S&S president Gibbons-Neff recalled

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Mitchell C. Gibbons-Neff died shortly after stepping down from his post with the design firm

Mitchell C. Gibbons-Neff died shortly after stepping down from his post with the design firm

Mitchell C. Gibbons-Neff, who for 21 years served as president of Sparkman & Stephens, died Feb. 4 of complications from lung cancer. He was 65 years old and had stepped down from his position with the venerable New York-based yacht design, brokerage and charter firm in November.

Gibbons-Neff, of Darien, Conn., joined S&S in 1977 as a yacht broker and by 1985 was president, one of just six in the firm’s 78-year history. He led the company into contemporary sail and motoryacht design, including super-sized yachts. The Grand Banks 47 and Aleutian 59, the Morris M36 and M42, and the 112-foot sloop Zingar were some notable recent designs completed on Gibbons-Neff’s watch.

He had planned to stay on with S&S as a broker when he became ill. “I want to get back to doing what I love most in the business, which is selling boats and working directly with my clients,” he said in January. “I’m ready to leave the day-to-day headaches of running a multimillion-dollar business to the next generation.”

“Mitch taught by example,” says Greg Matzat, new president of S&S. “He showed you how to deal with people by showing you how he dealt with them. He was stand-up honest and straightforward.”

Matzat, who was S&S chief naval architect and executive vice president under Gibbons-Neff, says his boss was brutally honest with clients about the boats they wanted to buy or build, and he treated them as friends, not just customers.

“The interesting thing about Mitch was he would put as much energy into selling a 40-footer as a 140-footer,” Matzat says. “Every boat was important to Mitch. It had nothing to do with its size or value.”

A Type-A personality, Gibbons-Neff “was always on the go,” says friend and racing buddy Bob Scott of Castine, Maine. The corporate president worked hard but found time to go sailing. He sailed in 20 Newport-Bermuda Races, the first when he was 14 years old. He was navigator on his family’s 40-foot sailboat, Prim, in the 1972 trans-Atlantic race from Bermuda to Bayona, Spain, where it won its class and finished second overall. And he crewed for 10 years on Scott’s classic S&S New York 32, Falcon, in the Eggemoggin Reach Regatta, a series of classic yacht races off Maine.

“Mitch was the best,” Scott says. “He took us to a whole new level of racing. … He was about as wise in the ways of sailing as anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Falcon raced with father-son teams, and Gibbons-Neff left his mark on them. He raced hard, but “above all else he was a gentleman,” Scott says. “The boys sail just like Mitch. Gosh, we’ll miss him. Now the boys will have to start taking over. That’s good, I guess.”

Gibbons-Neff was born May 4, 1941, in Bryn Mawr, Pa., son of Florence and Morton Gibbons-Neff. He grew up in Devon, Pa., and on the family farm in Maryland, where he learned to sail the family boat on Chesapeake Bay. He received a bachelor’s degree in geology from Franklin & MarshallCollege and joined the Navy in 1963. He was an engineering officer on the minesweeper USS Salute and officer-in-charge of a Swift Boat in Vietnam. On his return, he earned an MBA at HarvardBusinessSchool, then spent two years in the Pacific Northwest as project engineer for a heavy construction firm. In 1971 he went to work as a salesman for yacht builder Palmer Johnson in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., and in 1973 co-founded Nautor USA. He joined S&S four years later.

“Mitch used to say, ‘Don’t worry about me. The good guys go first,’ ” says Matzat. “Mitch, you were one of the good guys.”