Industry » Interviews » Interview: Mike Joyce, Hargrave Custom Yachts

Interview: Mike Joyce, Hargrave Custom Yachts

MikeJoyce

Mike Joyce’s career in business started in New York City where he found his way into the music industry as a recording artist, record producer, and a founder of the music video industry.

But he had other interests as well and among those were the strong pull to be near or on the water.

Growing up in Philadelphia, the Joyce family spent their summers in the beachfront community of Spring Lake, New Jersey.

By 1968, and unable to resist the tang of salty air and being outdoors, Mike decided to leave the music business and buy a large marina property in upstate New York, in the Thousand Islands.

In 1977, he sold his boat yard in New York and moved to Florida to work for legendary yacht designer Jack Hargrave.

In 1981 Mike opened a yacht importing business in Fort Lauderdale, distributing several leading brands of yachts before returning to take over the Hargrave Company in 1997.

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Since taking over the company he has led Hargrave to become the number one builder of custom yachts in the 70’-135’ size range in the US market. Mike is also a best selling author and has several writing projects in the works as well.

As Chairman/CEO of Hargrave, Mike continues to be a driving force in the marine industry.

A true gentleman who always takes the time to keep up with family and the many friends he has made over the years, his personality, professional demeanor, and deep knowledge of all things boating, have made him a mainstay on any dock. Mike Joyce, like the boat company he leads, is one-of-a-kind.

How did you get into the yachting industry?

I’d been fascinated by boats since I was a kid. I remember sitting on the second floor porch of our house in Spring Lake, NJ, watching the boats as they came and went. Some were close and fished around the jetties while others were racing up and down the farther coast offshore.

I spent endless hours looking at them through binoculars wondering what it would be like to have a boat. I’m kind of like the Father Flannigan of the marine industry, “There no such thing as a bad boat!!” I can see the beauty in all of them.

I’ve owned probably 30 boats, everything from a rowboat to a Riva. My first new boat was a 38’ 1972 Hatteras convertible that I bought from a competitor, Bill Banister at Northern Yachts. Walt Stein from GE Capital financed me and could not understand what I was doing. I explained that Hatteras was something everybody aspired to back then, even me, and I’ve owned three of them over the years.

Little did I know back then that someday I would own the design firm that created my dreamboat.

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What was the special relationship you and Jack Hargrave had? Known as the 'dean of American marine architects', what did it mean to you as you moved forward in the industry with the Hargrave brand?

I admired Jack, respected him, and was a huge fan of his designs, which to me are timeless. The Burgers, the Hatterases, the Halmatics, everything he designed appealed to me. I was so proud to go to work for him after I sold my boatyard in 1977.

I loved Jack’s work the same way I loved everything Frank Lloyd Wright did in his career. I still wear the same classic clothes I did 50 years ago – blue blazer, white button down shirt, regimental tie, pleated slacks, and penny loafers, and I believe great design never goes out of style whether it’s clothes, cars, boats, or planes.

I look at some of the radical yacht designs that came along over the past decades that later plunged in value and compare that to the work Jack did for companies like Hatteras and Burger that still have great resale value, and I believe Jack had it right.

He was a man of principle and he always gave the client the right advice. We still do that today, even when it hurts. Jack set the standards for our industry before there were standards for yachts like ABS, DNV, etc.

We still follow Jack’s design principles to this day. I mean we literally have a book of design standards by the master himself that we still refer to anytime we have a question. How cool is that!

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What do you love most about your job?

Spending time with the owners. One day it dawns on you that you are not just like them, that they are all different in some special way that leads them to great success in life. I used to be jealous about it when I first started but finally got over it.

Just this weekend I was on a sea trial listening to a guy who was an A player at the highest level in business telling stories of events he was involved it around the world, how they happened, what the different sides wanted, and how it all got worked out in the end. It’s like reading a great novel, exciting just to hear it.

I find it is a lot easier to go the extra mile in servicing the clients in the middle of the night when you respect and admire the people you worked for.

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What is the single biggest issue affecting yachting at the moment?

The cost per laugh is getting prohibitively high. I remember when a 53’ Hatteras motoryacht was under $100,000 and if you wanted the fly bridge that was an extra $125,000. Hell, I was always broke and I could afford one. Now a boat like that is over $1 million, and all the expenses are up just as dramatically. Every year we lose a percentage of our customers as the cost continues to escalate.

What keeps you awake at night?

Since Mike DiCondina took over as president of Hargrave? Nothing! He’s done an incredible job running the company and I now focus 100% of my time on the marketing side of our business. It’s the ideal semi-retirement plan.

You hang around with your friends and customers and someone else does all the heavy lifting. I recommend it highly!

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What would you change if you could?

I would change the way the industry explains what is involved in yacht ownership up front. I think we ignore or gloss over some things as an industry.

As an example, I have owned several planes over the years and I knew upfront exactly what was required to own it, operate it, and keep it certified. When the bills started rolling in I was prepared for them, maybe because my personal safety was at stake.

I think the reason why many people get out of boating in our size range (70’-140’) is fairly predictable and I have been working with Michael DiCondina to write a book that would help first time yacht owners to get the big picture and cover the more common problems so that it is not a bitter surprise later in the game.

With any luck we should have it done this summer. Two companies have offered to publish it.

The other thing I would change is the image of boats in the media.

Most people see boating, and especially yachting, as some elite activity and the implication is the owners must have stolen the money or they are career criminals or drug dealers.

Here in the States there are no TV shows featuring boats, for example, in the way the old TV series FLIPPER did, which was located in the Florida Keys and dealt with family values, or what Lloyd Bridges did with SEA HUNT; a show that added diving and a sense of adventure and drama in every show.

The most likable boaters in the last 30 years were probably the salty character of Captain Quint in Jaws, rascally Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, or perhaps the silliness of a Captain Ron. We can’t even do a good job of explaining our industry to the government, let alone the general public.

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What could you not do without?

I would say being on the water is the one thing I could not do without. I’ve thought about this question a lot over the years and I’m not sure I would still be alive it I had no access to water in the summer. I’m a water person.

When you go into the boat business you make a conscious decision that you are choosing lifestyle over money so to be in this business and not take advantage of all the opportunities to be out on the water in a boat is a “Greek Tragedy” in my book.

If you weren’t working on boats, what would you be doing?

I’d still be in the music business. I was good at it back in the 1960’s when rock music was exploding in all directions. It was high energy, creative, and fun and it changed every week.

I knew the power players in New York City back then (not sure they knew me!) and I looked like a real “up and comer” to the older generation who controlled the industry and who took me under their wing.

All my life I have had great mentors and looking back now, I realize that was no accident. They were all “Godwinks” as Squire Rushnell (ABC television president) described them so well in his book of that name.

What is your favorite Hargrave yacht?

I would say the 90’ J-Mar built by Stevens in California was my favorite design by Jack. I was working for Jack Hargrave when it was designed and when it was delivered in 1977 and it was so timeless, so classic, and so well thought out. That was a boat I aspired to personally.

I later got Jack together with Cheoy Lee for a successful series of yacht projects in the early 1980’s when I worked with Dave Jackson at Rex. From the boats we have designed and built since I took over the company it would be the 125’ Hargrave raised pilothouse GIGI II. When I walked into that boat for the first time it stopped me dead in my tracks.

I saw the design work that Shelley Interiors did during construction; saw the materials etc., but had no idea the impact would be that big on me. I think that one boat helped move our company to the next level. A lot of people who never took us seriously as custom yacht builders really got the vision from that design.

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What’s your favorite port to visit?

Key West is my personal favorite. It feels you’re on a different planet when you get there (and some local residents probably are!) 

I like the art scene, the restaurants, the barefoot atmosphere, the scale of the place, which you can walk comfortably, and the entertainment.

I have never gone to Key West and didn’t have a ball and say to myself, “I’ve got to get back here soon.” We have had several Hargrave rendezvous there over the years and everyone really enjoyed the experience.

What was your greatest experience on a boat?

Doing the inside passage to Alaska with Dr. and Mrs. Emmons aboard their 100’ Hargrave Raised Pilothouse LA MARCHESA. It never occurred to me that one day I would make a trip like that on a boat we designed and built.

It was one of those rare moments when you felt successful and realized you had accomplished something meaningful. We used a great hull that Jack had design for one of Alan Bond’s SOUTHERN CROSS yachts on that boat and I think that made it really special for me. I sometimes look at all the design and engineering we have in our drawers and shake my head in amazement.

We could start building motoryachts, trawlers, sportfish boats, and commercial boats in less than 30 days with the proven plans we own.

What was your worst experience on a boat?

Watching a grown man cry in the cockpit of his sportfish boat 30 years ago when he realized he had been screwed by an engine manufacturer and there was nothing he (or I) could do about it.

I swore that I would never use that brand of engine again and that’s why we have been 100% CAT since we started this project. I said from day one I would rather lose an order than switch engines, and I have lost a few orders, but not many.

Since the day I started building Hargrave yachts CAT has never let me down once. In case you don’t know it, that’s very unusual in the boat business.

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What’s the funniest thing you’ve seen or heard on a yacht?

I had a client from Belgium named Michel DuPont who bought a wood motoryacht from me back in the early 1980’s. He ran into his surveyor Paul Anstey and rushed up to tell him of his adventures and Paul, with a look of horror said, “I failed that boat” and Michel said “I know, but I liked it and bought it anyhow.” As my brother Tom used to say, “There are no victims in life, only volunteers!”

Which of the many Hargrave yachts was the most challenging?

It was actually a smaller aluminum boat we built in the USA. We wound up going to court in the end and learned during discovery that the yard was in desperate trouble the day we made the first payment.

We paid double the original estimate before we were done with that one. We’ve been doing this at Hargrave for over 50 years so there is not much we haven’t seen over the years. When we see it coming in advance we literally send a letter to the owner telling him what his problems will be at some new yard that has caught his fancy, and we are rarely wrong.

Since I took over Hargrave we have never left a boat unfinished in a boatyard. Even when they are running on fumes we know how to manage the cash flow and get the boat delivered.

That’s why I love Kha Shing, they’re rich and can afford to be wrong, and many custom yards can’t handle a hiccup. I just read about one yard here in the States that had a cash call for all the owners in the building. This is a really tough business in case you hadn’t heard.

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Who do you most admire in the world of yachting?

That’s easy, Orin Edson, who is the only man in history who ever became a billionaire by starting in the boat business. He built Bayliner into the largest boat company in the world, sold it to Brunswick, and then went into the yacht business and created the Westport as we know it today.

I wanted to write a book with him. I think it is a story that needs to be recorded for history. Maybe now that he sold Westport he might consider it.

What does the future for yachting look like?

I don’t know, but it will be radically different, and it will be great. We are on the back edge of the post WW II business model in our industry, our demographics get worse every year, and I think the NMMA said the average boater is now 55 and growing older.

Like the music industry, the newspaper industry, and a lot of others, I think it will implode and go through a creative destruction phase. Just look at the sharing generation and you can see the future. You see what Uber did to the taxi industry? How would you like to be in the auto industry and find out young people have no desire to own a car?

This won’t be pretty, but the future will be better than the past and people will always want to be on the water for emotional, physical, and spiritual needs. Man has been going to sea for thousands of years and that urge is buried into our DNA.

What do you consider to be your greatest achievement?

Finally recognizing twenty years ago that God was running my life and I was wasting a lot of time swimming against the current thinking I was in charge.

To drive the point home He sent a client from my past to buy the biggest boat for sale in the world and it was impossible to pretend that I had anything to do with it when you saw how it unfolded.

Since then I have focused on what God was sending to me every day to take care of and left Him in charge of the “business plan” and I guess that is why we were able to power through this unending depression in the boating industry when so many competitors crashed into the wall.

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What do you enjoy doing when you’re not working?

I spend every summer on an island in the Thousand Islands with my wife, four dogs, seven boats, and lots of friends, family, and customers who visit us. It’s like running a summer camp for free. I started my boating career there when I bought a marina on the US side back in 1968 and have been returning ever since.

What is the Mike Joyce take on boat shows? 

They are critical to our business plan. When I came up with the current vision of our company I decided to build the business around boat shows. I met with Andrew Doole at Show Management, gave him my vision, showed him the commitment we were making with them in terms of the percentage of our marketing budget, and they have really supported us as we grew over the years and moved around their shows.

If a builder can’t find their niche at the Lauderdale, Miami, and Palm Beach shows then just go home and don’t waste a lot of money trying to break into the US market. 

What is your favorite book or film about the sea?

I was a Cheoy Lee dealer for fourteen years and Doug and Joan Kerr who built Tom Fexas’ biggest boat at the time got me hooked on the Patrick O’Brian novels, referred to as the Aubrey Maturin tales. They were about tall ships during the Napoleonic age when Britain ruled the seas - “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

I think there were 22 books in all and I couldn’t put them down. I would stay up all night sometimes just to keep reading. When I finished I felt like I could step on the deck of any square-rigged man o'war ship and give the orders. Russell Crowe starred in the movie version which was called MASTER & COMMANDER, and it did not disappoint any fans of the book series. (Well, there’s another positive reference.)

What is your motto?

What I always remind Mike DiCondina who runs Hargrave now, “Remember, if this was easy everybody’d be doing it.”


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