 passes in the same boat on the course, which is three-quarters of a mile long. Their best speed was 116 mph.
The Adams Family
Mary Adams is the matriarch of a family that has been a fixture at Chaparral Boats in Nashville, Ga. The 69-year-old mother and grandmother worked in the upholstery department and is now in maintenance, doing data entry and more. Her sons Chris and Scott both work at the company, as does Chris’ daughter, Kayla. Between cousins, relatives and in-laws, there are 13 members of the Adams family at Chaparral.
“We’re a close-knit family,” says Mary, whose husband, Richard, also worked at Chaparral before his death. “There’s not a day goes by that my kids don’t call me. Chris lives three miles from me. Scott lives a quarter mile from me.”
At the Chaparral facility, Chris, 49, and Scott, 45, co-manage Plant 5, which builds 13 models, including Vortex jetboats, Chaparral’s H2O series and entry-level Robalo boats. The men used to visit their dad at the factory, and they went to work with him when he went in on Saturdays.
“I’ve always had a passion for boats,” Chris says. “It allows me to be a lot more creative than anywhere else. A lot of times I walk around, and I can’t believe that I get to work on these things.”
The population of Nashville is less than 5,000. The town is in Berrien County, which had approximately 19,000 residents in 2017. Chaparral employs just over 1,000 people and provides medical, dental and vision insurance, and offers a 401(k) retirement plan with a company match. Chaparral also offers a $10,000 scholarship program for children of employees and has awarded more than $600,000 in scholarships over the years, according to Ann Baldree, a senior vice president.
One of the things that Chris says he likes about Chaparral is the accessibility of the company’s leaders, including not just Baldree but also Buck Pegg, the founder and executive vice president, and his son Bill Pegg, a senior vice president. “Buck is very much here every day,” Chris says. “We have someone we can go talk to. He’s seen it and done it.”
The company makes a point to promote a familial atmosphere. Four times a year, Chaparral holds cookouts and other events, and employees celebrate holidays together. Additionally, on the factory property, there are grills and smokers that the community can use, and there are boats that employees can use on weekends.
During summers, the company adds 15 to 20 employees’ sons and daughters to the workforce. “This is a 54-year-old company,” says Chris’ daughter, Kayla Criswell, who worked at Chaparral while she attended college and decided to stay when she finished. “There’s stability. You don’t have to worry about finding another job.” She met her husband at the company.
Mary Adams says the atmosphere at Chaparral makes it easy to get up and go to work every day. “My kids are here. I get to see them,” she says. “I like the people. It’s like your second family. I have no desire to retire. As long as Chaparral will have me, I’ll be here.”
Taking Care of Business
At Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac, Wis., multiple generations of one family have been working in the business offices for decades. Maureen Sheppard, 66, and her sisters Vicki Nelson, 61, and Kathy Reitz, 65, are the third generation, and Teri McDermott, 46, is the fourth generation of a family that dates to the first days of the company some 80 years ago.
Maurice L. Nelson was the first generation. He did maintenance for founder Carl Kiekhaefer at the company’s original facility in Wisconsin. Maurice’s wife, Alice, worked for the company as well, and in the early years, employees learned to grow a thick skin. “People would get fired and then be expected to show up the next day at work,” Maureen says. She went back through the family history and found that six of Maurice’s and Alice’s eight children worked at Mercury at various times, totaling 366 years of employment.
Maurice D. Nelson was the second generation to have a career at Mercury. His daughters are Vicki, Kathy and Maureen, who retired in 2012 after 40 years with the company. Maureen started when she was in high school as part of a cooperative secretarial pool. After graduating, she moved into a secretarial position, then to the credit department in 1983.
Vicki has been with Mercury for 33 years, most of them in credit and sales. “I worked here a year and a half shortly after high school, and then I did other things before I wound up coming back 33 years ago,” she says. “Our grandfather worked here, our dad worked here, so I just kind of followed suit.”
Fourth generation Teri McDermott started at age 24 as seasonal help in the parts department, answering calls from dealers. “After summer was over, I was hired permanently, and I’ve been here ever since,” she says.
On the plus side, working with family means Teri always has someone she trusts to confide in about work issues. Vicki, Kathy and Maureen all worked in the same department; Teri and Vicki even sat next to each other.
Mercury employs approximately 3,000 people in Fond du Lac, making it the largest employer in the area. And there have been difficult times, including when Kathy was laid off. “It was tough,” Maureen says. “She had 35 years with the company. That hit us hard because we thought, geez, here you are a loyal employee for that long and they can just write you off.” Kathy was hired back.
Through the years, the family has had the opportunity to work for many of the presidents at Mercury. Vicki liked Dick Jordan; Maureen respected Jack Reichert, though she admits to being somewhat scared of him. “He evoked a little bit of fear in you,” she says. “You didn’t want to screw up in front of him.”
Kathy’s claim to fame is that she trained current Mercury president Chris Drees when he first started with the company. “I’m excited to see what Chris can do,” Teri says. “He started a year or two after I started, and we worked in the same department alongside each other for a while.”
Chuck Casagrande is an inventor. When his father-in-law needed a removable seat to use while fishing, Chuck got some industrial-strength suction cups and attached a chair to them, creating a removable, stowable boat chair.
Chuck started a company called SeaChair. He never sold a single unit, but he knew there was potential with accessories that could be mounted with heavy-duty suction cups. “It’s a game changer in that it actually works,” says Chuck, who is 54. “You don’t take it off and lick it. You pump it back up to full power.”
The company name was changed to SeaSucker, and Chuck started inventing accessories that attached to boat surfaces. He called his brother Gregg, an attorney in Chicago at the time, and persuaded him to come to Florida and help. Gregg, who is 52, joined in 2007. “At the end of three months, I said, ‘I think I’m going to need another three months,’ ” he recalls. “After another three months, I said, ‘I think this is going to be a permanent thing for me.’ ”
With his wife, Joyce, running the company’s business office and Gregg wearing multiple hats, Chuck still needed help with day-to-day operations. Originally there was no plan to make his 26-year-old daughter, Genevieve, president, but after she spent a year learning the inner workings of the company, Chuck says, “You can forget that she’s my daughter. She’s the only one who could step in and do that role in a complete way.”
Genevieve earned a degree in linguistics with a business minor from the University of Florida. She put her education to use at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C., where she led teams that studied Russia’s military involvement in the Middle East.
“My ability to make this team function in an efficient, productive way, in a way where everyone feels valued every day, is something that I just love,” she says. Her background in social media has also helped to drive online marketing for SeaSucker, which sells products direct to consumers from its website.
Last year, the company did $4 million in sales, and this year, Genevieve expects that figure to double. In 2018, SeaSucker became ISO 9001 certified in quality management, and the company is in the process of becoming 14001 certified in environmental management.
“Gen makes it easy for me to work on products,” Chuck says. “We have 50 products in R&D, and it’s really a battle to decide which one to bring to market.”
If there is a downside to working with family, Chuck says that it’s sometimes he just wants to talk about something other than work. “I remember just trying to sneak off to my bedroom to go to sleep, and I look behind me and see my wife with the laptop open following me. And I’m like, ‘Stop, I’m going to bed,’ ” he says.
But like most people who get to work with their family in a job they enjoy, Chuck knows he has things pretty good. “I can’t ask for a better job,” he says. “I create products for my hobby. I get to go fishing and tell my wife, ‘I’m going offshore for R&D.’ ”
That’s something you can only get away with when you’re working with your family.
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.