BUSINESS PROFILE

John Peterson is helping Marlow-Hunter right the ship


John Peterson is president of sailboat builder Marlow-Hunter in Alachua.

Erica Brough/Staff
Published: Sunday, January 13, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 11, 2013 at 6:10 p.m.

Hunter Marine lasted 40 years as one of the world’s largest sailboat manufacturers but almost didn’t make it out of 2012.

Facts

John Peterson

Age: 60
Occupation: President, Marlow-Hunter LLC
Personal: Married 37 years to Anita, five grown children, one grandchild
Pet: Dalmatian named Charge
Dream partner for lunch: Father, who died in 1970
Favorite book: “We Were Soldiers Once … and Young” by Harold G. Moore
Last book read: “A Father First” by Dwayne Wade
Favorite TV show: “Modern Family”
Playing in his car: The Highway new country music on Sirius XM
Favorite listening: 1960s music and Elvis
Hobbies: Hiking, traveling, fan of the Green Bay Packers, Marquette basketball, Michigan football and hockey
Education: Marquette University, business administration, 1974; Golden Gate University, MBA, 1977; University of Wisconsin, master’s in marketing, 2006

First the recession devastated the recreational boating industry starting in 2008. From a peak of 1,200 boats and 425 employees in 2007, Hunter’s sales dropped to about 360 boats last year and it was down to 35 employees at the low point.

Then Hunter was saddled with debt and obligations from sister powerboat companies in the Luhrs Marine Group that went out of business in early 2012, a burden that was on pace to wipe out Hunter’s assets.

After parent company Morgan Industries filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in April, a minimum bidder for the Hunter brand that was needed to secure a loan to keep the sailboat builder in operation dropped out before another emerged on deadline day.

Since then, David Marlow, owner of Palmetto-based Marlow Yachts, bought Hunter out of bankruptcy auction. The new Marlow-Hunter company will continue the Hunter line that gained market share coming out of the recession for a larger piece of a smaller pie and has built its workforce back up to 160.

Taking the helm in rough seas was John Peterson, who was promoted to president in 2010 after joining Hunter as sales director in 1994 and becoming vice president in 2007.

Hunter made sure to protect its brand during the lean years. As dealerships went out of business and flooded the market with repossessed boats at slashed prices, Hunter bought back its boats and moved them to other dealers. Otherwise, the company would have been obliged to pay lenders the difference between the lower sales price and what the dealers owed the lenders.

A year ago, sister company Silverton shut down its yacht plant in New Jersey for 90 days to build up orders and the owners instructed Hunter to do the same.

Peterson decided to keep the plant open, fearing that dealers would be reluctant to place orders with a company that appeared to be teetering on the brink.

“I really felt that once you shutter something, you’re halfway out the door,” he said.

The Silverton plant never reopened.

Hunter did have to take other measures to stay in business. In addition to slashing its workforce, the company went to four-day work weeks and cut managers’ pay.

“It wasn’t fun. It was pretty devastating,” Peterson said. “I never would wish upon my worst enemy to have to go through all this under the gun.”

He said he had a core group of key, loyal managers to help him through the dark days.

Peterson is breathing a little easier, but said Marlow-Hunter is not completely out of the woods.

“We were deep in the woods. We’re kind of on the edge of the woods. In November we were cash neutral. In December, because of the holidays, we were a little behind.”

Peterson said he sees signs of hope. The housing market is improving. There is pent-up demand from baby boomers waiting to live the rest of their lives. U.S. boat builders reported that sales of fiberglass boats were up nearly 8 percent in September 2012 over September 2011, the latest data available from Statistical Surveys.

Hunter recently released a 40-foot sailboat and will start building the Mainship trawler that Marlow bought during the bankruptcy auction. He also bought the Luhrs property in St. Augustine, and Peterson said the coastal access could allow Hunter to build wider sailboats.

The company currently builds 14 different models from 14 feet to 50 feet long. Peterson said they will be paring down the number of sizes in between.

“Fourteen models was for the heyday,” he said.

Hunter sailboats are carried by 146 dealers worldwide, 88 of which are in the U.S.

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