Skip to main content

Boat show pioneer was Florida icon

Kaye Pearson revolutionized the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and the region’s marine industry

Some people paddle behind the wave, while others are pummeled by it. Friends, family and associates say Kaye Pearson rode the wave with great skill, uncanny vision and hard-earned success.

Kaye Pearson

Pearson, architect of the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show, a founder of the Superyacht Society, producer of Miami’s Beach’s Yacht and Brokerage Show and a philanthropist who supported causes for children and animals, died at his home March 21 after battling cancer. He was 68 years old.

Pearson started in the marine industry in 1971 as a partner in Pearson Potter Yacht Basin on the New River and quickly showed a talent for promotion. A member of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, he took over managing the association’s show in 1976 when it had 20 boats in the water, another 20 boat displays landside and 30 booths. During the next 30 years, his Show Management promotion firm built the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show into one of the world’s largest — six locations, 3 million square feet of space, 1,500 exhibitors, 1,600 boats, $2 billion worth of product.

“He dreamed big, but I think that [kind of growth] was beyond even his dreams,” says Cheri Pearson, his wife and partner of 27 years.

“The show and the industry in South Florida grew together,” says Andrew Doole, a senior vice president at Show Management and associate of Pearson’s since joining the company in 1984. “One couldn’t have grown without the other.”

Thinking big

In the late 1980s and ’90s, Pearson and Doole saw the wave of megayacht construction gathering momentum and decided to devote a part of the show to the big yachts.

Today, the Lauderdale show is one of the premier shows for yachts of more than 80 feet with more than 200 on display. Pearson became a co-founder of the Superyacht Society and helped put Fort Lauderdale on the map as a base for superyacht repair and services.

“Kaye … brought the megayacht market to our South Florida boating community with the growth of the boat show, and today over 1,500 megayachts visit the ‘Yachting Capital of the World’ annually, bringing huge economic benefits and global recognition,” says Frank Herhold, MIASF executive director.

Pearson also saw an opening for a big brokerage show in South Florida, and parlayed the Florida Yacht Brokers annual show into the Yacht and Brokerage Boat Show in Miami Beach, drawing more than 500 in-water boats to a mile-long stretch of the beach’s Indian Creek. He started boat shows in Palm Beach and St. Petersburg, managed the Suncoast show in Sarasota, helped stage the popular Chili Cook-Off in Pembroke Pines and Sun-Fest in West Palm Beach, and, over the years, managed shows in Texas, New York, San Francisco and the Bahamas.

The Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show grew to one of the world's largest under Pearson's management.

Pearson sold Show Management in 2006 to Efrem “Skip” Zimbalist III’s Active Interest Media, the year after he and his team performed what many thought to be impossible. They tore down and reassembled the Lauderdale show within 10 days of Hurricane Wilma, opening it just six days late.

After selling his management company, Pearson went on to pursue a longtime dream to build Chub Cay in the Bahamas into a world-class family resort, a project he was working on when he succumbed to cancer.

“That was kind of a dream of his for as long as I can remember,” says his wife Cheri. She and Pearson had looked forward to spending time at Chub relaxing and fishing, which, along with hunting, was a favorite pastime of his. “I think he thought he was going to slow down, but that wasn’t in his nature,” she says. “He loved to work.”

Community leader

Besides working on Chub, he also was chairman of International Marinas, which built the Chub marina and designed, built and managed marinas internationally.

Pearson became an industry icon, one in a class with Bertram Yachts founder Dick Bertram and megayacht builder Frank Denison, founder of Broward Marine, Doole says, but he also was a boss who inspired great loyalty.

“He was hard-charging, he was demanding,” says Doole. “He worked hard and expected everyone to do the same, but he was a hands-on guy. He was down there getting his hands dirty, too. He was on-site at the show. That was his style.”

Cheri remembers him as an honest man — his word as good as a contract, caring and “very, very generous.” He forged close ties to the community, giving time and money to charities for children and animals: Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, Florida Ocean Sciences Institute for troubled youth, Museum of Science, Fish Florida license plate (which raises money to teach children to fish), Broward County Library Foundation, International Game Fish Association, The Literary Feast reading program and the Humane Society of Broward County.

Firm foundation

Pearson was born July 22, 1940, in Terre Haute, Ind., but his parents moved to Miami when he was a toddler. He graduated from Miami High School, attended the University of Florida for a time and graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in business. One of his first businesses was a secretarial pool, Cheri Pearson says. He worked for a mobile-home leasing company for a while, tried his hand as a stock market investor, then partnered with Larry Potter in Pearson Potter Yacht Basin, a boatyard on the New River, she says.

Pearson had been around boats since he was a youngster. Looking through old photos, Cheri found some of Utopia, a waterski boat Pearson used as a teen. He raced Miami-built SeaCraft outboards in the early ’70s. Through the years, the couple had owned two Rybovich sportfishermen, both named Showpiece; an Intrepid named Show-off; a Cigarette that Pearson called Showtime; and two Hatterases, their current one a 68-foot Convertible — also called Showpiece, Cheri says. He was an avid big-game fisherman, fished and won tournaments, and bought the classic Bertram Hatteras Shootout Bahamas billfish tournament several years ago.

He is survived by his wife; a daughter, Jennifer Moore; a granddaughter, Alexandria Moore; his brother, Jerry Pearson; his sister, Janet Powell; his father- and mother-in-law, Earl and Ann Skeens; eight nieces; 10 nephews; four great-nieces; three great-nephews; four brothers-in-law and five sisters-in-law.

“He will be badly missed,” says Cheri, “most of all by me.”

Contributions in Pearson’s memory can be made to the Boys & Girls Club of Broward County, the IGFA or the Humane Society of Broward County.

This article originally appeared in the Florida and the South Home Waters Section of the June 2009 issue.