@WORK: Bill Larson
The owner of Little River Marine sells his lightweight rowing crafts worldwide
Published: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 1:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, April 17, 2012 at 1:23 p.m.
Bill Larson started making fiberglass rowing boats on a college dare.
ABOUT BILL LARSON
Bill Larson, 54, founder and designer, Little River Marine
PERSONAL: Three children: Sarah 15, Chasen 8, Connor 6
PETS: Dogs, horses, chickens, rabbits and occasionally frogs, lizards, turtles and snakes.
DREAM PARTNER FOR LUNCH: Jesus
FAVORITE BOOK: Psalms
LAST BOOK READ: “Humility” by Andrew Murray
FAVORITE TV SHOW: “Monday Night Football”
PLAYING IN HIS CAR: Classic rock, country, Christian
HOBBIES: Fly fishing, rowing, bow hunting, backpacking, the Gators and anything with my kids
EDUCATION: B.S. in accounting, University of Florida
“I kept mouthing off to my buddies about how cool it would be to make these things,” he said. “A couple of them got tired of hearing me say it. Dared me to shut up and do it. The next thing I knew I was too into debt to stop making them.”
That was 35 years ago.
Today, Little River Marine has built more than 10,000 lightweight fiberglass and carbon fiber rowing crafts designed by Larson with customers on every continent but Antarctica. The company has nine employees working out of 22,000 square feet of warehouse space near Depot Park and a warehouse in Pagosa Springs, Colo.
Larson's interest in rowing boats started in high school when a neighbor in Hobe Sound who was a former Swedish national champion rower taught him to row and sold him his shell.
“I just fell in love with it. On weekends I would jump in it and row all day with a dime in my pocket,” he said.
The dime was so he could call his parents to pick him up from wherever he stopped.
He was majoring in management at the University of Florida when his friends goaded him into making his own shells to sell. He went to his counselors at UF to find out what classes to take to learn how to operate a business. That led to a degree in accounting.
The business started in 1977 in the garage of a home he was renting. A couple friends, including one who worked for a boat company by day, helped make the boats.
After a few tries, they built a boat they were happy with and snuck into the Miami Boat Show where they subleased space and took orders.
They started with shells -- narrow craft with sliding seats that use long oars.
As Larson got older, he started experimenting with sliding seat skiffs, wider boats that don't require constant oar handling to stay balanced and are easier to enter and exit from a conventional dock.
“It allows passengers, a picnic basket, a fishing pole,” he said.
He came out with his first of three models of skiffs around 2000, about the same time he started using carbon fiber.
His favorite is the Heritage 15 model.
“It fits me like a glove. It loves ocean rowing. It's light enough for car topping and to walk down an embankment. I take my kids. My 8-year-old, he'll row me all day and just let me throw a fly rod.”
He is now experimenting with four new models.
Larson said sales growth over the years has been slow and steady, except during economic downturns. With about a dozen competitors, he said their boats are priced in the middle.
An interest in fitness has helped.
“The interest in being healthy and doing it with arguably the best cardiovascular sport there is and being on the water has an appeal that isn't a fad appeal,” he said.
“There's a reason why there's a rowing machine in every gym. Everything's being used all at the same time through a full range of motion with no jarring and no pounding.”
Larson was a rowing racer into his early 30s, but now prefers adventure rowing, which is how he started in high school.
He has gone fly fishing down the Rio Grande, rowed alpine lakes and gone out seven miles into the Gulf Stream to catch kingfish and grouper off the Florida Keys.
“I love going where I've never been and doing something like fish or camp or hunt,” he said.
Most of his crafts are sold to individuals over the Internet, but about a dozen dealers in the U.S. and worldwide carry his crafts.
Larson or one of his employees will take a week off to personally deliver their crafts and teach customers how to row, having gone as far as Seattle, California and Canada. A pickup carrying two shells and a trailer with five skiffs was loaded and ready to head to Maine early last week. They also have a crew of retirees who like to travel to deliver the boats.
Larson said he was on a delivery run to Philadelphia when he got stuck in traffic outside Washington, D.C., for two or three hours.
“I was on a bridge. I said, ‘That's it.' I pulled over, grabbed a boat and rowed like three miles up to this beautiful waterfall and rode back. I had a total new attitude.”