Ship Mates

by Liz Schick

With roots deep in the Champlain Islands, Paul and Anne Clark stay connected to their community

Twenty-eight years ago, Paul and Anne Clark bought his father’s old barn and launched Northland Boat Shop in North Hero.  The original barn now houses the parts department in the back of today’s expanded building, which is also home to offices, equipment, engines, trailers, inside space to winter 150 boats and room for six year-round employees. 

Paul Clark is a sixth-generation North Heroite. For 28 years, he and his wife, Anne, have been growing the Northland Boat Shop, a business, Clark says, that “has a soul.” 

How much can a boat shop give back to its community and still remain not only viable but profitable and growing? That has been the Clarks’ mission since they opened for business in Paul’s father’s 1860 homestead barn. 

The couple was able to buy the barn and some of the land with the help of Paul’s parents, Charles and Doris, who still live in the house where Charles was born, a blue house fronting U.S. 2, just past the North Hero House. Now in their mid 80s, the senior Clarks run a small bed and breakfast and sell antiques, sporting goods, and hunting and fishing licenses.  

The Clarks teach during the winter and depend on “the boys” to run the shop. Chris Julow (left) is a certified inboard technician and fiberglass expert. Michael Murdock is a stern-drive and inboard mechanic, who’s also the South Hero fire chief. 

Even before opening the shop, Paul and Anne built an addition to the barn so there would be enough space to bring boats inside for repairs. For the first four or five years the business was run by the two of them, operating entirely out of the expanded barn. “We didn’t need a lot of space to do good work. We gave good service and slowly built our clientele,” Paul says.

They’ve lost count of how many additions they’ve made to the barn, but it’s still there, housing the parts department in the back of a big building that holds five or six brand new Boston Whaler fishing boats, Monterey sport boats and Parti-Kraft  pontoon crafts, as well as engines, trailers, sundry boating equipment, and offices for themselves and six year-round employees.  

Today, Northland Boat Shop has inside space to over-winter 150 boats and room for 150 more outside. They also shrink-wrap another 100 or so that are trailered off-island by their out-of-state owners. More than 40 new boats are sold each year and the Clarks have no idea of how many hundreds more come through the yard for maintenance and repair. 

Salesman Gary Gans has his hands full in May, the company’s busiest month, which accounts for over half the annual sales.

While winter is the slow season—everybody takes off in January and February—in March, as people begin thinking about boating, sales begin to pick up. May is the busiest month, accounting for over half of annual sales. 

Between May 1 and June 15, the Northland Boat Shop launches about 200 boats, sells 15 to 30 new boats, and services uncounted numbers for its client base of 600 regular customers. 

“After July 4,” says Paul,” business evens out, and stays busy, but not crazy, until the end of the summer.”

It’s no surprise that half their business is generated from dual residents: people who own houses and camps in the Islands but who live all over the country. “Some of our boats are in the water for less than a week. Their owners stay at the North Hero House or Shore Acres,” Paul says. 

“They call us a week before they come, and we have their boats in the water at the dock, and pick them up again when they leave. We cater to servicing those customers, just as we extend ourselves to service every customer.

Extending themselves for their customers, employees and community is what the Clarks do all the time.

For example, it’s not just because Michael Murdock, Northland’s certified stern-drive and inboard mechanic, is the North Hero fire chief, that Paul supplies the fire and rescue departments’ boats with wintering and servicing. 

It’s because, Paul says, “we feel that our business has a soul and we have an obligation to operate within the community, and to give back as much as we can.”

In addition to fire and rescue, the Clarks are involved with the Pelots Bay Restoration Association, which is dedicated to removing the choking milfoil weeds from the bay. As Larry Pratt, a member of the Pelots Bay Restoration Association says, “I’ve known the Clarks for 18 years, and Paul has been more than generous, helping us with maintenance of the association’s equipment. He also furnished us with a used boat lift and he regularly maintains our boats when we take them out in the fall and when we put them back in the spring. 

Paul and Anne now live only three or four houses down the bay from us, and they are good neighbors in every sense of the word.”

The Clarks pride themselves on their relationship with their employees and customers as well as with their community. “Our guys take care of us and we take care of them. We make sure they are successful and they do the same for us,” Paul says.  “Keep in mind that we are absentee managers from September through May.” 

Between May 1 and June 15, the shop launches about 200 boats, sells 15 to 30 new ones and services uncounted numbers for its client base of 600 regular customers. Doug Kenyon (left) prepares new boats for clients. Brad Chaffee, service coordinator, doubles as a mechanic.

That’s because both Anne and Paul are full-time teachers. Paul is business education coordinator at the Center for Technology in Essex, where he works with area businesses to bring training inside and outside the classroom for the school’s 350 students. 

Anne was a home economics teacher in South Burlington but now is a special education instructional assistant in Grand Isle. 

They started the business as a way to “expand our summers,” says Paul, who had occasionally worked for other marinas. “Everybody’s an entrepreneur in Vermont It’s a kind of gene people have here,” he quips.

Without the owners present, “the boys” run a well-oiled shop, knowing just what they need to do and when to do it. As Clark explains, “We’ve developed systems over the years so that everybody knows what they have to do. Our staff is capable and willing to run at 200 percent when necessary.”

One of the “boys,” Fire Chief Murdock, started working in the shop as a kid, left, and returned six years ago. Chris Julow is the inboard technician and fiberglass expert. Brad Chaffee, service coordinator, doubles as a mechanic. Ron Tier is service writer and parts manager, and Doug Kenyon prepares the new boats that Gary Gans sells. 

Rick and Kim Surprenant, the owners of Ladd’s Landing Marina, made the decision to outsource the marine service to Northland Boat Shop nine years ago, the year after they bought their business. 

“They are great,” Rick says. “They have the depth of experience of several different mechanics and the inventory which we could never afford. 

“For our customers, it’s a win-win situation. Customers get service by mechanics who are better trained than any marina of our size could hope to employ. If a customer has a problem, they typically let us know over the weekend, and by the following weekend their boat is fixed. 

“Everybody at Northland Boat Shop is a credit to the marine industry. They are honest, easy to work with and do what they say they are going to do when they say they are going to do it. What more could you want?” 

Paul has been involved with boats since he was 11 years old. During high school and college, he worked for local marinas, learning a lot and receiving good business training, as well, he says. 

“We went into business because every teacher works in the summer to make ends meet. Plus, working at something different recharges your batteries. Besides,” he adds, “I was tired of working for other people. This way we would have control over what we did.”

The Clarks divide the labors of running their business. Anne keeps the books and does the paperwork, and Paul handles the day-to-day operations. Together, they travel to shows and make purchase decisions. Although their son, Ted, and daughter, Beth, aren’t active in the business, they couldn’t help but be involved while they were growing up and might yet come back into the business, say the Clarks. 

What Anne and Paul like best about their business is the variety. “We like the challenge,” Paul says. Anne compares the business to a child. “We brought it up. It’s changed over the years, but it’s part of us, just like our kids. Every year is different. Just because you have a good year one year, doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same next year. All you know is that it’s going to be different.” 

Teaching in the winter and running the business in the summer doesn’t leave much time for relaxation. “We don’t get to boat a lot,” Anne confesses. They sheepishly admit that they obtained their first boat—a previously owned Boston Whaler— only two years ago. 

 “Sometimes, after a day in the boat shop, I’m really not interested in going boating,” admits Paul. Then he laughs. “I guess it’s not good for business to say that.” •