Robert T. Healey Sr., the co-founder of Viking Yachts, passed away last week at the age of 92. Throughout his life, he not only helped build Viking into an industry leader, but he also played a key role in fighting the Federal Luxury Tax on yachts in the early 1990s.
Bob and his brother Bill acquired and developed the Bass River Marina in New Gretna, New Jersey, in the 1950s, and in 1964, they purchased the wooden boat company Peterson-Viking, changed its name to Viking Yachts, and relocated the business to their property adjoining the marina. Viking went on to become the world’s largest manufacturer of sportfishing yachts, despite almost going bankrupt after the federal government imposed a 10 percent luxury tax on yachts in 1991, causing hundreds of companies to go out of business and thousands of employees to lose their jobs. Viking had to close a plant in Florida and lay off all but 65 of its 1,500 boatbuilders. So, Bob decided to take action.
Bob was instrumental in establishing a national grass-roots campaign to fight the tax, organizing busloads of boatbuilders who had lost their jobs to demonstrate on Capitol Hill and setting fire to a boat on a barge in Narragansett Bay as a symbol of protest. Twenty months later, the tax was repealed in 1993.
“My uncle’s efforts to repeal the Federal Luxury Tax on yachts will never be forgotten,” said Bill’s son and Viking Yachts President and CEO Pat Healey. “He saved not only Viking but the entire marine industry. He was the catalyst and leader, and he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. He was a brilliant lawyer and savvy businessman who was able to convince the politicians in Washington that this was very much a jobs issue. It was about good hardworking people losing their ability to provide for their families.”
With the luxury tax repealed, it was full steam ahead for Viking. With Bill’s help, Bob privately funded the company using his own savings so Viking could tool up new models. He worked as the company’s lawyer, moneyman and Chief Executive, serving as the Chairman of the Board for 57 years, while Bill built the boats.
Together, Bill and Bob Healey achieved many milestones. In 1996, they founded the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA), a non-profit organization intended to promote sustainable fisheries and a healthy marine environment. Viking has contributed well over $1 million to the RFA. In that same year, the brothers established Viking Sport Cruisers, a company that has been highly successful distributing British-built, high-end cruising yachts, built to Viking's specifications, through its dealer network in North America. Bob, Bill and Pat received the Ernst & Young 1998 New Jersey Manufacturing Entrepreneur of the Year Award. Fifteen years later, the family would earn a second award from Ernst & Young. The Healeys bought back Bass River Marina in 2002 and reopened it as the Viking Yachting Center. They were inducted in 2003 into the National Marine Manufacturers Association Hall of Fame for their outstanding contributions to the marine industry.
In honor of their service and commitment to the marine industry for more than a half a century, Bill and Bob were honored with the 2019 IBI-METSTRADE Boat Builder Lifetime Achievement Award, which was accepted by Bob Jr
Bob received many more awards for his achievements, including induction into the NJ Marine Trade Association Hall of Fame and the Rowan University Milestone Award. Bob also channeled his financial success into philanthropic interests, which included building schools in impoverished areas of Mexico, and providing housing, medical assistance, education, food and clean water to the people of war-torn Sierra Leone through the Healey International Relief Foundation.
“My father was a good man with a deep faith and commitment to service,” said Bob Jr., who recently announced his candidacy for Congress in New Jersey’s 3rd District. “No person or mission was ever a lost cause to him. He saw the potential in everyone and believed that our true worth and value in life is in our contributions to others.”
A devout Catholic and product of Catholic school education, Bob formed the Healey Education Foundation and the Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden. With his wife Ellen, Bob also founded the Gleneayre Equestrian Program for at-risk youth. For his philanthropic efforts, he received the Lewis Katz Excellence in Education Award, the Beacon of Light Award, the Catholic Charities Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio Award for Leadership, an Honorary Doctorate Degree from Scranton University and the Shield of Loyola Award from St. Joseph's University.