Lauderdale marina still a family affair - Soundings Online

Lauderdale marina still a family affair

Author:
Publish date:

Bob Cox used to keep a loaded Colt .45 revolver and a thick piece of fiberglass in his desk at the marina. When a client challenged the material’s durability, he’d lean the fiberglass up against an old piling and let the customer shoot at it.

“Those were the days when companies would throw a fiberglass boat out a second-story window [to prove its strength],” says the 90-year-old Cox, founder of Lauderdale Marina, which is celebrating its 60th year in business in Fort Lauderdale. “You were selling the material rather than the brand for years.”

When Cox arrived in Fort Lauderdale in 1946 on his 83-foot motorsailer Ungava, he hadn’t planned to open a marina. He had struck out for Florida to start a small-engine building business, but legal troubles KOed his partner and their business plan, so he was stuck in Fort Lauderdale with no job prospects and no place to keep his boat — which also was his home. He couldn’t find a marina deep enough for Ungava’s nine-foot-draft or a dock where he could fuel it.

“There wasn’t a gas pump on the [Intracoastal Waterway] from Palm Beach to Miami,” says Cox. “There was one lousy marina in Fort Lauderdale.”

Huss Marina, built 12 years earlier on the ICW at the Las Olas Boulevard bridge, was near the end of its useful life. Its slips were shallow, the wiring was bad, and it boasted a single shower stall reputedly built by a boat owner in exchange for a bottle of whiskey, Cox recalls. The marina was woefully inadequate.

It was not a pretty picture, but where some might have seen a dead end, Cox saw opportunity. The one place he could find with docks deep enough for Ungava was a semi-abandoned Navy torpedo research station on the ICW, just north of Port Everglades inlet. The Navy had installed fuel tanks there for its boats, ran a waterline a half-mile to the remote property and erected a concrete-block building to serve as offices. It looked to Cox like an ideal spot for a marina.

Fort Lauderdale was still very much a diamond in the rough. Developers had dug a network of canals in and around the city to fill surrounding swamp land, most of which remained undeveloped after the great Florida land bust of 1926.

“I looked at those hundreds of miles of canals and saw that the only way for boats to get to the ocean was past this [Navy] dock,” he says.

He saw dollar signs.

A graduate in engineering from California Institute of Technology, Cox helped design the Flushing Boat Basin for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, later joined an aircraft engine company, then worked as chief engineer at a defense plant in New York during the war. That’s when he acquired Ungava — a William Hand-designed motorsailer that had carried scientists on pre-war expeditions to the Arctic Ocean. The government used it for wartime coastal patrol. Cox bought her after she was released from duty and lived on her at the Flushing marina.

“I spent two winters in the ice,” he says. “I hated New York.”

So after the war he made a beeline for Florida.

Cox docked Ungava at the Navy station, and when the property reverted to its pre-war owner, he negotiated a deal to open a fuel station there — Lauderdale Marina. His first sale: 48 gallons of gasoline. Today Lauderdale Marina sells close to 1.5 million gallons of fuel a year from 11 pumps on a 365-foot fuel dock, according to Scott Clark, Cox’s grandson and the marina’s general manager.

On his second day in business, a boater asked Cox if he carried ice. “You couldn’t get cake ice anywhere,” he says, so he bought a surplus military trailer with a freezer to store ice. He installed cigarette machines and bait wells, and supplied anglers with box lunches ordered the night before. He kept his cash in a cigar box until he found out he needed a cash register to record revenues for sales tax purposes. It was a learning experience. “It was fun,” Cox says.

Cox says Lauderdale Marina is Fort Lauderdale’s longest-running business still in operation under one owner — his family. At a time when corporate owners are gobbling up marinas, Lauderdale Marina remains a mom-and-pop (and nephew and niece and in-law and children and grandchildren) marina. Three generations have a hand in it, and a fourth is coming up. “I believe in nepotism,” Cox says.

He remains chairman of the board of Lauderdale Marina and The Shipyard LLC, which includes all the tenants on the four-acre property. His son, John Clark, is the marina president, and grandson Scott Clark is its general manager. Cox’s son-in-law, Ted Drum, an owner with his son, Kelly, of Drum Realty, manages the slips and tenants, and he brokers waterfront and other premiuim properties from offices at the marina. Kelly Drum and Scott Clark are partners in 15th Street Boat company, which leases out Boston Whalers. Another Cox grandson, Will Clark, works in the marina’s parts department. Twenty-five members of the Cox family — adults and children — live in the neighborhood, and on a Sunday many of them can be found breaking bread at 15th Street Fisheries, the popular seafood restaurant (now owned by the family, as well) that overlooks the ICW from the marina.

The property, one of the city’s prime commercial parcels, is listed at $7.7 million by the Broward County appraiser’s office. While many mom-and-pops are perpetually for sale at the right price, this one isn’t — and that’s for real.

“It’s a great piece of property that will only become more valuable,” says realtor Ted Drum. “We all like what we’re doing. Why would we sell it?”

Indeed, why? Lauderdale Marina’s Boston Whaler dealership perennially ranks among the top five in single-location sales. The fuel dock is the busiest in Florida and one of the largest on the East Coast. The restaurant is a Florida landmark. The 70-slip marina is 10 minutes from the ocean. Its deep-draft facing docks are coveted by megayacht captains. The marina and ancillary Shipyard house a boatyard with Travelift, Grand Banks dealership, yacht brokerage, Towboat U.S. facility,  Mercury and Yamaha dealership, outboard service shop, ship’s store and Homeland Security station — all just inside the 17th Street Causeway bridge.

“It’s a unique place,” says restaurant manager Carlos Rives, who shows off the 500-seat eatery, where patrons can see 200-pound tarpon cavorting at the dock. 

The marina complex has grown with the city. Cox says there was no Bahia Mar or Pier 66 or Marriott hotel and marina nearby when he arrived in Fort Lauderdale, just Australian pines, mangroves and vacant manmade islands.

He was the first boat dealer in the Southeast to introduce fiberglass boats, at the 1949 boat show at the seaplane hanger in Coconut Grove. “I was an engineer,” he says. “I had some exposure to this new stuff.” He had done some repair work with fiberglass and had coated Ungava’s cabin top with it.

He introduced three fiberglass boat brands at Miami and over 60 years represented some 40 brands, though the marina has sold just one — Boston Whaler — since 1973. Many of the boat companies are long out of business. Cox counted 200 fiberglass boatbuilders between Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

“There was a fiberglass boat company in every two-car garage in Florida,” he says. “You couldn’t get a good fiberglass boat franchise.”

In the 1960s, he started a side business designing vertical dry stacks — all wood, three tiers, for boats to 21 feet. “I thought this was the greatest thing since sliced bread,” he says. “I wondered why I didn’t I think of it first.”

He also was a founding member of the Marine Industries Association of South Florida and a co-founder of the Fort Lauderdale boat show, which still helps fund the association. Among his partners in birthing an industry that now is one of the largest in Broward County (it generates 134,000 jobs and $10.7 billion in revenue) are Evinrude dealer Ben Bollinger; Broward Marine’s Frank Denison; Joe Schabo, a local writer; and the Rudy Boat Company — the Chris-Craft dealership.

Mayor of Fort Lauderdale from 1986-91 and member of the city commission for 20 years before that, Cox was a key figure in building Fort Lauderdale’s reputation as the “Venice of the Americas.” He pushed for dredging the city’s waterways so deeper-draft boats could use them and for tearing down low bridges that weren’t really needed, but blocked boat access to the residential canals.

Cox and his successors trained dozens of employees on the marina’s docks and sales floor that have gone on to successful careers in the industry. One is John Ward, president of Boston Whaler, who worked at the fuel dock in 1976.

“He loves to come down here [to Fort Lauderdale] and hang out at the marina,” says Dave Bearden, Cox’s Boston Whaler sales manager.

The marina and restaurant have also drawn many celebrities, among them Johnny Carson, Ed McMahon, Arthur Godfrey, Don Johnson, and Billy Joel. “Cornel Wilde, he was interesting,” says Bearden. “He made the movie [Shark’s Treasure, 1975] about sharks — Great Whites. We supplied the inflatables for it.”

As much history as the marina has seen, “You can’t live too much in history,” says general manager Clark. The family is looking forward. They bought the restaurant from the Hursts, a prominent restaurant family, a year-and-a-half ago, after the death of Andy Hurst, and just finished an upgrade. They’re also planning to install a 125-foot section of floating dock to replace a fuel dock that’s been there since 1964. Cox’s filling station on the water continues to evolve.

In the early ’50s, gasoline was 39 cents a gallon. Now it’s pushing $5 a gallon, a price that is hard for many boaters to swallow. General manager Clark says fuel sales are holding up, though just barely. He says boaters are starting to hold the line on their fuel purchases to a dollar limit. He’s not sure what will happen if the price tops $6. Meanwhile, U.S. boat sales are down a quarter in some segments. Bearden says his Whalers are selling at about the same pace as last year, a tribute perhaps to Whaler’s popularity and the marina’s loyal clientele. Tough times are nothing new to a company that has seen six decades of business cycles and opened at a time when there was just a fraction of the 50,0000 vessels now registered in the county.

“[Cox] hung in there and prevailed when it was hard to do,” Bearden says.

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue.