The Wind at Their Backs

Collaboration has made smooth sailing for Rick and Kim Surprenant's business

by Rosalyn Graham

Nine years ago, Kim and Richard Surprenant bought a Grand Isle landmark, Tudhope Sailing Center, from retiring Doug Tudhope, whom we had featured in our April 1985 issue. Their desire to honor island tradition kept them from renaming the business until this year, when they changed the name to Ladd's Landing Ltd., a salute to the Ladd family who ran a ferry before there was a bridge.

There's a surprise waiting for boat owners this spring when they come to check out their beloved boats that have hibernated all winter at Tudhope Sailing Center. The familiar sight as they round the curve on U.S. 2 just before the bridge between North and South Hero islands has changed: The Tudhope Sailing Center sign is gone, replaced by one that says Ladd's Landing.

Once inside, though, they'll find the familiar, smiling faces of Rick and Kim Surprenant. The new name is a logical step in a process that began in the spring of 1996 when Rick and Kim concluded almost a year of conversation and negotiations with Doug Tudhope, who had operated the marina for years. Wanting to retire and spend his winters in Florida, Tudhope realized that a marina, although a seasonal business, couldn't grow with an absentee landlord.

For the Surprenants, the idea of owning a marina made sense. "It was a huge step for us," Kim recalls, "but we had kept a boat here, we enjoyed sailing, and the idea of a seasonal business was attractive." It was exciting, she adds, to think of combining entrepreneurship with the activity that was so important in their lives.

20-Year
Update on
Doug Tudhope

The Surprenants tell us that Doug Tudhope plays a lot of golf these days. He divides his time between his homes in Florida and North Hero.

The Tudhopes' North Hero place is right next door to Shore Acres, where Tudhope retains a majority ownership interest.

Rick's love of boats was launched when he was 14 years old. "My father had won a Sea Snark in some promotional thing related to his business," says the Burlington native. The boat, a Styrofoam vessel he describes as "a big cooler chest," languished in its box until Rick nagged someone to take him and the little boat to the Burlington waterfront. "That's how I learned to sail," he says, "No instruction at all. Just set adrift."

He shared his love of sailing with Kim Bowie, a native of Schuyler, N.Y., whom he met while they were students at Rochester Institute of Technology, where she majored in social work and he studied biomedical photography. As newlyweds they spent two years in Galveston, Texas, where Rick had a position with the University of Texas Medical Branch, but as Kim says, "Nothing could keep him away from Vermont."

Not long after they moved back to Burlington, they had a sailboat. "I said, 'I don't know anything about sailing, but I'll give it a try,'" Kim recalls.

They began a habit of combining family life and working life with boating. They sailed when the children Matthew, Katherine and Erin were small, then bought a power boat that was more adaptable to the needs and recreational preferences of a young family. "It was not like sailing, but it was easier, with the kids' being little," Kim says. By then they had moved to Grand Isle. They kept their boat at Tudhope's Sailing Center; after a few years they were back in a sailboat.

It was not a direct course from the Sea Snark to Ladd's Landing. Rick put his photography expertise into Imagesmith, a photo lab business, and Kim worked for the Vermont Social and Rehabilitative Services in public child welfare.

In 1986, when their youngest child was born, Rick decided to trade the 70- or 80-hour weeks of a business owner for a spell as a stay-at-home dad, so he sold Imagesmith and stayed home with Erin.

As she grew, he took on work as a landscaper, then as a cabinet maker, designing and building entertainment centers and renovating kitchens for customers in the islands.

Time on the lake was an important part of their lives a ritual of packing up the children and a picnic and heading out on the boat on a Saturday afternoon, sailing into the evening or even staying out overnight. As their children got older, their 33-foot Tartan T Ten was big enough that everyone could bring a friend along, a lure that kept the children involved at an age when enticing children into family activities is a challenge.

Buying the marina seemed a logical step, though Kim remembers worrying that taking something one enjoys and turning it into a livelihood would change it. "It changed it big!" she exclaims with a laugh, then adds that during the eight seasons since they signed the lease-purchase agreement with Doug Tudhope, the goals they set for themselves have been reached.

The business, bought during a slump in the marina industry, has met their projections for growth, with 110 boats at the expanded network of slips, and winter storage for 150 boats. They have purchased equipment to streamline the operation, using an immersible hydraulic trailer pulled by a powerful tractor to launch and haul out the bigger boats, while still using the forklift to handle those that weigh up to 8,000 pounds. They built a shop for boat repair and maintenance work, and have been tackling full-blown restoration work on wooden boats.

The marina handles 110 boats at its network of slips, and winter storage for 150 boats. Kim Surprenant calls Brian Allen (pictured) "our go-to guy" for service.

The Surprenants share the space with John Hammond, an expert in the field of fiberglass repair, fostering one of the symbiotic business relationships they're proud of. "We get work from him and he gets work from us," says Rick.

A similar relationship provides a mutually beneficial solution to a problem that plagues seasonal businesses, the challenge of providing year-round employment. "We couldn't afford to hire a mechanic year-round," Rick says. "We hired Northland Boat Shop in North Hero to do all our mechanical work, and as we've grown, they've grown. It gives us the advantage of the depth of their expertise and we help them with off-loading boats."

Paul Clarke, who has owned Northland for 28 years with his wife, Anne, says, "Rick and Kim have a great philosophy of business. They are honest and trustworthy and work hard to promote boating in northern Lake Champlain. The relationship between the two island businesses benefits both our shops; the customer gets the best of the deal."

For the Surprenants, the marina has been a family affair. "When we bought the business, our son was 14," Rick says, "and he worked right alongside me." The girls joined the team as they got old enough. "It's work, but it's marina work," Kim says. "During the summer, it's not a bad way to work, with lots of other young people, lots of boats, jumping in for a swim."

Matthew, now 22, has gone off to serve in the Coast Guard, and Kate, 19, is a first-year student at the University of Vermont and thinking about a career in medicine. This will be the first summer she has not worked at the marina, and 16-year-old Erin, a junior at South Burlington High School, is looking forward to being top gun.

Also on the family team will be a nephew from New Hampshire and a nephew from Colchester. Of great help the last few summers have been Spencer and Mary Bowie, Kim's parents, who are retired and spend their winters in Florida and their summers helping at the marina; Kim's mother loves to cook, and her father helps with the marina store and groundskeeping.

Kim's participation began with managing the store, expanded to handling the bookkeeping, and, since 2000, when she retired from her full-time work for the state, she has taken on such diverse tasks as designing and organizing the slips. Customer service is her forte the gregarious Kim loves the days when she can spend her time socializing with the boat owners.

For Rick, one concern is making sure that people have fun with their boats. Along with his quiet mastery of the maintenance, hauling, launching, restoration and repair, he is always ready to give boating tips, and admits that sailing is a skill that one learns in a few hours and spends a lifetime perfecting.

Rick and Kim share a sense of satisfaction based on doing work they love in a beautiful place; they also remember why they liked to come to the marina and are committed to ensuring that the sailing experience should be fun for their customers. "This is people's vacation time," Kim says. "They want it to be fabulous; they want to remember it as fun."

The Surprenants built a shop for boat repair and maintenance work and have tackled full-blown restoration on wooden boats, including their recently purchased 1964 22-foot Pearson Ensign. Rick Surprenant has removed a winch and works with a chisel to remove problem areas in the fiberglass.

Alan and Maureen Pidgeon have kept their boat at the marina for almost 10 years. A measure of the sense of community that exists at Ladd's Landing is that many of the boat owners, as well as Rick and Kim, get together for a marina party at the Pidgeons' home at Christmas every year. "It's a good way to keep in touch with friends we spend so much time with in the summer," Maureen says.

It was the Surprenants' sensitivity to island tradition that led them to name their business Ladd's Landing, but also kept them from changing the marina's name right after they bought it. "Our business name, since we first set up a corporation to buy the marina, is Ladd's Landing Ltd.," Kim explains. "This point of land is Ladd's Point, and the Ladd family ran a ferry from here before there was a bridge. It's hard to change a name as well recognized as Tudhope, and we struggled with the decision; but what it came down to is, this is our business and we're really proud of it, so it's time to put our stamp on it."

Originally published in April 2005 Business People-Vermont