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Mark Felhofer of Bay Marine: 5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business

An Interview with Jason Hartman

Embracing employees as part of the family. I enjoy coming to work every day. I love the people I work with and cherish our moments. Some employees have been with us for over 30 years and I have had the pleasure of planning several retirement parties for employees. One of the benefits of working in a family business is that I feel it in the relationship we have with all of our employees. We are humble and our employees and customers sense that– they aren’t just a number.

As a part of our series about 5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Felhofer.

Mark Felhofer is the co-owner of Bay Marine, a leading family-owned boat and yacht dealership, alongside his brother Matthew. Having both grown up in the business, Mark took over the helm from their father Fran in 2000 and Matthew joined Mark in a partnership in 2001. The two split the general management role of the operations. Together, the brothers have grown their family business to be one of the largest boat and yacht dealerships in the Great Lakes region and have recently expanded with sales and service capabilities in Southwest Florida. Besides building two of the most comprehensive boat maintenance facilities in Lake Michigan, they have also created a team that has developed an expertise in the design, construction and delivery of yachts between 50’ and 115’. Mark graduated from the University of Minnesota with a bachelor’s degree in Economics.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always tell people I quite literally ‘grew up in the business,’ as my dad really dedicated himself to the boat business the year I was born. As I got older, I started working on boats myself, chipping in where I could to help the family business grow. I can’t say I’m a mechanical expert, but over the past 50 years, I have worked on almost every part of a boat. I was credited with my first boat sale by the buyer of the boat when I was 14 years old. I clearly remember that gentleman coming up to me after he finished the deal with my father and telling me he bought it because of me. This had a pretty good influence for me to be in sales.

I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1993. After receiving my economics degree, I saw the company I had grown up in through an entirely different light. As it (and the world around us) continued to change, I thought I could help position the company better.

My brother, who is 4 years older, went a similar route. He graduated from UM and made his mark as an engineer and earned his MBA. When I took over the business in 2000, I told him I had a vision and I knew where I could take this company, but I didn’t want to do it alone. After all, I know my shortcomings and he and I have different strengths. Since he joined, Matt has been a huge asset to our company and we wouldn’t be where we are without him or the support of the rest of our family. They have always been supportive in every way possible over the years.

Can you tell us a bit about your family business and your role in it?

My father started dabbling in selling powersports equipment out of his dad’s gas station in the mid 1960’s. The year I was born, he started dedicating himself more to the boating business full time, and Bay Marine was born. In 2000, I took over the helm from my father. Family has always been an essential part of my life, so I knew I wanted to have my brother, Matt, by my side. A year later, we became co-owners of our father’s dealership and split the general management role of operations. Together, we have grown our family business to be one of the largest boat and yacht dealerships in the Great Lakes region and have recently expanded with sales and service capabilities in Southwest Florida. Besides building two of the most comprehensive boat maintenance facilities in Lake Michigan, we have also created a team that has developed an expertise in the design, construction, and delivery of yachts between 50’ and 115’.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

I probably have thousands of stories from my career, each as interesting as the last. I have seen boats built and boats sink. I have had a submarine surface less than a mile from our boat and a F14 fighter jet did a flyby of our boat that I could swear I could read his nametag. I have watched whales, dolphins and even deer swim. I have had the pleasure of watching thousands of people over 5 decades enjoy all of the facets of boating but what I find the most interesting is learning who each of our customers are. Each of them is successful and none of their success stories are the same. Funny thing is that no matter what size or type of boat they are looking to buy, when you boil down everyone’s concerns, they are very similar.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I was probably still in high school when I was asked to travel about 45 minutes from our dealership, pick up a small boat on our work trailer and bring it back for some service work that was needed. Well, of course I was that teenager that “knew it all” so I rushed out without a complete understanding of the instructions and long story short, I came back with the wrong boat. Thankfully the owner of the boat was also a customer of ours so he found it humorous and I returned it to the marina before anyone got concerned. Having a clear understanding of the job at hand and the consequences that could follow are probably the two biggest lessons I took away from that experience. Not only was that a waste of my time but the time of others at our dealership that were scheduled for that work.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Bay Marine employs, trains and maintains the best people in the industry to provide exceptional expertise and support. At Bay Marine, customer service and communication are top priorities, so it is important to make strong connections with our customers. Often, I hear customers say they are surprised we called them with an update on their boat. We really do view each team member and each customer as an extension of our family.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We are currently completing two large projects right now. Recently, our Waukegan, Ill. facility was victim to arson, and we are currently in the process of rebuilding that facility for our customers. While the situation was extremely difficult and tragic, ultimately the outcome will really benefit our staff and customers once we complete construction. We’re able to rebuild the new facility based around what we know our team and customers want and need. Last summer we also purchased a neighboring marina at our Sturgeon Bay, WI location that suffered from years of neglect and disrepair. The investment was significant but I must say the response we have gotten from all of the boaters has been nothing short of impressive. We received an award for best marina in our area but I think our staff is more proud of the fact that many transient boaters and loopers have said it is the nicest marina they have found on Lake Michigan.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I remember as a kid when my dad was running the business, we went through the 70’s gas crunch, 80’s boom, 80’s recession and 90’s luxury tax. Of course, once Matt and I took over the business, we experienced the 2008 recession, and got an even more inside look into what our dad went through as a business owner. Amidst all this hardship, though, I don’t ever remember my dad bringing the stress home with him.

My dad raised a family of five kids, built a small business from the ground up, and made it through all of these hard times. He put every one of his five kids through college and he’s made it through life as a small business owner. That is pretty damn smart. That makes my dad one of the smartest people I know. Of course, he doesn’t hesitate to tell my brother and me that it takes two of us to do what he did himself…and we politely tell him we are 6 times bigger.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

For Bay Marine, we take our success and bring it back to reward our employees and customers. We are always thinking of how we can operate better, safer, more efficiently and cleaner to benefit our community and greater boating community.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main parts of our interview. How do you define a family business? How is a family business different from a regular business?

A family business is so much more than just a 9–5 job. Humbling, passionate, dedication, and obsession are just a few positive descriptive words I can think of when I imagine a family business. Of course, hard work, long days and headaches come to mind as well. For me, a family business was something that was the labor of love of my father, and was passed down to a new generation. Small family businesses are super unique when you have multiple members all working together. Here at Bay Marine, each of my siblings, some in-laws, and many of our children have worked at the business at one time or another. It is different because we all have our own emotional ties to the founding and health of the business, and that is something that other employees see and value. In a family business the feeling of being part of the family naturally extends to employees and customers. You can’t help but get to know everyone’s family members and watch them grow. We know each other’s happy moments as well as their hardships. I believe there is a certain amount of loyalty that is achieved at a family business that you just can’t find elsewhere.

In your opinion or experience, what are the unique advantages that family owned businesses have?

Trust has to be one of the largest advantages that come to my mind. Trust between family members, or people that are like family, just runs deeper. Family dynamics are always unique and it is okay to disagree. Actually, it often leads to solutions and is a key to success.

What are the unique drawbacks or blindspots that family owned businesses have?

When times are tough, and we’ve been through several, it’s hard to leave work and not bring it home. It is important to always respect the boundaries of family members when we are off the clock.

What are some of the common mistakes you have seen family businesses make? What would you recommend to avoid those errors?

A transition to another generation in a family business is difficult. I’ve seen some other companies struggle with their identity when there is a change in generation. Bay Marine is a company that was started by the first generation and is being expanded by the second generation. Every now and then, we stop and ask ourselves who we are, who we want to be and does that match our business plan.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders of family businesses to help their employees to thrive?

I take pride in letting my employees make their own decisions as well as their own mistakes. Our managers have the ability to run departments how they feel they should be run. I may give input, but I believe in empowering people to be the best they can be through experiential learning.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean with a story or example?

Everyone in our company knows I am willing to do whatever it is I asked them to do. A quality of a good leader is the ability to understand what it takes for a task to be done and the willingness to do that task. I learned early on to tackle the hardest and least desirable tasks first.

Here is our main question. What are the “5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Patience. Patience is probably the most important factor in running a successful business in general. There is real value in stopping to look at the big picture.
  2. Understanding. My brother and I disagree a lot. As my dad used to say, one of us has his wheels spinning and the other one is throwing the anchor. However, I think one of our keys to success is that we are not the same and we do disagree on many topics.
  3. Respecting boundaries and separating work from home. Punching out is difficult to do. The hardest part is leaving the excitement of the day behind. Both the bad and the good.
  4. Creating the right relationships with right people. We have been dealing with our local main bank we work with for over 50 years. During the recession, many companies were going out of business, especially in the marine industry. Our bank stuck with us and said ‘we will get through this’ and we did.
  5. Embracing employees as part of the family. I enjoy coming to work every day. I love the people I work with and cherish our moments. Some employees have been with us for over 30 years and I have had the pleasure of planning several retirement parties for employees. One of the benefits of working in a family business is that I feel it in the relationship we have with all of our employees. We are humble and our employees and customers sense that– they aren’t just a number.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

That is such a hard question for me, as I love really talking to everyone! One of the most fun questions to ask is how two people met, because there is always a story. How did you get here? How did you succeed? There is always a partnership whether it is between two people, between businesses, success, careers, kids, family. It makes me look inward at my abilities every day. Am I a good father, leader, and person?

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

It would be Education. You aren’t going to change the world overnight. It takes education and understanding to bring permanent change in less than a generation. Before you make a judgment, educate yourself and get an understanding of all sides of the topic.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Check out BayMarine.net for more information.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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Jason Hartman

Jason Hartman

Author | Speaker | Financial Guru | Podcast Rockstar