A passion for fishing and a love of boats keep this business afloat

by Holly Hungerford

Brad Wright, owner of The BoatWorksIn 2001, when Brad Wright bought The BoatWorks in Colchester, he merged his former company, Marine One, into it, keeping The BoatWorks name. Operating the Prim Road business keeps him involved in the life he loves.

Sometimes, being laid off is the best way to start a new venture. Brad Wright, owner of The BoatWorks in Colchester, knows this first-hand. Laid off from his job at General Electric in the late 1980s, he combined his passion for boats with his need to make a living and a business was born.

A Vermont native who grew up in Burlington’s New North End, Wright had spent summers at the family camp on Malletts Bay. At Burlington High School, participating in what was called the co-op program, he learned auto body work at Bob’s Autobody in addition to his studies.

After graduation, he worked as a salesman at Shearer Chevrolet for a year, before being hired by GE. “I started there spraying paint,” says Wright, “and worked up to a tool and die maker.”

To feed his love of boats and fishing, he ran fishing charters on Lake Ontario on weekends. “I had always worked on boats on the side,” Wright recalls. “When we started downrigger fishing in the mid ’80s, it kind of took off here on Lake Champlain, and I started doing a lot of that.”

He had a 24-foot boat and decided to earn his captain’s license and do charters. “I used to leave the boat part of the year in Lake Ontario,” he says. “I was working nights at GE, and on Friday night, I’d hit the road and get to Lake Ontario just in time to start fishing. I just loved boats. No matter what it was, if it involved boats, I wanted to be involved.”

Marine One, Wright’s first boat business, launched after  his layoff, began at his house, where he worked alone for several years repairing boats, getting them ready for summer, and then winterizing them in the fall. “I can remember when I would pull a boat out, wash the bottom, winterize it, and shrink-wrap it, and it would take me all day,” he says.

He eventually outgrew his own yard and moved the business into the back of Victory Sports on Heineberg Drive, which was owned by Harold Sempers, a good friend. “I’d give him what I could for rent, and pay the heat and do the snowplowing in the winter,” he says. 

Joe Schraml III and John WelchInventory typically ranges from $400,000 to over a million dollars. Joe Schraml III (left) is a technician, and John Welch is a salesman.

The business continued to grow and, in 2001, with Marine One bursting at the seams, Wright bought The BoatWorks from Paul and Rose Compagnon, who were partners in the business that had been started by Jim and Carol Goldman in 1980. Wright moved Marine One to The BoatWorks’ location on Lakeshore Drive in Colchester and rolled the companies together, keeping The BoatWorks name.

Several years later, Wright was again running out of space, so he moved from the original 3,500-square-foot space to a 16,000- square-foot facility on Prim Road that also has 5,000 square feet of cold storage out back.

The focus of Wright’s business has always been sales and service of power boats. “Our big customer is the typical family boater,” he notes, adding that it is not unusual for one family to own three boats over time, trading up to bigger boats with each successive craft. “We call it ‘three-foot-itis,’” he says with a laugh. He water-tests every boat he sells before releasing it to its new owner.

Wright has customers who go back to his early days in business, and now he’s seeing the children  of his original customers coming in with their families to buy boats. Pat LeClaire of Shelburne has known Wright “too damn long,” he says, which translates to about 20 years.

LeClaire says he is a customer because Wright has “earned what he’s got, and I really admire that. He wasn’t handed anything. And Brad is accessible. I can go in and talk to him whenever I want, which you can’t always do with the owner of a business.”

Ed Kiniry, also of Shelburne, has been Wright’s customer since the Marine One days. “Brad is totally trustworthy,” says Kiniry. “When I found my dream boat — a Grady White — in Pittsburgh, Pa., I gave Brad a check and asked him to go down there, check the boat out, and if it was in good shape, to leave the money; and if not, to just bring the check back and I would pay him for his time.” Kiniry got his boat and Wright had a very happy customer.

Kamran PelkeyIn summer, The BoatWorks has up to a dozen employees; winter finds fewer. Kamran Pelkey, parts and service manager, is one of four employees kept on for this year’s off-season.

Wright’s customers aren’t the only ones who remain loyal to him. Dick Vance, the senior technician at The BoatWorks, has been with the company since its founding. He and the bookkeeper, Jean Mallabar, stayed on when the business changed hands.

During the boating season, from mid-April to Thanksgiving, Wright employs about a dozen people. In the off-time, he lays some of them off. 

“This year, with things being as slow as they are, we’ve laid off more guys than normal,” he says. This year, it was down to four people staffing the shop, parts, and showrooms. Besides Vance and Mallabar, technicians Chad Lambert and Nathan Germaine were kept on during the off-season. Wright says he hopes to hire everyone back again this spring.

Despite the difficult economic times, Wright has found that people are still buying boats; they’re just taking more time to shop and are more hesitant to “pull the trigger,” he says.

“If anybody is looking to buy, this is the time to buy. The deals are here now,” says Wright. Those shopping right now are more interested in the 22- to 23-foot and larger boats, he says, not the introductory 18-footers. 

He’s also noticed that people are putting more money into the boats they already own. “Where they might just trade it in other times, now they’re looking more into repairing it. That way they know what they’ve got for the money they’ve spent.”

The economy isn’t the only challenge in the boat business; the weather has a big impact on business, too, says Wright. “Last year started out to be one of the best years we’ve had ... then it started to rain. If we have good weather, we are booming; if we have rain, it shuts us right down.”

Wright carries an inventory that typically ranges from $400,000 to over a million dollars. He maintains many models of some boat lines in the showroom, from other lines, he has just a few. “You’ve got to try and predict what might be selling,” he says.

All the new models in stock are financed through floor-plan companies, which extend something akin to a line of credit for boats. Most of the boats in stock are new, but Wright also accepts trade-ins and brokerage boats. “We see the same boat and might sell it three or four times,” he says with a chuckle.

The BoatWorks does more than sell and service boats. Each spring, Wright and his crew get boats ready to go into the water, and each fall they winterize them, cocooning them in shrink-wrap and bringing about 100 of them back to The BoatWorks yard for storage. “We’re similar to a farmer, but we farm boats,” he quips: “We plant ’em in the spring and harvest ’em in the fall.”

Most of the winterizing is done at the BoatWorks shop, but occasionally boats can’t be transported, so the work is done at Marble Island and other local marinas where boats are stored on-site.

Happy with the way his business is running, Wright doesn’t have any plans to expand at this time. “I just want to continue making a living,” he confesses. “I do enjoy what I do.”

It should come as no surprise that time spent away from the shop involves boating. Wright, who is unmarried, owns a self-described “old reincarnated fishing boat,” the Offshore, which he’s had for over 15 years. Most Sunday mornings in the summer will find him out on the water, fishing for salmon.

He says that his two 11-year-old golden retrievers, who go everywhere with him including work, have mixed opinions about the boat. “Rusty loves it; Alex is not at all keen.”

When fishing weather is over for the year and the boating season is just a memory, Wright turns his energies to his other great interest, which involves water of a cooler temperature: snowmobiling. An active member of the Malletts Bay Lakers snowmobile club, he has been grooming trails since 1995. He shares the job with Dieter Mulac, a Burlington fireman, who reveals that Wright is the club’s grooming master. Between the two of them, they keep the 24 miles of trail the club is responsible for at the ready.•