Pier Pressure

This marina is moving far beyond staying afloat

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

point_bay_leadA little over four years ago, Todd Smith was approached by a group of local investors about managing Point Bay Marina, which they were about to buy from longtime owner Al Martin. Smith; Steve Gutowski, the yard manager; and Ray Shepard, dock master, manage the marina as a team.

A little over two years ago, the national economy had tanked and the owners of Point Bay Marina in Charlotte, along with the team that runs it, were worried.

Although Point Bay had a healthy waiting list for slips and moorings, recreational boating requires discretionary income, and nobody really knew what toll the down economy would take. Fortunately, the marina did fill up and sell out by May 1, if not quite as early as it normally does, says Todd Smith, the marina’s general manager. Smith has been with the operation since 2007, a few months before a group of investors bought it from longtime owner Al Martin.

The investors — longtime Vermonters all — do not participate in the day-to-day operation of the business, and everything the marina makes is put right back into improvements.

“It’s not about taking money out, but about putting money in,” says David Coates, the retired managing partner of KPMG in Burlington, who bought the marina with Bruce Lisman, retired chairman of the global equities division of J.P. Morgan Chase, and John Evans, former dean of the University of Vermont College of Medicine.

“That’s the beauty of a group like ours,” Coates continues. “We’re not there on a day-to-day basis trying to manage something that’s remote. We have a great deal of confidence in Todd and the management team.”

Coates, who serves as the owners’ managing member, meets once a month or so with the management team.

“We have a planning meeting once a year,” says Coates. “John Evans and I do it with the managers. We lay out everybody’s vision for the next year and beyond and update it.” There’s also an evaluation retreat in July. Beyond that, the owners are hands-off.

When Smith was approached about the opportunity to manage Point Bay, the job he had had for close to 20 years — since graduating from Champlain College with his degree in business management — was about to go south. The parent company, MTW Performance Leasing, operated Priceless Car Rental and Rent-A-Wreck on Williston Road in South Burlington. Smith was the manager.

The owners, Vermont auto racing notable Robbie Crouch and CPA Glen Wright had decided to sell the business and pursue other interests.

“About the same time they decided to close the business, John Evans and Bruce Lisman approached me and asked if I would like to be part of a business venture they were thinking of getting into,” says Smith. He jumped at the chance.

“We all had some kind of business experience, but nobody had any marina experience. That’s when David Coates was brought into the picture.”

Coates has spent his life around marinas, and proudly mentions his grandfather, who started Coates Island, the oldest marina on Lake Champlain. He also has an interest in The Marina at Marble Island with partners Glen Wright and Peter Meyer, the owner of Lost Cove Yachting.

“I think Al had had several offers over the years, and never had the inclination to sell,” says Coates. “Bruce had made a contact with Al and said to me, ‘I don’t know anything about marinas and you do; want to join me?’ I said, ‘Of course.’”

Lisman, Evans, and Coates persevered, letting Martin get to know them. “We really got along well,” says Coates, “and he knew that at the end of the day, we were going to run a good marina. These fellows’ concern is you don’t let the place fall apart, you take good care of the customers. That was our record. And Al said, ‘I think it’s time.’”

The negotiation process for the purchase took almost a year, says Smith, but he was keeping busy. Martin hired him in July 2007, seven months before the deal was closed. “That certainly didn’t hurt our chance,” says Coates.

Smith was no neophyte when it came to the lake. Growing up in Essex Junction and later, in Colchester, he sailed with his family at Malletts Bay Yacht Club and owned boats off and on over the years, but he had no experience in the marina business. “I worked with Al for almost eight months, and that was the way of getting me in there to learn the business; otherwise I kind of would have been stuck out there,” he says.

Working for Martin also gave Smith a chance to get acquainted with the men who would become part of his management team once the transfer was completed. Steve Gutowski, the yard manager, has been with the marina 23 years, and Ray Shepard, the dock master, 22 years. George Fox, who runs the service department, is a 35-year veteran; and Jim Burchfield, parts department manager, 8 years.

“Al and his wife, Nancy, they deserve a lot of the credit for what Point Bay is now,” Smith says. “Al bought the marina from a bank in about 1970. It was just a little 10- to 15-boat marina then; now we’re just short of a 500-boat marina, and he is largely responsible for that growth.”

Point Bay is a full-service marina on 25 acres with breathtaking views. The first big changes, says Smith, “were to spruce the place up. We updated overall signage and the logo; installed a webcam. They’d always had a small store where you could get a soda; we have expanded that. We’re a dealer for West Marine, and in our store now, you can find anything you need for boating, water, or the marina.”

A new travel lift was bought last year to join the existing one for hauling and launching boats. “Our marina is open to the public,” says Smith. “Most marinas do not allow the public to come and launch their boats; we do.”

Boaters have noticed a difference in the lower parking lot, which used to flood occasionally in the springtime. “We elevated it about five feet,” says Smith, “and put in a large retaining wall.”

The marina’s staff of 15 full-time employees are kept busy all year. In winter — January through March — hours are cut back to four days a week, Monday through Thursday, then it’s back to a seven-day schedule. Until mid-December, the service department is busy with winterization and getting boats put away. January through March, projects are completed and the technicians attend courses to keep current.

Last year, new fuel and service docks were installed, and this year, work has begun on updating the dock system. “We’re doing that piece by piece,” Smith says, “because our dock system consists of over a mile and a half of docks.”

The dock work was overseen by Shepard, who “deserves a ton of the credit for the marina,” says Smith. “As the dock master, he is our customers’ favorite person here. When you mention Point Bay Marina in this area, he’s the guy.”

The marina has also replaced all 100 moorings in the mooring field — a three- to four-year process — with the Hazelett mooring system.

The Hazelett system, says Smith, is a much better and more secure system because it uses elastic instead of chain. “It’s also much more environmentally friendly, because you don’t have chain dragging on the lake bottom.”

The proudest achievement is having been designated a Clean Marina by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. “Along with Shelburne Shipyard, we are the first marina to be designated a Clean Marina in Vermont,” says Gutowski, who spearheaded the year-and-a-half application process.

To gain the designation, Point Bay opened its doors to the inspection process. “A lot of the things they look for, we have done for quite a few years,” says Gutowski. “We’re recycling our boat shrink-wrap going on our sixth year.”

Gutowski offers a litany of changes that have been made. All of the lighting in the marina has been redone with compact fluorescents, including new lights for the entryway road. This year, the old street lamp fixtures — sodium vapor — will be replaced by LED fixtures, with downcast lighting throughout.

Other changes include recycling waste oil from servicing boats and equipment, recovering energy by burning the waste oil with a clean-burning process, and switching from a solvent-based parts cleaner to an aqueous system using high pressure hot water.

“We do not have a restaurant as yet,” Smith says, “but we’re right now working on the design and engineering and going through the permitting process.”

Smith appears to be thriving in this environment. “I’ve been very lucky,” he says, “because a lot of what I did for those 15 to 20 years before coming here, as far as customer service, just translated right over. I’m just amazed at how much of it carried over in this job — how much of what I learned through Robbie and Glen carried over.”

A new tradition started by Smith is a customer appreciation party at the end of every season. “We rent out the Old Lantern and we’ll have an average of about 300 people come. We have an open bar, food, music; I get up and speak about the year, as do a couple of the other guys, then we give away door prizes and whatnot.”

He plans to keep improving and growing the marina, “and not only Point Bay Marina, but boating on the lake in general and the overall preservation of Lake Champlain. We’re involved with the Maritime Museum on projects, and just promoting the marina, its growth, and safe boating.

He worries about the possibility of rising prices for gasoline. “We benefit when people are using their boats, because they’re buying fuel, but they also require more service work. We’re pretty evenly split between sailboats and power boats, so gas prices are only going to affect half our customers, but I would hate to see $5 gas prices on the lake.”

Worries aside, Smith loves his work. “One of the great things about doing this job,” he says, “is it’s different every day. Over time, a lot of the customers become friends. In April, when these people start showing up to get their boats ready for the spring, it’s a nice time. You get reacquainted; it’s like seeing old friends.” •