3rd-generation marina rides the ebb tides

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A tough economy is nothing new to the Gardella family, which opened Rex Marine — now a third-generation business — in Norwalk, Conn., during the Great Depression.

Louis J. Gardella signed on to be a Chris-Craft dealer in 1936, and those who run the marina say the company has endured because its adaptability and diversity have continued to make it relevant to the customer.

Rex Marine, circa 1948, is still in the former home of the Sealship Oyster Company.

For instance, Rex Marine was one of the first in the area to offer large-scale indoor dry-rack storage in the late 1980s when they began to run out of dock space. And their diversity of services — from a ships store to a MarineMax showroom on site — has made them popular in the area.

“Rex thrives on referrals,” says Bill Gardella Jr., vice president and general manager. “Nobody’s perfect, but when we make mistakes we fix them and take care of our people. … We’re not the cheapest place, but we offer premium service.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is Gardella. Like his father and grandfather before him, he is always looking for ways to introduce new people to boating, even in this tough economy.

Bill Gardella Jr. and Sr. at Rex Marine today.

The latest hook is the Rex Boating Club where members pay a fee at the beginning of the boating season and have 10 boats to choose from. The setup differs from fractional ownership in that there’s no ownership. Boaters schedule dates on which to take the boats out, enjoy them, and bring them back. No maintenance. No storage.

“It increases that pool of people getting exposure to boating,” says Gardella, 47. “The entry costs are low and the exit costs are non-existent. There’s nothing to dispose of or worry about. It’s a very simple model.”

American success story

Rex Marine’s philosophy owes much to the man who started the business: Gardella’s grandfather, Louis J. Gardella.

“He was born in 1905 and is just an American success story,” says the younger Gardella. “He came from nothing and busted his tail to build this business. It was a dubious move to sell boats in the Depression, but somehow he made it work.”

The boating business faced another challenge during World War II when pleasure boats weren’t allowed on the water, says Gardella. In response, his grandfather joined the Coast Guard Auxiliary and helped patrol the waterfront. When the war was over, he went back to building his business.

“People liked him. He was firm … fair-dealing and good to his customers,” says Gardella. “He was a no-nonsense guy, but fair.”

In 1948 Louis Gardella bought another piece of land in Norwalk, now known as Norwalk Cove Marina, a sister company to Rex Marine. The president of Rex Marine was Gardella Jr.’s uncle, who served in the position from the late 1960s until his death in 1986. Bill Gardella Sr. took over soon after, at a time when the marina was running out of slips. In response, the company built a facility on a 5-acre plot that would accommodate 200 dry-rack slips in addition to the 48 existing outdoor rack slips.

In 1987 Rex Marine built a 200-slip dry-rack facility.

“I don’t know if we were the first to do this, but we were certainly one of the first to have the large-capacity storage,” says Gardella. “It is fully enclosed and four levels high.”

These days, Rex Marine typically stores 425 boats for the winter on indoor and outdoor racks; there is no in-water storage available.

During the recession of the early 1990s, boat sales were no longer working as part of Rex Marine’s business model, says Gardella, and the company was once again faced with a decision on how to move forward. They decided in 1992 it would be more profitable to rent out their showroom to MarineMax than continue selling boats themselves.

“It was hurting us at that time, trying to move this big inventory,” says Gardella. “And we were still making money from our storage and ships store. It just made more economical sense to rent.”

Rex Marine also operates the store and fuel dock at Norwalk Cove Marina. “We’ve been operating the fuel dock there since the 1950s,” says Gardella. “But in the spring of 2006 we opened up a whole new ships store there.”

Gardella worked at Rex Marine as service manager and dockmaster until, about six years ago, he took over as general manager from his father.

Gardella says the ships store now carries Mercury and Zodiac inflatables, Mercury and Yamaha outboards, Load Rite trailers, Garmin GPS and a variety of electronics.

Rex Marine is also a factory-authorized parts dealer and service provider of MerCruiser sterndrives and inboards as well as Mercury outboards, and has been for the last 45 years. It is authorized to repair and sell MerCruiser and Mercury Marine parts, Yanmar diesel engines, Crusader, Yamaha, Volvo Penta and many others. The service department takes on rebuilding sterndrives and repowering jobs, and includes a Yamaha service and repair center, and a warranty service center for Crusader and Yanmar. Rex also sells used boats (www.yachtworld.com/rexmarine).

Last year Rex Marine made its services mobile with “Rex on the Road,” which travels offsite to make repairs for local clients.

“Often our customers don’t have a lot of time, so they expect us to care for their boats and give them great service,” says Gardella. “And that’s a niche we’re proud to occupy.”

For information, visit www.rexmarine.com.

See related story:

- A unique alternative to owning a boat

This article originally appeared in the Connecticut & New York Home Waters Section of the August 2009 issue.

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