I wouldn’t necessarily call it a trend because it’s too common to be considered a new thing, but have you ever noticed that most boat dealerships are family-owned? It goes something like this: Dad starts a small boat repair shop on the side to help fill a growing need in his area. As his business begins to grow into full-time work, the father decides to try his hand at selling new boats too. Along the way as his kids get older they take over the broom duties and help with small tasks around the shop.
When the kids get into their teens they work their way up and begin rigging boats and taking care of other responsibilities during the busy summer months and as a great after school job. By now the business is really taking off and there are usually one or two siblings, often the oldest son, who has a desire to make this his career. For years the father and son duo work side-by-side, helping to grow the once-small repair shop into a top 10 dealership. Eventually the founder gets up in years and chooses to retire—and actually uses one of the boats he’s been selling for decades. This is when the son takes ownership and by now his son or daughter is following in his footsteps to eventually be the third generation owner.
But what happens when it’s not just one son who is interested? What if two or three sons are all determined to take over Dad’s business? On a recent trip to Wisconsin I came across a boat dealership that is run equally by five brothers. Their path follows the usual story, taking over the family business from their father after he passed away. Keith’s Marina has been family-owned and operated since 1968 when Robert and Joy Keith purchased a marina on Big Cedar Lake, 25 miles North of Milwaukee. Today it’s run by their sons and each have invested the majority of their lives helping the West Bend business grow.
“I’ve heard a lot of people say they’ve tried to work with their brother in a business but couldn’t get along as equal partners,” says Dan Keith. “But I think it’s actually to our advantage that there are five of us so we can have three versus two on any big decisions.”
The five brothers, Pat, Dan, Tom, Steve and Tim, each own 20 percent of Keith’s Marina and work together on a day-to-day business. When I found this out I knew I just had to meet them to see how it works.
My journey to this dealership, which specializes in Starcraft, Sylvan and SunChaser pontoons along with a few other boat lines, was an unusual path to say the least, but we’ll get to that story in another issue.
When I arrived, the dealership was busy rigging, delivering and selling boats.
With so many people running around I found it easier to just call everyone Mr. Keith to be on the safe side while I was still learning first names.
Even the two younger guys turned out to be Keiths too; Brian and Brad Keith are grandsons to the original founder and are leading the third generation.
After spending some time with them I could see how they make it work. I discovered five laid-back guys all with a common goal to make Keith’s Marina successful by putting its customers first.
They represent their home state well and to officially welcome me to Wisconsin they arranged for tickets to a Brewers game that night in Milwaukee. I’ve been to my share of baseball games, but never in a suite. They kept us all well fed and fully stocked with drinks, which basically spoiled me for any future games.
These are good guys, the kind of guys you’d want to hang out and spend some time with on the water— that is, if they can get the time cleared with the boss.