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New owner has mega plans for yacht yard

Tom Lewis envisions a busy boatbuilding future for Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Marine

Tom Lewis envisions a busy boatbuilding future for Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Marine

Think of it as a pepperonipizza. You really just want a bite of it, but you wind up eating the whole thing. That’s what happened to Tom Lewis. He just wanted to buy a megayacht. He wound up buying the megayacht yard — Broward Marine, a Florida institution.

Lewis, chief executive officer and president of LPI Holdings LLC, a commercial real estate development company, bought the faltering Dania, Fla., builder in March for an undisclosed sum. He wants to revive the 57-year-old yard — which used to build 10 multimillion-dollar yachts a year in the early 1980s — and bring it back to life. “I’m like a kid with a new toy,” he says. He has a new plan and a new product, and he is building up a new work force. “It’s exciting every day,” he says.

Lewis, a boater for 30 of his more than 50 years, made the leap from boat buyer to boatbuilder with one step in between. After three years on the West Coast, he moved back to Miami with a hankering to buy a megayacht. While shopping around, he learned of the critical shortage of slips for the 80-foot-plus yachts in South Florida. His nose for a business opportunity led him on a search for waterfront that he couldturn into a big-boat marina. Broward Marine, with its 10 acres on the Dania Cut-off Canal minutes from Port Everglades Inlet, looked like the ideal property. It had shucked its brokerage business, farmed out its repair operation, and pared its construction to just a yacht or two a year. The yard looked ripe for conversion to a luxury marina.

“My original motivation was to buy the property as a marina,” Lewis says. That changed when he saw the yard, learned a little about the megayacht market and decided Broward Marine could still be a very viable business. Fueled by a wave of affluent baby boomers ready to ease into the good life, megayacht sales are soaring. Showboats International has reported a 28 percent increase in orders for yachts over 80 feet in 2005, which translates into 144 more yachts and $1.22 billion more spent on megayachts over a year earlier.

“The demand for the product is there,” Lewis says.

Most builders have long waiting lists for new-boat builds, and many boomers are first-time megayacht buyers — traditional clients for Broward’s high-production, semi-custom aluminum yachts. Another plus, the high price of the euro in U.S. dollars is making U.S.-built megayachts an attractive buy, both in this country and abroad.

Lewis has re-opened Broward’s repair and refit division for yachts up to 185 feet and has started building two new designs — a $9 million to $10 million 120-foot raised pilothouse yacht and a $15 million 135-foot tri-deck. Buyers will have two interior design packages to choose from with some modifications permitted and a choice of colors and fabrics.

He has adopted computerized cost-accounting and project management systems similar to those he used to manage large commercial real estate developments and is building a new jig to fabricate hulls on. “My plan is to have a boat on that jig all the time,” he says. “We’re in a new world. We have to compete in a new world.”

Broward has built 230 yachts, the largest ones 157-footers. In its heyday, the yard employed 300 workers. Last spring, it employed just 23. Lewis plans to have 100 employees by next spring. Ultimately he wants to bring the yard up to capacity building eight yachts a year. “The market is certainly there,” he said. “And the human resources are here [in Fort Lauderdale] to do it with.”

Frank Denison, a Michigan boatbuilder, bought the Fort Lauderdale shipyard known then as Dooley’s Drydock in 1948 while he was honeymooning with his wife, Gertrude, and renamed it Broward Marine. The yard started out doing service and repair work. Its first custom — wooden — yacht, Stormy III, was built in 1953 and the yard turned to constructing wooden minesweepers during the Korean War. The yard built four 144-footers for the Royal Dutch Navy and seven Aggressor class 173-footers for the U.S. Navy. After the war, the company started building large custom yachts, its 95-foot Alisa V laying claim to the title “largest private motoryacht built in the U.S.” for over three decades. The yard began to slip in the 1990s, undermined by some bitter family squabbles and lawsuits, and growing competition here and abroad for megayacht sales. Frank Denison sold the yard to businessman Glenn F. Straub for $40 million in cash and property in 1998.

“Broward has had a long history of brand loyalty,” Lewis said. He believes the two new designs will give many of Broward’s existing owners a yacht to step up to, as well as fill a niche for first-time buyers. First-time buyer Lewis finally has his megayacht — a Broward, a 106-foot raised pilothouse that was being built when he bought the yard. He’ll use it principally as a corporate yacht, and now that he owns Broward Marine he’s got his eye on one of its bigger designs for his personal yacht. “I’m going to take one of the new boats,” he says.