The MJM origin story is well documented and oft told. As he grew older, famed sailboat builder Bob Johnstone was looking to trade in his sails and winches for a powerboat that he and his wife, Mary, could cruise aboard comfortably. Not seeing exactly what he wanted on the market, he set out to do what any good boatbuilder would do: create it himself, with the help of naval architect Doug Zurn. A couple years later, Mary Johnstone’s Motorboat was splashed, and MJM Yachts was born.
Since then, MJM has carved a niche for itself in the crowded Downeast market. Hundreds of MJMs were built under Johnstone’s watchful eye at Boston Boatworks. I’ve had the opportunity to test multiple models with Johnstone over the years and always walked away impressed with the quality of construction, the swiftness and efficiency of the ride and a respect for the company’s founder, who took such a personal approach to his business.
For decades, Bob’s life in the boat business bled into his home life. For his children, that sometimes meant making sacrifices for the good of the family business. When he was 12 years old, Peter, the youngest of the Johnstone brood, had to relinquish his bedroom so it could be used as an office for J/Boats, the company Bob founded with his brother Rod in 1977.
Peter says he didn’t begrudge the displacement. In fact, he laughs at the memory. “My dad told me, ‘We need your bedroom, and you can go sleep up in the attic.’ But I didn’t mind; it was part of the
adventure and a lot of excitement with the new business,” he says.
That period wasn’t the family’s first foray in the marine industry. “Boats first started coming into our lives when my dad went to work at Sunfish in the mid-1970s,” says Peter. “That was when the real business part of boating happened in our house. Since then, there has always been boat talk around the dinner table.”
I asked Peter if the move out of his bedroom made him feel more connected to the family business, as if he had more skin in the game. “No question,” he replies. “I think that a sense of adventure has always been in this particular family. It’s evident in the way we went cruising, when my brothers slept in lazarette lockers on a small sailboat. There was adventure in starting a business and making sacrifices to make it happen. The process wasn’t viewed as any big deal. We just took the steps necessary to help the cause.”
An imaginative young man, Peter felt the pull of the sea and the boat business at a young age. When he wasn’t out sailing with his siblings and friends, he could be found leaning atop his schoolbooks sketching sailboat designs all over the margins. Peter would go on to enjoy a mostly successful career in the marine industry running a number of prestigious boat brands. If there’s one disappointment on his resume, it’s GunBoat, a cutting-edge sailboat company that he founded in 2000. After 15 years spent building boats that captured the attention and imagination of the sailing world, he was forced to file Chapter 11, citing issues with his overseas builder.
“That was a painful period, but I also learned more from that failure than from anything else in my life,” says Peter. “You can add up all the successes I’ve had, and there are a lot. As I say, I’m 7-and-1 with boat businesses.”
The experience of losing something that he had poured his heart into cut deep, but it also taught Peter a valuable lesson about not letting outside entities determine a person’s destiny. When he joined MJM in an official capacity a few years ago, he was intent on protecting the family business from the situation he experienced at GunBoat.
“I think building boats with subcontractors is very challenging, and it’s remarkably rare that it works long-term,” he says. “So, when I got involved with MJM, the whole business was based on a subcontractor, and I knew we had to set up our own manufacturing to gain capacity, even if that subcontractor were to remain with us long-term.”
Peter began pressing his father as early as 2016 to build out MJM’s own production facility rather than rely solely on Boston Boatworks. Even after they started looking at properties, it took Peter another two to three years to get Bob to come around to the idea. Roughly two years ago, MJM set up an incubator shop in Washington, North Carolina, “a small shop just to start building the organizational structure and processes and people,” he says.
Today, that kid who slept in the attic is at the helm of MJM, having purchased the company from his father last year. He’s now working feverishly to take his family’s company to the next level. While Boston Boatworks continues to build MJMs at the Boston facility (a partnership he hopes will continue in perpetuity since that company built the very first MJM), Peter is laser-focused on building out a workforce in his new 200,000-square-foot facility in Washington, North Carolina.
The fruit of that labor has come to fruition in the form of the new boat I’m in Washington to see—the 3z. It’s MJM’s first dual-console design. The factory floor is humming with activity as I watch employees prepare to infuse the hull of a 3z. Helping to keep the workforce moving in lockstep is another son of boatbuilding royalty, Reggie Fountain III. He was brought on as operations manager. I bump into him on the shop floor and ask how he likes his new role. He seems genuinely excited about the challenge of building the facility from the ground up. Peter chimes in and jokes that the racing prodigy is “always trying to convince us to put the new Mercury 600s on the boats.”
For now, the focus at MJM is on growing and training a workforce of the future to meet Peter’s ambitious goals for the company. As we stroll through the arena-size plant he tells me that he hopes to build 20 boats in this facility this year and 60 the year after. “What about the year after that?” I ask. He laughs. “It’s going to be a big jump from there,” he says with sincerity. “We’re going to bring the brand to a much larger audience.”
With a dealer network that continues to grow (24 and counting at the time of my visit) the demand exists. Peter says that boats are sold out until 2023. Still, I wonder why he chose to plant the flag for this Downeast-styled brand in North Carolina. “It’s cheaper to build here, and there are good people with strong work ethics,” he explains. “There’s government support for businesses, it’s centrally located to supply chains and there’s better access to Florida, which is 25 percent of our market.”
As we leave the factory and head for the dock where the 3Z is tied up, I mention to Peter that it feels like I just toured a 20-year-old startup. “That’s exactly the right description,” he says with a laugh. “Tell you what, how I view it: My dad created this incredible platform with a hard-won reputation and fantastic base products. The brand was going in a fantastic direction. All we’re doing is putting a real business behind it now and fulfilling the potential, the promise, the direction that my dad established. That’s all we’re doing. In my view it’s not bold at all; we’re just letting the brand reach its potential.”
It’s gray and drizzling when we reach the 3z. Not a great day for a boat test, I think to myself as I step through the starboard-side hull door. At the helm, I note three large windows that open at the touch of a switch, and the enormous side windows.
I’m walking through the canvas enclosure between the salon and cockpit when it hits me, or rather, doesn’t hit me—the rain. It dawns on me that this is actually the perfect day to test this kind of boat. If it were sunny, the boat would really open up and offer the connection to the water that has attracted so many to the center console market, but in poor conditions this dual console closes to create a cozy, climate-controlled atmosphere. Contributing to that comfort is the head with shower in the port console and the changing room to starboard.
In the open water of Pamlico Sound, I channel my inner (read: wannabe) Reggie Fountain and push the 3z to its top speed of 41 knots. Visibility is excellent all around the boat as I pass other vessels only in my imagination. Smooth with incredible tracking and a pillow-soft landing when running over our own wake, my ride for the day is a heck of a lot more comfortable than the cavity-rattling race boats that once ruled these waters.
You don’t need to spend a lot of time running the 3z to realize it lives up to the performance and handling expectations set by its sisterships. As we head back for the dock, I ask Peter about the impetus behind the new facility and his desire for growth. Wouldn’t his life be easier if MJM stayed a small boutique builder that turned out a small number of high-quality boats?
“I don’t know, you’re given one shot at this life,” he says. “I think my feeling is, you’re put on this planet for a reason, so go maximize it. Don’t do things halfway just to get a paycheck, but try and make as many people’s lives better with what you’re doing. For us, that happens to be building and selling boats that really are better and make families’ lives better.”
This article was originally published in the December 2021 issue.