The first 40 Years:
It doesn’t seem like 40 years, but it is actually closer to 41, time flies when you are having fun. We can honestly say that most of our history has been truly enjoyable, some days more so that others of course! When we hit the 40-year mark last winter the achievement sunk in as we recalled the many companies that have come and gone during our tenure yet we are still here and doing what we love to do.
RCR began operations in the fall of 1971 as a successor to the Youngstown Boat Company, owned by Beek & Margaret Fairbank. The Fairbanks were getting close to retirement, so they sold two-thirds of their business, at very modest cost, to their key employee Bob Reese. Bob ran the boatyard and sold boats too, and those were the parts of the business that they sold to Bob. They retained the Ship’s Store and the YBC name. I had just begun working for YBC a few months before, after completing University and a tour in the US Army (those were the Viet Nam war years). Bob asked me to join him in his new venture, which sounded like fun to me as I was crazy about boats and sailing and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Little did I know at the time that 41 years later I would still be in the same job today.
The first challenge for the new corporation was to come up with a name. It actually took us about five months before RCR officially became a corporate reality, which happened in early 1972. Months went by as we had tried to obtain approval from NY State for the company name, trying several different ones without success. Finally, our lawyer told Bob to “just use your initials and we’ll get this done”. So RCR Yachts, Inc. was officially born using the initials of Robert Charles Reese. We did not realize it at the time, but this has been a blessing, as there are no other boat companies with similar names to RCR in North America, unlike all those that are “Sailing So-and-So”.
We started out with three employees, Bob, Jane (his wife at the time), and me. We would hire other part-time helpers for the busy spring launch and fall haul-out seasons and then drop back down to three over the winter. We operated the boatyard on the Lower Niagara River for the Youngstown Yacht Club, where we were also members ourselves. We worked side by side and did everything including selling boats, fixing boats, outfitting boats, commissioning them, painting bottoms, installing gear, rigging, and even picking up new boats at the factory and trucking them home. Although I had grown up with sailing and knew boats and rigging, Bob had to teach me about selling and the workings of the boatyard. We implanted and removed the moorings for YYC each year, hauled and stored the boats for the winter, did the winterizing, and re-launched them in the spring. I fell in love with every aspect of the business and gave up any ideas of grad school and Corporate America.
In the earliest days we ran the boatyard using what we called “the Flintstone method”, which meant with a lot of manual labor and antique machinery. All of our equipment was hand-me-down. Instead of a Travelift we had an A-frame overhead rail with a couple of chain falls to lift the boat. We then tied a line to the bow of the boat when it was clear of the water and pulled it over the land using an old Jeep. Once the boat was set in the cradle it was jockeyed into position for storage using rollers and pry bars. Bob was 33 years old, and I was 24 so we had a lot of youthful energy and strong backs. Over the years we gradually upgraded the equipment until we had a Travelift, which ran on rails and steel pilings that we drove ourselves. We bought a well-used fork truck from a lumberyard. The old surplus cable crane was replaced with a hydraulic crane. All these improved the safety and efficiency of yard operations and as we got older our bodies, we certainly appreciated the reduced wear and tear.
They say timing is everything and that was certainly true of our early history. The decade of the 1970s saw explosive growth in the sailing industry. I say sailing because at that time we were true to our slogan “Exclusively Sail”, dealing solely with sailboats. We could not have picked a better time to get into the business because there were very few used boats to compete with, and selling new boats was far easier then than now. Fiberglass was relatively new and the idea that you could own a boat that did not need the extensive maintenance of the wooden boats of just a few years earlier meant that new people were getting into sailing at a furious pace. We were successful in growing the business for a variety of reasons: we knew boats, we loved what we did, we worked hard, and we took care of all aspects of the boat ownership experience. If you bought your boat from us we would outfit it, store it, moor it, fix it, and so forth. Plus, we were very fortunate to be doing it at the right time, we were far from the only people selling lots of boats.
Speaking of selling, another lucky break for us was being located right across the Lower Niagara River from George Hinterhoeller’s plant, which became the main production facility for C&C Yachts. YBC had been a dealer for Hinterhoeller, and subsequently for C&C when that company emerged. At that time C&C was building a line of boats that were perfect for our clientele and here they were, right across the river from us! It wasn’t long before we were in and out of the plant in NOL on a regular basis, taking customers through to see their new boats in production. It was a simpler time, no hard hats, no safety glasses, no need to sign in with the receptionist. We had the run of the place and knew a great many of the employees there. If we had a problem we knew right where to go and who to speak to. The border was a lot less of an issue then too, we could hop in the workboat and motor right across and be at the plant is short order. Yes, we certainly miss those days, it was the best time to be in this business for a lot of reasons.
It wasn’t long before George Hinterhoeller tired of the big corporation that C&C had become, and he moved down the road a few miles and started up Hinterhoeller Yachts all over again. We were naturally thrilled to be invited to become one of his first dealers. Immediately we had the run of his plant and his line of cruising boats complimented the C&C line that we still represented in a big way. Together they were a killer combination. George was a brilliant boat builder with many talents, including design and a uniquely inventive streak. He was one of our all-time favorites in this business, along with Bill Shaw from Pearson Yachts.
Being relatively young and with next to no business background we made our share of mistakes, we were not the best businessmen by any stretch. They say hard work and enthusiasm make up for a lot, and that was obviously true for us because we survived our missteps. One thing we were guilty of was getting involved in selling too many different boat brands. Looking back on it now I doubt (if we had ever had the proper financial systems in place to know) that some of them we never made a dime on. But we had a good excuse, we were avid racers and so we ended up selling a number of boats because we wanted to race them ourselves! When we took over from YBC we inherited the C&C, Cal, Grampian, O’Day and Cape Dory lines. Within a year we added Pearson Yachts, followed by Sabre and a number of boats we sold because of our racing activities: San Juan, Solna Scampi, North Star (for the Farr 727), and J/Boats.
Our relationships with J/Boats is a story in itself. When the J/24 came out in 1976 RCR already had more boat brands than we needed, and who had ever heard of a J/24 anyway? But Bob Johnstone was very persistent and wore me down, so we got one of the very first J/24s. I can still recall him phoning me at home at odd hours pestering me to take on the sale of his new design. That was another one of those fortunate breaks for us as we are now one of the two oldest J/boat dealers in the network. RCR has sold several hundred of the various J/Boat models over the ensuing years and owned quite a few ourselves.
It is appropriate that we mention the impact sailboat racing has had on our history and success. From the very beginning Bob and I were active racers and that helped us considerably. We met many sailors through racing who became long time customers. We were able to pick up racing boat lines to represent, and sailing the boats ourselves taught us much about them and furthered our general knowledge of boats, rigging and sailing. We have long sponsored regattas, classes and events. Eventually these activities raised our profile and image within the sailing community. Frankly we did this all because we enjoyed doing it, and really did not put much thought into the benefits to the company, although we knew it couldn’t hurt. While Bob has slowed down his involvement, I am still very active in racing and regatta organizing and would be even if I was no longer in the business.
We mentioned that we have outlasted many other companies in our industry, and that is certainly true for boat brands that we have represented at one time or another. Most were good outfits that fell prey to either poor management or failed ownership, or most commonly an inability to change with the economic times and the maturing of the boating industry (read too many used boats). RCR has represented the following brands at one time or another during our history, and I am probably forgetting a few: C&C, Cal, Cape Dory, Hinterhoeller, North Star, Olympic Dolphin, Tanzer, Sabre, Pearson, Solna, J/Boats, O’Day, Endeavour, Tartan, San Juan, Hunter, Beneteau, Sonar, Alerion, Aloa, Aquarius, Balboa, Corsair, Gemini, Nowak & Williams and Freedom. You will note that many of them are no longer in business. It may seem like we were out to collect as many boat lines as possible but that was not the case. As the dominant company in our area we had first choice of brands to sell so at any given point in time we offered the lineup that we felt covered the various segments of the marketplace best. Some of these names represented only one model, and that model filled a market need. You also have to keep in mind that this list covered many years and as builders fell out we would pick up a replacement brand.
Currently we sell Beneteau, J/Boats and Sabre, leaders in their respective market segments and all of which RCR has represented for long time, the latter two for at least 35 years. In today’s world there are fewer builders, and dealers carry fewer brands. It is much easier for us to manage for sure.
We mentioned that our company slogan was “Exclusively Sail”, but in the late 1990s some of our customers wanted to switch from sail to power so they convinced us to get into selling trawlers so they could continue to do business with us. So, our slogan thus changed to “Since 1972” and to this day we also sell new powerboats, focusing on what we like to call “Sailor’s Powerboats”. We started out with Mainship Trawlers and soon added Sabre’s powerboat line, which led us to Sabre’s sister company Back Cove. These are Downeast style diesel powered yachts that look great, are seakindly and relatively economical to maintain and operate. Currently we are the Back Cove dealer for our territory.
Up to this point we have talked about new boats, because in our early years that is what we predominantly sold. After all, there were no 30-year-old fiberglass boats in 1972, in fact there were few used fiberglass boats period. That sure made selling new ones a heck of a lot easier. Over time we have gone from being a new boat sales outfit that sold a few used boats on the side, to a used boat brokerage house that sells new boats whenever we can. A typical year for us might mean 150 boats of all types and size sold, of which now maybe only 20 are new. These numbers rise and fall with the economy as you might expect. One sea change to our industry has been the Internet, which has broadened our market substantially. We now sell all over, with sales in recent years to Australia, New Zealand, Europe, the Middle East, and to all parts of North America and the Caribbean. Our business in Canada has steadily increased to the point that in some months it accounts for half our sales. Being located on the Canada-US border has proven to be another bit of good fortune for us and certainly one of the reasons for our success.
We have spoken a lot about boat sales, but RCR has always been a full-service operation from the start, meaning we have forever been involved in the boatyard, marina and service businesses. These activities compliment boat sales and indeed they have saved our bacon on a few occasions over the years when boat sales went into the toilet. After starting out in Youngstown we began to add locations as opportunities presented themselves. First it was the purchase of 17 acres of vacant land on the City Ship Canal in Buffalo in the late 1970s. The property needed a lot of work as it was full of old rotten pilings and debris from its former use as a transshipment site from lake freighter to rail car. Bob spent the better part of three years clearing, dredging, drag-lining out old pilings, building a travelift slip, and designing and installing a dock system. That property today is RCR’s most valuable asset with 120 wet slips and over 300 boats stored on land. We have a very busy service operation there that can perform most any work, on sail or power. The Youngstown boatyard land belongs to the YYC but RCR continues to run the mooring area, launch service, winter storage, service and repair operations with our own staff, boats and equipment.
Currently in addition to the two boatyard/marina operations in Buffalo and Youngstown we also have sales offices in five locations: Erie, PA, Buffalo, Youngstown, Rochester and Sodus Point. All but the Sodus offices are year-round. We stuck our toes in the water in 1980 when we bought the Harborview Marina in Henderson Harbor, NY. We wanted that for our new bareboat charter operation and sailing school. We also tried charter and sailing school operations here in Western NY but it was not too long before we realized that this type of venture did not work well in our shorter season (see the aforementioned note about our occasional lack of business sense). We then rented out the Henderson Harbor marina, eventually sold it, had to take it back when the buyer defaulted, and subsequently sold it again. Nobody can ever say that our business is boring.
Our history would not be complete without a period of dealing with government agencies, and we had a few. We ran the Buffalo Small Boat Harbor for four years for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority. Eventually they realized that they were overstaffed in their other operations and did not know what to do with their excess people, so they decided to run the marina themselves…not as well and with many more staff than we had used of course. We also operated the Erie Basin Marina for the City of Buffalo for one year, and politics being what they are someone else ended up with it the next season. Those two experiences were enough to convince us that in the future we would stick to ventures where we had more control of our destiny.
We are proud of the fact that we are still in business after all these years, when few others have been able to stick around this long…and we are far from finished. We have plenty of ideas for the future and the fire is still in the belly. We are most fortunate to be doing what we love to do and making a living at it. Yes, we have worked hard and done more things right than wrong, but many others are responsible for RCR Yachts being what it is today, one of the older, larger and most respected outfits in our field. We thank a very loyal and supportive customer base, many of whom have been with us for decades. We have been blessed to have had so many wonderful and talented employees who deserve a great deal of the credit for what we have been able to accomplish. If there is one regret we have in writing this history it is that we had far too many good staff members over the years to possibly include here, and if we tried we would only miss someone. But their collective contributions were immense.
It has been a privilege to be associated with some of the best industry pros over the years, since our industry is small enough that we could get to know them on a first name basis. Often the role of the supplier network is overlooked, but not in our case. We have been honored to represent some of the classic brands in sailing, and now power too. We survived our mistakes and good fortune has smiled upon us in many ways at different times. If we keep doing things the RCR way, we see no reason why we won’t be celebrating our 50th Anniversary next.
The Last 10 years of RCR: Following up on the story above, we bring you up to date on the occasion of our 50th Anniversary.
What has changed? Plenty! We now have a year-round presence in Ohio based in Sandusky. Ohio has become an increasingly important market for us. Our Sodus Point office is now a year-round location for us as well. Our share of the powerboat market continues to grow, with the addition of Beneteau’s Antares & Flyer lines. We are now a YBAA Endorsed Brokerage, and our salespeople are either Certified Professional Yacht Brokers or in training to become one (less than 10% of boat sale people in NA are CPYBs). Processes are more refined. Facilities and equipment have been improved. We have expanded our Buffalo dock system to a total of 155 slips, and we still store at least 300 boats over the winter, and quite a few in the summer too. In 2021 we built a new indoor heated showroom and storage building in Buffalo. It was filled immediately, and more indoor heated storage is in the planning for the future. A new Conolift hydraulic trailer was added in Buffalo five years ago and has increased efficiency and safety tremendously. More lighting, storage area, fencing, electricity, security and so on have made our Buffalo marina an even more desirable place to be. Even more important has been the development of our staff. We continue to attract talented people who enjoy the boat business like we do. These additions have expanded our service capabilities.
While RCR was changing, so was the boat business overall. There have been many external challenges for us to deal with. Looking back on the first 40 years we are reminded that there were many challenges then too, double-digit interest rates, luxury tax, valued builders ceasing operations, and the 2008 financial crisis, to name a few. More recently a systemic change in the way buyers shop for boats has been frustrating for those of us who know there is a better way. Self-education via the Internet is OK, but only to a point. We find many times people don’t know what they don’t know, and that is where we can bring value. The key to a pleasant boating experience is getting good help and advice. That has always been the case, but now more than ever. As boats have continued to increase in cost, both new and used, mistakes will be more costly. We have stepped up our marketing methods and tools so that the public will better understand what is available to them.
What has not changed is our dedication to boating and boaters. We know how fortunate we have been and continue to be. So many full, part time and seasonal employees have been with us over the past half-century, in various capacities, and to mention some would leave out many more. We are so thankful for their collective contributions to our success. Equally as important have been the legion of loyal customers and many suppliers who have been with us along the way. Our plan to is to keep on doing what we love to do, get better where we can, and constantly look for new opportunities. Thanks for reading our story!