Skiff Republic: Today we’re talking with Chris Peterson, president and owner of Hell’s Bay Boatworks, which he bought and resurrected in 2006. Since that time, he and his wife Wendi have led a very talented team of craftsmen in building some of the finest technical skiffs made. Beyond his work in boat building, Chris is very active in conservation and charity work. Welcome, Chris,
Chris Peterson: Well, thank you for having me this morning.
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SR: I want to go back a little bit in history and find out how you got into the skiff business. I know you were involved in construction and real estate as well as a couple of other businesses. What was it that actually made you want to leave that world behind?
Peterson: Well, I had somewhat of a life-changing event. In 2002, I was diagnosed with a terminal case of lymphoma. I didn’t think that I would be around very long, so everything else I was doing I had sold off and had tapered down to really nothing, not knowing what my prognosis would be. But I found a talented team of researchers and I went through an experimental program at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and they knocked me down pretty hard with some heavy chemo and some other experimental things and they actually cured me.
At that time, Wendi was mother of five children, they were all teenagers, and so we needed to just simplify a lot of things during that time. About a year and a half later, they said it looked like I was going to be fine, and they wouldn’t mark my file cured until about five years out, but they said it looked good to them.
At that point, as I got stronger and got my health back together, I decided that I needed something to do. I had a of business expertise. I had been in the real estate and construction business. I had also been in the resort business, and also been in the media business, owned some radio stations, billboard companies in my past, and I’d also done manufacturing, plastics manufacturing in the past. I’d always been very busy and very active, and I decided I was going to start looking for a new venture.
This is not what I was looking for, although in my private life or my recreational life, I very much was a fisherman and a diver. I probably spent more days with water under my feet than land at times. I’m 100 Ton Licensed Master with the U.S. Coastguard. This is my passion, and it just so happened that someone called me up–and I believe it was 2005– as I was looking for a new venture to dive into. They told me they thought there was some trouble going on at Hell’s Bay and there may be an opportunity for me here. That’s what started the quest of acquiring Hell’s Bay and why I changed into what we’re doing now. I don’t do anything else today other than boat building. We’ve poured mine and Wendi’s entire passion into boat building, into skiff building.
SR: How old were you when you were diagnosed?
Peterson: I was 42, and I just turned 50 this last weekend.
SR: Well, congratulations on that.
Peterson: Thank you.
SR: I’m sure that was–as life-changing experiences go–not one you would’ve wished, but did it make you think that what you had been doing before was not a soul-satisfying type of work and …?
Peterson: Well, actually it was. It’s just that I had done very well in that, and I didn’t see myself just going back into that again. I started to look for something slightly different. I had multiple companies and some of them ranged as far out as throughout the southeast, and I had three different small resorts even in the Florida Keys, some out by Walt Disney World in Orlando. I was spread out.
One thing I wanted was that whatever business I did, I wanted it to be a little more centralized so that management and the business itself was all in one place. My life had gotten a little hectic trying to manage assets that were spread out as opposed to centralized. It could’ve been anything.
I believe in business itself there are a few principles. When I first got into boat building, people said, “What do you know about building boats?” I said, “Well, I know a lot about boats,” and today, I can go in the back and laminate, but you probably wouldn’t want a boat that I personally laminated. (Laughing) I’ve got really skilled guys back there doing that and that’s what they specialize in. But from a business standpoint, you can hire the trades and the craftsmen to really do a fine job, but you’ve got to manage them and you’ve got to manage a business and really one business to another, from the pure core business standpoint, isn’t really too different.
SR: I remember back when Hell’s Bay had reached its low point, and there was a rumor that somebody was interested in buying it, but I have to also remember that there were an awful lot of issues related to the potential sale. I also know that you did some things when you bought Hell’s Bay that a lot of other business people wouldn’t have done. Were you convinced that you could bring it back or…?
Peterson: No. I was fairly convinced. The one thing that Hell’s Bay, even during its low point, did–it had pretty good craftsmen here and I was able to find a good chunk of them and bring them back, the guys who had been building Hell’s Bays before. Even with their cash problems, the craftsmen were proud of their craft and they really didn’t build any boats–even in the darkest days–that weren’t good boats.
As far as a brand was concerned, from the product standpoint, Hell’s Bay still held a position of being some of the finest designs and best-built boats for the skiff market. There was a lot of work to be done with vendors, but most of your vendors are business guys. They see business cycles, and since Hell’s Bay was in bankruptcy in 2005 and 2006, there’s been a whole host of other household names, particularly in the marine business, that have gone bankrupt and been reborn from their ashes as well. The business they dealt with before went bankrupt, but for all intents and purposes, we were a brand new ownership, and a brand new corporate structure. We weren’t the old business.
We did have to do some fence-mending there. We had some customers that had deposits down that had lost deposits in the bankruptcy. Some of these guys had very, very, very sizeable deposits. There was just no way we could honor all the deposits. We were not obligated to by any means, but we came out and we gave everybody a minimum of a $10,000 credit toward their old deposit. I figured if I could take a bunch of lemons and make lemonade out of them with the new company and as the new kid on the block, I had a bunch of really upset people say, “Hey, the new guy did a good job. He did what he said he was going to do.” And we also knew those people did want a Hell’s Bay boat (laughs) because they put money down on it. They had been sold on it before. I think out of about 32 customers that had lost money on deposits back then, I’m going to guess we’ve built some 20, or about two-thirds of the people, boats and they all ended up very, very happy customers. That was our first PR marketing campaign, to try to get anybody who was not happy with the brand to become a fan of the new company.
SR: You mentioned there were still a lot of talented people around who wanted to also see the brand succeed. There were the craftsmen. And you’ve also been associated with some really well-known guides, like Flip Pallot. Chris Morejohn was involved in some of the early designs, Tom Gordon, Hal Chittum…. There were just a lot of people who seem to really have invested themselves in the boats. I wonder, is that still part of the spirit of the company?
Peterson: Yes. Our guide community to us is very, very important and Flip is still an everyday– I don’t want to call him a fixture (laughing)–but he’s an everyday participant here. He lives nearby. He’s here at the factory all the time consulting with us and talking with us and Flip’s become a really great friend. Chico Fernandez is here all the time. CA Richardson is here all the time. Those are marquis guides and media people within the fishing world, but they’re very important to us, because they believe in the brand as well and they’re also part of product development. One thing I learned is that I, and really no one, knows everything, and really, the more you can listen to people and your guides, the better our product’s going to be.
SR: How much say do the pros actually have in design? I know you’re always tweaking design and things like that. Do you get your ideas from them or are those mostly internal and then you sort of send them out onto the water and have the guides test them?
Peterson: Well, you can ask five guides the same question and you’ll get 10 answers.
SR: Sure. (Laughs)
Peterson: We take those 10 answers that we get and sometimes those answers from one guide to the other are very opposing views of how they think a boat should perform, which is probably how we ended up with about 9, 10 models in our lineup between just 16 and 18 feet (laughs).
SR: I was going to ask you that. You’re probably the manufacturer with the largest variety of skiffs on the market.
Peterson: Yes, sir. Every one of our skiffs is the master of something somewhere. What a Marquesa will do, a Professional won’t do, and what a Professional will do, neither the Marquesa nor the Professional would. The Glades Skiff will do what a Marguesa and a Professional wouldn’t. They’ve all got a specific use.
Depending on what you do, we can help guide you into what boat fits you the best. For instance, myself, I fish everywhere that I possibly can, for any potential fish from a bream all the way up to a black marlin and love every bit of it, and you need the right tools to go after your quarry, but there’s typically one type of boat that’s right.
For instance, if I was here in Titusville, the boat that you fish in the Mosquito Lagoon would be very much different than if you lived in Key West, although for the few times that I might go to Key West, my Mosquito Lagoon boat will do fine, though not as well as let’s say a Biscayne model or a Marquesa model, even though the Professional will run and catch great fish and is quiet down in Key West. That’s how we got so many models and we get a lot of advice.
We are constantly innovating. We look at our product lineup and see what we can do to make them better every single day, and that is where we get a lot of the input from guides and professionals and some of our very hardcore users of our boats. We really value their opinions on what they think the boat needs to do. Sometimes you may want to make a change and it really doesn’t make any difference in the fishing of the boat and then you have to evaluate if that’s something you want to do or are you liable to mess up something that the boat does well, because every time you change something, it changes some of the good aspects. You have to always be weighing out when you make the change whether it’s a positive change.
SR: Do you have a personal favorite among the skiffs–fond memories or great memories that connect to either one skiff or the other?
Peterson: Well, if I had to say it the boat that suits me and my fishing style the best is the Professional. What I would call my home waters is here in the Indian River and Mosquito Lagoon. I need a boat that will run and will pole fairly shallow. We’re a little more protected here. We don’t get the huge seas, but the Professional has a very sharp angle–a very sharp attack in the front so you can punch through chop reasonably well.
I don’t have to go a million miles an hour. If I want to take that Professional down and run it down at Key West, which I have in some pretty snotty weather, you just have to slow down a little bit. And I’m not afraid to get banged around a little bit more than I would in let’s say the Neptune or a Marquesa.
My personal style is a very simple boat, just a basic boat, an engine, a pole, some fishing gear. I don’t need a million gadgets and trolling motors. Some people do like that and they order the boats with a lot of options on them and that’s fine, but my personal favorite is the Professional stripped down. As a matter of fact, my personal boat that I built for myself is just that. It’s a tiller steer Professional which has a coffin box in it, and I keep that over at the big game club in Bimini.
SR: Wonderful, yes, I’m with you on that. I’ve always been of the mind of the first thing you do when you look at a skiff is see what you can take off of it. (Laughing)
Peterson: I would agree, and anything else that you add on to it has the possibility of breaking at some point and frustrating you.
SR: Or will break (laughs).
Peterson: Or will break. And they’ll add 100 different things and each of them are just a pound and then you look at your boat and go, “Why is this boat 100 pounds more with all the stuff in it?” That’s because it’s 100 little things. Then when we build the boats, we look at the same thing. How can we make the boats lighter and lighter and lighter and what can we take off of them that you don’t need because everything you put on to it adds a little weight.
SR: What are the pieces and parts of the skiff that actually do deserve the most attention? We’ll leave off the compass and the fancy electronics and that sort of thing, but are there things that you’ve learned over the years that deserve the attention of your craftsmen and say, “hey, this is what we’re doing different that other people aren’t doing?”
Peterson: Yes. There’s a couple of things, and it really comes down to the true core construction of the boat. The way the boats are built–we use light laminate schedules, but we use very high end and very strong materials. When I say that, if you were to think of a predator drone for instance, very light weight, but extremely strong high tech materials. It’s all a function of physics. The lighter they are, the less they’re going to draw, the less displacement that you need to displace that weight. We look at the laminate schedule, but then also our boats don’t fall apart over time. We’ve got boats that are 10, 12 years old that are structurally in just perfect shape. They just never fall apart.
Then equal with that is how the boat performs for how the boat’s designed. For instance, a Professional and a Marquesa are designed differently. One’s got a more of a V-hull, one’s more of a flat hull, but they both have to pole well, they both have to pole silently. They both have to be super quiet.
When you look at those aspects of what it is as a fishing tool, those are the most important things. It really comes down to strength and quality of construction. You can have a well-constructed boat that isn’t designed well and vice versa, but we focus on both of those things–building an extremely tough, very durable, lightweight boat that performs for its function extremely well. When we build a Hell’s Bay boat or when we look at design or we look at what the bill of materials are to build a boat, we look at finding the absolute best and toughest materials that we can absolutely find and we don’t look at cost at that point.
An acquaintance of mine is Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, and I heard him once describe their approach to a group of business students at Stanford. They design a piece of product, a piece of clothing for instance, to do what it needs to do and then they don’t skimp anywhere on the build of that garment. They then determine what it’s going to cost and then price it appropriately, and sometimes that does cost more.
People say, “Well, you have an expensive product,” but it is the best and we don’t compromise on quality or the amount of labor. A typical Hell’s Bay has almost 300 hours of labor in it. A Bentley car has almost 300 hours of man labor in the car. Us and Bentley produce a product that has about the same number of labor hours, and if we try to make it less than that, the product would not perform and not be what it needed to be.
SR: Has anyone ever actually figured out how long one of your skiffs–or any skiff for that matter–would be seaworthy made with those materials?
Peterson: Well, I can tell you I just acquired, back from the Bahamas, Hell’s Bay Skiff number one, the first Hell’s Bay.
SR: No kidding?
Peterson: It is still seaworthy and it was sitting over in Cherokee in someone’s front yard, being used from time to time. It was not sheltered from the elements in any way and it’s still completely seaworthy.
I don’t know that we know that answer. I just know that we see boats in here all the time and some of the consumables–your carpeting or your cushions and some things–need to be replaced or refurbed. We have a large service and refurb shop here as well. Structurally, we don’t hardly do anything to the boats when they come to be refurbed. It’s all little cosmetic stuff that just needs to be maintained. Our very first boats are still in service and doing very well. That’s 1998. Some of those early boats–if maintained–are in gorgeous shape and doing real well. I don’t know the answer (laughs) to that question.
SR: Well, hopefully people will be driving some of these hulls around 100 years from now.
Peterson: We hope so, but that’s sometimes our biggest problem– that these things just never fail, never fall apart and therefore you don’t need a new one as often as I’d like to have you get one. (Laughs)
SR: Yes, but there are plenty of people who want a new one regardless, right?
Peterson: Oh, that’s true, that’s true, that’s true. Thankfully, there are. That’s the one challenge that I didn’t really expect, and that would be long-term economic turndown we’ve had since 2007. When I got into this business, the tide was flowing out of the economy, and I don’t know that I can say that I feel like it’s come back in. You need a house, you need stuff to eat. In the United States, you need a car to get around. Nobody needs a flats boat.
SR: Well, I might debate that with you. (Laughs)
Peterson: What we sell is a want. I think I need them, too, but in reality, to function in life you don’t need one, and so we sell something that’s really for the discretionary dollar and this economy has been tough on any products that are there for the discretionary dollar.
SR: On to another topic: your wife plays a key role in the business and that’s a pretty unusual scenario. What does she do and how do you manage that chemistry that must happen between a husband and wife who are playing very important roles at the same business?
Peterson: She is a true partner. In all of my prior business dealings that I’ve ever had, I would never take on partners. She was a stay-at-home mom, but I’ll tell you, she’s got great business instincts. Anybody who has raised five children–and they’re all out of the house now and all doing extremely well, she kept them on the straight and narrow for the most part–she is extremely organized and very detail oriented and she takes no grief from anyone. She may not be particularly big, but she carries a pretty big stick and has the respect at least of all the guys in the factory, and from a production standpoint and marketing and production, she is very much in control.
SR: Well that’s a wonderful thing to make work. If you can do it. I know a lot of people have tried and failed.
Peterson: I thought I was going to fail at that because at first, when we got into this, she said she wanted to be a part of it and I wasn’t sure what that meant. She took larger and larger roles here at the business and she’s excelled at all of them. With my personality at times, that didn’t work real well, and I didn’t think … either I didn’t think the business partnership or the marriage partnership–one of the two or both–weren’t going to work for about the first two years, until I really learned to share responsibilities with her. She had proven to me that she could do the management and make great decisions. Once some of my ego got in check, it started to work a lot better. She’ll still tell you her biggest challenge every day is working with me.
SR: (Laughs) Well, having her there means you’re going to have more time to fish, right?
Peterson: That is actually very true. She likes being here and likes working here. That does give me the ability to go out and fish, or as I like to call it, do product development and R&D on our boats (laughing). I can leave here and know that there is an ownership interest here that is taking care of business if I’m not here, which makes it really very nice for both of us–to know that between the two of us, somebody’s here watching the business and making sure that it goes in the right direction.
Part of what Wendi and I do here, we are passionate about boating, but we’re also passionate about the environment that our boats are used in. We think it’s very important to give back to the estuaries and the conservation efforts that allow us all to enjoy the flats.
We are personally involved on several conservation fronts. There are hundreds of them out there so we made a conscious decision. We picked four that we are not just sideline participants in, that we actively are in participation with, and that would be CCA Florida, that would be the IGFA, that would be the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, and the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation.
Number one, they’re all compatible with each other and they all work together at times. But the other thing is almost all of them are very much not only into conservation, but their methods and principles and practices are based in science and in the research and what the research tells us about our estuaries. That’s why we like those particular organizations, not that there aren’t a lot of other ones out there, but we picked those four and we like to really support those with our heart and soul and we do.
SR: Okay, last question, what is your idea of a great day on the water?
Peterson: I have had days on the water that have been absolutely perfect in a torrential rainstorm. My perfect day is when I drop my cell phone in the water (laughing). I love going off the grid. The fishing can be phenomenal, the fishing can be not so great, but if you have good friends and good people with you on a boat where the phone doesn’t ring, under any conditions it makes it a perfect day.
SR: Well I don’t think any of us would argue with that idea. Chris, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us, and congratulations on what you’ve accomplished with Hell’s Bay. Continued good luck and hope we have a chance to talk again in the future.
Peterson: Call me any time. I’ll give you my opinion or my thoughts on just about anything.
SR: All right, Chris. Thanks.
Peterson: Thank you, Marshall. Appreciate it.