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Jimmie Harrison Jr. wears an incessant smile as he runs the 10,000-square-foot FJ Propeller facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It’s the modern iteration of Frank & Jimmie’s Propeller, a business that his father and a partner started in 1947. “I love boats, boating, going to the islands where my customers are, and having my friends — who all have boats — stop by the shop to see me,” Harrison says.

Propeller tuning and repair require skilled hands. 

Propeller tuning and repair require skilled hands. 

The company got its start when Jimmie Harrison Sr. and Frank Baron returned from serving in the U.S. Air Force and Navy during World War II. They were hauling and painting in a boatyard on Fort Lauderdale’s New River, along with a fair bit of chasing alligators out of the place. Baron’s father loaned them the money to buy pitch blocks from Michigan Wheel to shape propellers and expand their business. When the yard was sold, they moved upriver to a building next to Rodi Chris-Craft, a local dealer that became a regular shafting and prop customer.

Frank & Jimmie’s grew as one of the only companies that specialized in props and shafts, including repairs. In 1961, Frank & Jimmie’s helped found the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. Together with another local shop, Ward’s Electric, they saw a need to unite marine businesses in South Florida. Around that same time, Jimmie Harrison Jr. was born. He worked his first boat show at age 6, and worked at the shop throughout his school years. He spent seven years in college, changing majors and schools, until 1983, when his father told him it was time to get to work.

Jimmie Harrison at an MIASF Member Mingle event. 

Jimmie Harrison at an MIASF Member Mingle event. 

Having studied business and marketing, Harrison joined trade associations to help improve the company even more. His father died in 1992, and he later bought out Baron. By 2000, he had built the 10,000-square-foot facility and employed 30 propeller technicians.

Harrison later bought Anchor Miami Propeller. Today, machining and fabrication take place in Miami, while the Fort Lauderdale location handles prop repairs. FJ Propeller employs 53 people at the two locations, including Harrison’s daughter Christi, who handles administration and the front of the shop. His other daughter, Martine, is raising the next generation, Harrison Hyams. His father, Tyler Hyams, is a lead FJ Propeller technician.

Harrison also expanded the business by establishing service centers in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Colombia, the Bahamas and Venezuela. And he partnered with a business consultant to create Neptune Boat Lifts, later adding Neptune Atlantic Boat Lifts, a location in Key Largo, Fla. In 2020, he sold the Neptune businesses to refocus on the propeller business, including moving into CNC machines — a move that he calls going from “the stone age to the space age.”

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As propellers went from bronze to Nibral (nickel, bronze and aluminum), and from aluminum to stainless steel, and as shafts went from bronze to Monel (a nickel copper alloy), and to stainless-steel alloys, the technologies and materials needed to make and repair them changed. Prop manufacturing used to be done with molds formed by patterns, one blade at a time, in a box of sand and epoxy. The casting wasted a lot of material in grinding and sanding, and required the props to be straightened, patterned and reconditioned to achieve acceptable quality and tolerance levels.

Today, the molds are CNC-machined, with castings in nearly finished condition as they come out of the molds. They are then CNC-machined again to the highest tolerances. Similarly, repairs used to be done on pitch blocks with hammers and torches. Today, computerized coordinate measuring machines such as MRI and Prop Scan are used.

Props with work orders await the grinding machine.

Props with work orders await the grinding machine.

Machining and fabrication are done at FJ Propeller’s Miami facility.

Machining and fabrication are done at FJ Propeller’s Miami facility.

Harrison calls propellers “very complex widgets” and says everything about them is a compromise. Materials pit strength and corrosion resistance against cost and repairability. The number of blades weigh efficiency against vibration, with more of the former equaling less of the latter. Thickness is a compromise because while thinner blades are more efficient, thicker is stronger.

For any boat, Harrison says, the most efficient propeller is different at varying speeds. At low speeds, the propeller would be larger diameter and lower pitch. As the boat increases its speed, the ideal size gets smaller in diameter with increased pitch. And while controllable pitch propellers do exist, Harrison says no one has figured out how to make a propeller with controllable and changeable diameter and blade area. The creation and repair of props remain very much an art.

“Our technicians must have both an appreciation for propeller form and function, and an artistic eye and hand to make a geometrically perfect and smooth prop,” he says. “These are very sophisticated pieces of metal.”

More recently, 3-D handheld scanning is revolutionizing the business. It can assess prop damage while the prop is still on a boat. Or scans can be used to create a prop from scratch in approximately two to four weeks — a vast improvement in timing for custom work.

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There are also recent advancements in propulsion equipment, such as pod drives, that affect the types of propellers needed, with loads of horsepower for outboards and inboards alike, and a strong aftermarket for Volvo Penta IPS and Mercury Zeus pod drives. FJ Propeller has adapted to serve those needs, too.

The company services about 4,000 props per year. Harrison says he especially enjoys hearing from customers who say his team saved their vacation. “Every prop here has a story — usually a story of something that went bad,” he says. “Knowing we can turn that situation around is gratifying.”

Celebrating 75 Years

FJ Propeller marked its 75th anniversary this past summer, jointly, with Member Mingle, a bimonthly event hosted by the Marine Industries Association of South Florida. Hundreds of people attended the event, which included a classic car and bike show, games for families, food, beverages and entertainment. Florida state Rep. Chip LaMarca (R-Lighthouse Point) announced a $300,000 grant to the Marine Research Hub, an MIASF initiative to foster collaboration that benefits the marine industry.

Harrison has been active in many such efforts, including serving as chairman of MIASF and serving on the boards of the Fort Lauderdale Marine Advisory Board, Winterfest Boat Parade, Broward County Marine Advisory Committee and Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce Council of Economic Advisors. FJ Propeller also supports Habitat for Humanity, the United Way and other charities.

In his spare time, Harrison can sometimes be found aboard his 39-foot Nor-Tech, including joining the spectator fleet at powerboat races. “I’m basically retired, but I work here 60 hours a week and then go to community meetings,” Harrison says. “I want this business to be here for my kids and their kids, the way it was for me.”

“Propellers are complex widgets,” says Jimmie Harrison. Here, a computer-controlled machine dials in a prop to 
precise specifications.  

“Propellers are complex widgets,” says Jimmie Harrison. Here, a computer-controlled machine dials in a prop to precise specifications.  

MIASF president and CEO Phil Purcell notes that legacy companies such as Frank & Jimmie’s are especially important in the marine industry, where young people often work after school in family businesses and learn from the bottom up. “They learn every aspect of the business, and boating is part of that experience,” Purcell says. “The kids maintain and then grow the businesses, and that is why Fort Lauderdale has such a strong marine presence.”

As for the future, Harrison says, “Computers and high-tech software may run companies, but you still need a person to run the computer. You can’t fix a prop from your hammock on a laptop.” 

This article was originally published in the December 2022 issue.

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