Bluewater Navigates Fifty Years of Success
From the Beginning
When 1968 first dawned, entering the boat business was not on founder Chris Hall’s radar. He was always into boats, as were his father and grandfather before him. He and his brother Earle had knocked around runabouts and racers, skiffs and sailboats from an early age. In his twenties, Chris started buying older boats and fixing them up with the occasional help from a much younger brother who could crawl into tight spaces and turn a wrench on request. But it was business where Chris first made his mark and by 1968 was a successful food broker, managing a thriving enterprise. Boating was an outlet and passion; he enjoyed his Cal 25 sailboat and with his success, decided it was the right time for a bigger boat. The local Cal dealers in Virginia Beach placed his order, but when it came time to deliver, a series of events saw them offer Chris a partnership in the company. He took it, but differing management styles ultimately led to a buyout. With some surprise, he suddenly found himself in the boat business.
The new yard paved the way for additional growth, and by this time they had added boat lines to include Ranger and Columbia Yachts. Staff grew as well, with Herb Hucks and Henry Hudgins previously with Columbia’s customer service and rigging departments signing on. Ed Morris remembers the early days with wry humor, “the new location had a vertical lift railway. I knew how it worked, but we still had to kind of wing it the first few times. It all worked out and nobody died! We actually had a lot of fun—we were a bunch of boat nuts and had a really good time.”
Their youngest boat nut was Earle Hall, who was there from the beginning, although he was too young to drive and relied on Ed to bring him to jobs. Now the VP of Service, Earle has a unique perspective on the evolution and trends that now span 50 years of boat sales, maintenance and upgrades. The longest-term employees signed up in those early years as well, with systems guru Tom Pinson and Brian Bassett who now hold 33 years and 31 years respectively, as well as Craig Messick, Bluewater’s long-time General Service Manager. Another early friend, Smokey Glover, introduced himself and would go on to collaborate on innovative projects at Bluewater to this day.
Early on there was little distinction between family and staff…
By 1975, Bluewater was outgrowing the small yard at Bridge Street, and bought the neighboring 19th century Quinn Crab Company and added on a marina. Still seeking more elbowroom, Bluewater bought an adjacent outboard service business and patched it onto their footprint. Chris started calling the group of three properties the Bluewater Yachting Center—which envisaged the future he was building—but with the Hampton Yacht Club next door, there wasn’t much more room. Chris’ vision had already outgrown what had taken ten years to build. It was a good time to take stock and figure out what came next.
Bluewater Yachting Center
Hampton Yacht Club
Norfolk Shipbuilding & Drydock
Old Columbia Plant
4533 Templar Dr
4836 Colonial Ln
Unique Value Proposition
Selling boats always came naturally to the Halls, but it was that in combination with service, which gave them the “something extra” their competition couldn’t match. From those early cost-saving DIY measures developed a skillset focused on quality and fulfilling customers’ needs. Chris’ foresight and experience recognized the value of a “full service” concept and he set out to achieve just that. “So now we had these three properties pasted together, but we’d never really had a clean slate to work with—I wanted to be able to build the right set-up,” Chris explains. His dissatisfaction with the cobbled together footprint and his desire to fine-tune the customer experience, pushed him to look for an alternative. This drive would set them on a course to shift their focus in a way that was well ahead of the curve.
Henry Lauterbach was the number one hydroplane builder in the world and his original shop just happened to be in Portsmouth, Virginia. He too began his boat-industry career in sail, by building Hampton One Designs—a hotshot sailboat of the times. His sons were of age with Chris and the boys grew up together the best of friends. Much of Chris’ and Earle’s childhood revolved around that shop—a hallowed place where wood and metal were transformed into the machines that dominated the powerboat racing scene. They absorbed the finer nuances of lore and technique amidst the welding, wood, machine, paint and engine shops in which Lauterbach conducted his art. “A lot of the foundation for the service side of Bluewater came from the mentoring of Henry Lauterbach. He was a good person and something of a genius. He was meticulous, and engineering-wise, nothing was beyond him. An absolute master,” recounts Earle. “The expression, ‘If you’re always seeking perfection, you’ll find it,’—we got that sense from Henry Lauterbach.” All the Halls would take their turn on the racing circuit, from father to sons, and grandson, Chris—all behind the wheels of a Lauterbach boat or two. It was Henry’s legacy, his insistence on meticulous fit and finish and commitment to quality and hard work that permeates the Bluewater service culture.
Good Luck & Foresight
It was in ‘84 that Dick Pond brought his newly purchased 46’ Viking Peanut Patch to Bluewater for service. Though they had heard that Viking might be looking for a new dealer, the Halls assumed that Dave Hurley was the number one candidate. While navigating the Viking warranty process, Earle got to know Pat Healey and a friendship began, but he was surprised when Healey finally asked, “why don’t you sell our boats?”
Viking’s Tom Carroll and Patrick Healey flew to Bluewater to see the operation for themselves. “They had a reputation for running a top-shelf service operation and Viking put a lot of value on that. They stood head and shoulders above the competition—no question about it,” claims Carroll today. Carroll also makes strong points regarding the management angle of Bluewater, pointing out that they always reinvested in their business and let it grow when the opportunity arose. So, in 1985 Bluewater added the rising star of Viking Yachts to their dealership lineup. Soon thereafter, acknowledging Bluewater’s accomplishments as a dealership, Hatteras Yachts began pursuing Bluewater to represent them as well.
A Competitive Edge
With Chris’ support, Earle would go on to win on the National stage, adding championships and induction into the American Power Boat Association “Hall of Champions” before going full time with Bluewater in 1977. Chris Jr. recalls the fanatical commitment to excellence that his father and uncle brought to the preparation for racing and the care and maintenance of the boats. “You’re preparing to go 150 to 160mph and your gear better be right. You just can’t do it halfway—it has to be done perfectly across the board. Dad and Earle insisted on it and they had the best looking, best put-together operation because of that.“
Earle was relentless in keeping the boats perfectly turned out—and in doing so, the team became a cohesive unit. In this, one can see the organic attachment to quality and attention to detail that permeates the Bluewater mentality—as inherited from those days with Henry Lauterbach and eternalized throughout the Halls’ various racing teams.
Expand, Contract & Get Fit
Chris continued to invest in the business and in 1987 Bluewater built out a large paint building in addition to the individual spaces housing welding, carpentry and machine shops. Both Hatteras and Viking took turns asking Bluewater to expand into Maryland and they opened an office in Annapolis. In 1988, they made some big moves, consolidating their large boat sales and service operations at the Marina Road site and turning the Bridge Street site into a small-boat store they called Boater’s World. The new company housed a retail showroom for their Evinrude, Mako, Boston Whaler, Sea Craft, Elite Craft and Zodiac brands. Eager to get off the road working for Boston Whaler, area local Jud Black returned when Chris offered him the opportunity to run this new operation. It was Jud who hired a young version of the current Hampton Yard Manager, Craig Messick, in 1989.
The innovation taking place at Viking was sending them into a different orbit…
Also at the turn of the century, the high end center console market was staging a comeback and a company in North Carolina exhibited all the hallmarks that mirrored Viking’s innovative approach. Bluewater added Regulator Marine to their select portfolio in 2000. Chris Jr. points out, “We have sold over 30 brands since the start of Bluewater. Looking at where we are now, I think its fair to say that we have weeded through quite a few over the years.” Jud agrees, “We gravitate towards boats that we would like to own personally. If we don’t want it, we can’t sell it. The result is a concentration of extreme quality in our line-up.”
“Every choice we make must answer the question: does this best serve our customers?”
For the early aughts the market was strong, sales and service booming. Bluewater capitalized by branching down to Wrightsville Beach and also opened a yacht service center on the Outer Banks inside Oregon Inlet—sportfishing’s East Coast Mecca. There were ups and downs, and though uncomfortable, they did not seem to hold the same concerns as previous downturns. Bluewater’s momentum was solid, and they were insulated by their top-shelf brands and steady stream of satisfied service clients. “From my earliest memories, Dad worked—always. He’s still working and selling—even without being aware of it. In the same vein, Bluewater is always moving, always growing, even if only in some small way,” notes Chris Jr.
By the 2010s, the Halls had watched boatbuilder Randy Ramsey’s Jarrett Bay brand soar and shared many days of camaraderie with him on the docks of tournaments and boat shows. The two companies shared much in common; strong leadership, service skills and often, customers. An idea bloomed and after much discussion, the two sales operations “tied the knot” in 2012, announcing their merger at the Annapolis Boat Show.
Here and Now
In Jud’s view, “this business is all about our relationships with customers. I tell everyone, ‘just because you already paid doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear from you again.’” He points out that they want customers for life. This is not just a business after all—it is their life. He adds, “we live vicariously through our customers and value our personal relationships with all of them. Every choice we make must answer the question, ‘does this serve our customers?’ I think it shows.”
“We live vicariously through our customers and value our personal relationships…”