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Wilbur A Family Business, A Business’s Family When you talk entrepreneurial spirit on the coast of Maine, you talk Wilbur Yachts. BY BRIAN ROBBINS

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JOHN KACHMAR, president of Wilbur Yachts, and I had been talking for a while in the front office of the company’s Southwest Harbor boatbuilding facility when I caught a glimpse of what makes him tick. We had been going over the company’s history, the development of its model line, the Wilbur philosophy—all the nice things that any responsible journalist would be asking. Until that point, Kachmar was focused and serious about his business, as you would expect him to be. But when we began going over his background—he grew up in Scarborough, went into the insurance business fresh from college and did well at it, moved to Mount Desert Island to work for an area insurance agency, married Lee and Heidi Wilbur’s daughter Ingrid, moved to Portland to raise a family and pursue business careers—one big question seemed to be filling the air between us. So, I asked it: “With all you had going on, all you had going for you—why did you walk away from all that to come back to Southwest Harbor and build boats?” At that moment a look came into John Kachmar’s eyes that didn’t have anything to MAINE BOATS, HOMES & HARBORS

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do with me interviewing him for a magazine article, and what he said came straight from the heart. “You know,” he said, leaning forward in his chair, “no matter how successful I was in what I was doing, there was no personal contact in the end. I was the one dealing with people and making the promises up front, but I had nothing to do with the claims on the other end. I wasn’t the one handing them the check, you know? I wanted to be part of something where you could see the results—that’s why I came here. When one of these boats is finished, and you’re standing there alongside the customer, feeling the pride, seeing the expression on their face…you can’t beat it.” Kachmar broke into the biggest grin I had seen during my visit. “And then,” he said, “you hand them the key. It’s a great experience.”

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OMPANY FOUNDERS Lee Wilbur and former wife Heidi worked hard to make their business what is today: a history of over 250 custom boats built for a customer base that extends from Croatia to California and from Alaska to the Caribbean, and a name that’s recognizable in just about any port anywhere. One wouldn’t want to place a reputation like that in the hands of just anyone, regardless of family connections. John and Ingrid Kachmar seem to have risen to the occasion just fine. LEE WILBUR is one of those people who can honestly say he made a career out of doing something that he enjoyed, in an area that he loved. “Growing up on Mount Desert was just a gift,” he said, as we retraced the trail that led him to become a boatbuilder. Wilbur described his father as a “real old-fashioned country doctor who made house calls, including off on the islands. I think some of my favorite

times growing up were being out on the water duck hunting, just the two of us.” The entrepreneurial spirit fueled Lee Wilbur’s working career right from the start. Soon after returning home from a stint in the service in the mid-1960s and enrolling at the University of Maine campus in Orono to earn a teaching degree, he and his first wife Heidi took over a local restaurant and established Manset Boat Rentals to cater to the Mount Desert Island summer trade. Off-season repair and upkeep of the rental boats planted an important seed. “I always loved working with my hands,” said Wilbur. “That kind of stuff was interesting to me.” The seed blossomed into an opportunity to finish one of local boatbuilder Jarvis Newman’s 36' hulls in 1973. Wilbur weighed his career options: continue as a teacher/principal at one of the local schools, with boatbuilding as a part-time occupation—or jump into the new opportunity full-force. “The early 1970s were such an exciting time in that Southwest Harbor area,” he said. “It really was the start of a new era. You had the Newman shop blasting out hulls left and right; Jock [John M. Williams Boat Company] was coming on with his boats. Tom Morris was getting Morris Yachts rolling. Things were happening and I wanted to be part of it.” He had handy access to valuable guidance. Next-door neighbor Roger Pinkham, a member of the Hinckley Company crew, was always available to answer questions, and the renowned boatbuilding team of Ralph Ellis and Raymond Bunker was right down the road. “Ralph Ellis was probably more help to me in the beginning than anyone,” Wilbur said. “I’d go into their shop with a question and Raymond Bunker would always—always—give me an answer. Then Ralph Ellis would usually call me up later on and say, ‘Well, he’s done it to you again. What you really should do is …’ and then he’d tell me something different.”

Yachts

Opposite page: A Wilbur 34 Hardtop Express undergoes sea trials. Left: A modern Maine coast lobsterboat hull finished as a cruising yacht.

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That first Newman 36 sportfisherman touched off a string of boat projects that kept Wilbur and his single-bay shop busy for the next three years. By 1976, the volume of business necessitated a larger operation and full-time attention by the Wilburs. Ground was broken on a new facility in the same location that the company stands on today; just as important, Manset Boat Rentals was sold and Heidi took over the office end of the business. “A lot of people don’t realize how big of a role my mom played in things,” said Ingrid Kachmar. “They’d dealt with my dad face-to-face on the boats, but had no idea what my mom was doing up in the office.” Make no mistake about it, though; Lee Wilbur himself knew the importance of having Heidi in the office back then. “Heidi was one of the main reasons we stayed in business over the years,” he said. “The books had to be absolutely perfect. She’d go back in the evenings to get something balanced. She did a great job of keeping the vendors in line, too. If the price on something wasn’t what was quoted or whatever, she wanted to know what the deal was. The last thing a salesman wanted to hear when he walked in the shop was that Heidi was looking for him.” Another key player was added to the Wilbur team in 1976 as well: all-around craftsman Stanley Ward, who is still on the floor today. “I’d had Stanley doing odd jobs for me since he was in the third or fourth grade,” said Lee. “By the time we had the new shop up and going, he was on full time. Stanley’s one of those guys with a great attitude who can do anything you need him to Above: The pilothouse of this Wilbur is comfortably unostentatious in the downeast manner. Below: Tumblehome at speed on a coastal cruise. Having space on the boat deck for two dinghies is a luxury that many other yachts of this size lack.

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INGRID KACHMAR

do. I would’ve had a hard time keeping things going without him. Every boat shop needs a Stanley.”

IN THE BEGINNING, the Wilbur shop specialized in finishing Newman hulls—the aforementioned 36, the little sister Newman 32—and, in time, the Newman 46, designed by Royal Lowell. “In my opinion, that Newman 46 was the best all-around boat that Royal Lowell designed,” said Lee Wilbur. “It was a nice-looking, comfortable hull that could carry off a lot of weight. I remember at one point having three 46s

under way in the finish shop at once, with a Newman 32 tucked in crossways so you could just get the door shut.” Meanwhile, Wilbur was feeling the need to have some models of his own to finish. Conversations with mentor Ralph Ellis led to two Ellis designs in the Wilbur stable, the Wilbur 38, introduced in 1979 as the first “lobsteryacht,” and the 34, which made its debut in 1983. Both designs featured MDI-style builtdown bottoms and proved themselves to be comfortable heavy-weather boats. “Ralph had done his share of commercial fishing over the years and was always concerned about what a hull would do in a following sea,” Wilbur

thinking they wouldn’t be so apt to get running on a sea. When I saw Ralph’s model set up on the floor of the shop, my first thought was, ‘The stern’s too narrow.’ It took some doing, but I convinced Ralph to widen the stern a foot on each side—and in the end, it didn’t hurt that boat one bit.” Once it was available to the public, the Wilbur 34 went on to become the shop’s most popular hull, representing over a quarter of all Wilbur-built boats to date. In addition to the previously mentioned hulls from other builders, the Wilbur shop has produced customfinished projects based on hulls from other shops including Atlantic Boat,

“The guys in this shop deserve recognition. It’s their attention to detail that makes the difference.” said, recounting his input on Ralph Ellis’s original design for the 34. “The older designers tended to taper the sterns back and keep them narrow,

MAINE BOATS, HOMES & HARBORS SHOW Exhibitor

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Wesmac, and the Young Brothers.

A S HIS BUSINESS GREW, Lee Wilbur found that he had less and less

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time for the hands-on side of the business. “Looking back, sometimes I wished I’d been able to stay out on the floor,” he said. “I always loved that part of it— especially during those years when things were just going wide open.” Even with giving up his shop time, Wilbur found he had his hands full just dealing with inquiries, sales, shows—and translating customers’ dreams to buildable designs. He knew he could use some help, but what he really needed was difficult to define. Then one day an exArmy guy named Dave Larson walked in, handed him a resumé, and said, “When you read that, you’ll see that as a boatbuilder, I make a damn fine helicopter pilot.” As it turned out, Lee Wilbur hardly looked at Dave Larson’s resumé. That he had some drafting experience and had attended the Landing School after retiring from the service didn’t hurt the cause, but it was Larson’s attitude and warmth during the initial interview that sealed the deal right from the start. Lee Wilbur may have

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hired Dave Larson primarily to work as a boat carpenter, but by the time the shop had added the Raymond Huntdesigned Wilbur 61 to the stable, Larson was involved in a lot more than woodworking.

DAVE LARSON

“With Dave,” Wilbur said, “you had someone who could do everything: from talking with customers to drafting a layout based on what they were looking for, to going down on the floor and helping make it happen.” The phrase “right-hand man” was used by both Wilbur and current man-

at-the-helm John Kachmar when discussing Dave Larson. “It’s a great relationship,” said Kachmar. “Dave is the coordinator between the customers, the crew, the vendors; he ties it all together.” The start of any new boat project involves Kachmar and/or Larson spending up to a couple of days talking with the customer. “Before we even start putting the package together,” Kachmar said, “we have our own questions: ‘How are you going to use the boat? What kind of speed are you looking for? Are you going to cook? What are you going to cook?’ The whole idea is to get them to tell you—in as much detail as possible— what their dream is.” “We’ll sit down with drawings and layouts of previous boats,” said Dave Larson, “and many times that will inspire ideas. They can say, ‘That’s what I’m looking for’ or ‘I like that, but can we …’ and then we have a starting point. Sometimes the customer already knows what they want for a hull, although after talking to them, we might suggest something different. And probably close to two-thirds of the time,

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they’re looking for us to pick the hull, based on what their priorities are. “It’s not always easy,” he added, “but it’s fun!”

LEE AND HEIDI WILBUR’S daughter Ingrid grew up surrounded by her parents’ entrepreneurial spirit. “When I was 13,” she said, “my brother and I were the sailing instructors for our parents’ boat rental business. Once my father started the boat shop, I worked here summers. It was part of our world.” In the end, it was her husband John’s frustration with the insurance business that finally inspired the Kachmars’ move from Portland to Southwest Harbor in 2001 to take the wheel at Wilbur Yachts. “I was 8 months pregnant with our second child and had my own retail store in Portland when Dad called to see if we were still interested in the business,” she said. I told John, ‘You figure out how to do it and I’ll go.’ We made our decision to move at the end of May; by the end of August, we’d had a baby, sold our house, and resettled in Southwest Harbor. When it happened, it happened quickly. But I’m

glad it did. This is home for me. It’s a great place to raise a family.” When asked if she shared her mother’s tenaciousness as a bookkeeper, Ingrid smiled and shrugged. But she may have more of her mother in her than she admits. As a vendor recently put it after a visit to Wilbur Yachts, “If Ingrid’s happy, then I’m happy.”

“I LIKE THE FACT that the Wilbur name means something in marinas all over the world,” said John Kachmar. “The guys in this shop deserve that kind of recognition. It’s their attention to detail that makes the difference—the simple nuances that turn a nice product into a beautiful-looking product.” Kachmar and crew aren’t content to rest on their well-established laurels, however. “There’s so much technological information available now,” Kachmar said, “and it’s exciting to have folks in our shop who are eager to learn. We encourage it by covering tuition costs and time away from the shop in most cases. ‘Bring it back and make use of it’—that’s what we want to see. It’s vital for all of us to streamline how we’re doing things and be more efficient.”

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Also important to Kachmar is the move away from petroleum-based construction materials, and the move toward a greener way in general of building boats. He mentioned with pride the shop’s gold certification in the Maine Clean Boatyards & Marinas program. At the time of our interview (spring 2009), the shop’s primary focus was an Atlantic 46 cruiser—a Duffy & Duffy 42 extended by four feet—that was under construction. Kachmar was also ramping up the new “Wilburizing” program, encouraging owners of used Wilbur boats, and those from other builders, to bring their older boats back for refurbishing. “There are a lot of customers who aren’t looking to go new,” Kachmar said. “They love their boat and wouldn’t change a thing, but they would like to restore what they have to that just-out-ofthe-shop condition.” Kachmar’s plan is to offer varying levels of “Wilburizing,” from basic cosmetics to complete systems upgrade and replacement. “The key to what we’re offering,” he said, “is that the work would be done by

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Geraldine The Ultimate “Wilburization” The name Geraldine came up several times during my discussions with the folks at Wilbur Yachts about their new “Wilburizing” program, and with good reason. The 46' Newman made nautical history last year when it became the first recreational powerboat under 60' LOA to navigate the rugged Northwest Passage unassisted. Over a three-month period, from June to September, 2008, Geraldine covered nearly 7,700 nautical miles in a northern arc from Southwest Harbor, Maine, to Sitka, Alaska. En route, the boat and crew faced everything from gale winds and heavy seas to icebergs: lots and lots of icebergs. (The voyage is well documented in the powerboat’s online log at www.geraldine.com.) The journey began with a “Wilburizing.” Originally christened as Mitra, Geraldine was launched by Wilbur Yachts in 1985 for Walter Paine of Enfield, New Hampshire. A research vessel, it was used to study the ocean floor from Newfoundland to the Dry Tortugas over the next 20 years. Walt Jones purchased the boat in 2006 and brought it back to the Wilbur yard to be refurbished. “We knew that the owner was planning the Northwest Passage run,” said Dave Larson of Wilbur Yachts, “but we didn’t anticipate how much we’d have to do to get him ready.” What began as a delamination repair on the superstructure resulted in the entire wheelhouse being rebuilt. With no room for halfway measures, the project eventually became a literal stem-to-stern rebuild—“Except for the main engine [an 8V-92 Detroit Diesel],” said John Kachmar. “You can find parts for those older 2-cycle Detroits anywhere.” (And, when necessary, they did.) —BR

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the same crew that builds our new boats, and they can take things to that same level of fit and finish.”

“THOSE EARLY YEARS were really exciting times,” Lee Wilbur said, reminiscing about his company’s past. “You couldn’t build the boats fast enough. I remember turning out 15 boats in a year, and there were more to build if you’d had the time. Looking back, I can honestly say I enjoyed all of it. I really did. “I have to laugh now when I hear John talking about wishing he could do more hands-on stuff, as I know exactly where he’s coming from. But that’s part of it, too—you need to spend the time with the customers and you need to keep the business end of things going. The bottom line is, I’m really proud and pleased with what he and Ingrid have done since taking over. It’s great to see.” Former offshore lobsterman Brian Robbins lives, writes, and plays a big old 12-string guitar in midcoast Maine. For More Information: Wilbur Yachts, 200 Seawall Road, P.O. Box 1300, Southwest Harbor, ME 04679. 207-244-5000; www.wilburyachts.com.

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BOAT SHOW ISSUE 2009

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Issue 106

Wilbur Yachts: A Family Business, A Business’s Family  

When you talk entrepreneurial spirit on the coast of Maine, you talk Wilbur Yachts.BY BRIAN ROBBINS

Wilbur Yachts: A Family Business, A Business’s Family  

When you talk entrepreneurial spirit on the coast of Maine, you talk Wilbur Yachts.BY BRIAN ROBBINS

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