American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Jeanna & Jim Rard (Marine Servicenter)
By Nesha Ruther
Jeanna Rard and her husband Jim have had a life and career many would only dream of. Unconventional from the start, the pair met in Enumclaw, Washington while fighting forest fires. Jeanna was a member of the forest service; Jim was part of a team of helicopter repairmen who came up from Oregon to help put out the blaze. Needless to say, sparks flew.
Shortly after, Jim decided that he wanted to work with boats, despite the fact that he knew little about them. While Jim had grown up along a river and spent time as a child water skiing and building small boats with his father, a little boat that can float on a river is a far cry from sailing on the ocean. “I kept saying, ‘Jim you don’t know about boats.’ He said, ‘I’ll figure it out.’ So, we sold our house, sold our belongings, and bought a small 33-foot sailboat to live on,” Jeanna says.
The pair moved to Seattle and rented a small store where Jim began doing boat repairs and maintenance. In the early days of the business, they lived off of Jeanna’s salary as a postal worker. “We didn’t have any money. The bank wouldn’t give us a loan because we didn’t have any assets, everything was cash.”
Over time, Jim built a reputation for quality and reliable boat repairs. Jeanna came up with a name for their business: Marine Servicenter. Regarding the unconventional spelling, Jeanna laughs. “It’s still very weird, had I known then about the internet I never would have spelled it that way. I thought it was clever to put service and center together, but actually, it’s been confusing.”
After a number of years, Jeanna and Jim outgrew their small boat and purchased a 37-foot Tartan sailboat. The business they purchased it from was in the process of phasing out as boat dealers. “We thought maybe we could be dealers, so we became a Tartan dealer and started selling new boats,” Jeanna says.
As boat dealers, Jeanna and Jim quickly began adding brokerage, or used boats, to their inventory. They now had a successful foothold in both boat sales and repair. Marine Servicenter had grown to include ten employees.
At this point, Jeanna had to decide whether she wanted to continue working at the post office or invest all her time into the business. “It’s hard because you’re not sure you want to work with your husband and see him 24/7 while living on a 37-foot boat,” she says, “but I decided to quit and work full-time at Marine Servicenter. It was a good decision.”
Together, Jeanna and Jim made a powerful pair. She provided levelheaded logic to his intuition and enthusiasm. “I just kept saying, ‘Jim, you can’t do that. Jim, that’s not the way it goes. Jim, you have to follow the rules,’ and he’d be out there doing magic,” Jeanna says.
What made Marine Servicenter unique was its ability to offer one-stop service. Customers could bring in their boat to be fixed, sell it, and buy a new boat all in one place. They also offered warranty work–fixing structural issues such as cracks in the hull, damaged fiberglass, and gel coat imperfections–as well as cosmetic additions referred to as jewelry. “There are very few people who do that. There are many boat dealers, and many boat yards, but few places did it all. That was our claim to fame,”
Jim was a natural craftsman and became skilled at stainless steel welding, fabricating, and design. If a customer wanted a fancy decorative addition to the boat, such as a bow pulpit or dinghy davit, he could design and build them. “A lot of people had Jim Rard specials on their boats,” Jeanna says proudly.
Jim had the rare combination of an artist’s eye and a mechanic’s sensibilities that allowed him to make beautiful things in a precise way; Jeanna credits this ability to Jim’s father who was a mechanic, and who Jim frequently helped with work as a boy.
In the day-to-day operations of the business, Jeanna was responsible for paying the bills and bookkeeping. While she started out documenting everything by hand in a ledger, she later hired a CPA. “The CPA kept saying, ‘you don’t look good on paper, you’re not going to make it,’” Jeanna says. “Several times over the years we heard ‘you’re not going to make it,’ but we just kept improving step by step, trying to make things smarter and better.”
With the addition of boat sales, the business grew more complicated as they had to negotiate with manufacturers. To sell boats, a business has to secure a boat line; the same way a car dealership will agree with manufacturers on a select number of vehicles they will purchase.
In the early days, they worked with a manufacturer in Finland called Nauticat. “This was just at the beginning of fax machines,” Jeanna says. “Very few people had fax machines so Nauticat would send faxes to some store in Seattle. I would have to drive to that store and print out the fax on this weird little paper. I would take it back to the office and have to copy it because the printing would fade during the week. It was very important to get these faxes from Finland.”
Over time, Jeanna and Jim obtained multiple boat lines through various manufacturers. Another one of Jeanna’s main responsibilities was communicating with the manufacturers, paying off the boats, and collecting payment from customers, who often paid off their purchases in installments. Their staff of ten grew to include salespeople, so eventually, Jeanna and Jim were managing a staff of 25-30 employees.
Marine Servicenter’s reputation grew, and soon they were being approached by manufacturers asking them to be a dealer for their brand. Eventually, they had seven boat lines and would host boat shows multiple times a year.
Boat shows proved to be their own kind of beast. Often indoors, the keel—the longitudinal spine of the boat that runs from the bottom of the hull to the stern—had to be removed in order to even gets the boats through the door. “You had to take the keel off, truck the boat to the show, and put it on a platform so people could walk around and see it,” Jeanna says. Overall, a typical five-day boat show cost $30-40,000. Thankfully, they were also highly lucrative, bringing in up to 80% of the business’ revenue.
The main challenges Jeanna and Jim faced running their business were with capital. This responsibility was primarily on Jeanna who managed the financial element of the business. Jeanna would occasionally have to track down customers who were inconsistent with their monthly payments in order to make payroll for their employees, especially in the early years when they were not stable enough to get a loan. “That pressure was always on me,” she says, “Jim’s pressure was making sure the employees were doing their jobs and doing them well, talking with the customers, designing whatever they wanted, convincing them that he could do it.”
Jeanna tended to be on the frugal side, which grew challenging when Jim would need expensive tools or machinery in order to make his work the best it could be. Even their employees knew that if they wanted something, they had better chances asking Jim than Jeanna.
Eventually, however, Marine Servicenter was able to get a line of credit with a bank, which allowed them to have a cushion in case they could not make payroll. This funding allowed them to reach calmer waters, so to speak.
Despite being regularly told by banks and CPAs that their business was not viable and that they would not find success, Jeanna and Jim persevered. “[Business] wasn’t always great,” she says, “but it was always our baby. We just kept at it, growing it inch by inch.”
One factor that made an enormous difference in the success of the business was securing talented salespeople. With a purchase as large and complicated as a boat, salespeople needed not only the typical friendliness but also a deep body of knowledge at hand to answer customer questions. One of Marine Servicenter’s salesman, Dan Krier, stayed with them for 15 years helping to grow the business and went on to buy the sales end of the company from Jeanna and Jim.
While many entrepreneurs feel as if their business is their life, Jeanna and Jim brought that sentiment to an entirely new level by not only selling and repairing boats; but living on them as well. “I loved it,” Jeanna says. “You don’t buy furniture; you don’t buy extra things. You have two plates and one set of sheets. I love the simplicity of it. We would go sailing in the afternoon after work. I would stick something in the oven for dinner and by the time we got back from sailing at 8 or 9 o’clock, dinner would be ready. It was just a very nice life. I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
Jeanna and Jim’s knowledge of boats increased not only with their time running the store, but in the adventures they took in their free time. “We learned a lot about boats by sailing and making mistakes. Our backyard changed every night.”
In many ways, the challenges that come with entrepreneurship can be compared to the challenges faced by seafaring folk as well. While Jeanna and Jim’s life sounds completely idyllic, it also required resiliency, especially when at the complete mercy of the natural world. “When you’re sailing and you’re out in the weather, if a storm comes up, you can’t stop,” Jeanna says. “You have to figure out what to do, change your course, change your sails, and just work through these huge waves to get where you need to go.”
The difficulties and joys of living on a boat went hand-in-hand, and Jeanna and Jim did not plan on stopping, even when they had kids. “We had twins, and I didn’t want them to go to middle school,” Jeanna says, “I just thought middle school was a terrible place for kids. So, we bought a bigger boat and went cruising during their middle school years.”
Jeanna homeschooled her kids, and as a family, they traveled from Seattle to Australia and back. Difficult storms and beautiful islands were experienced in equal measure. When their travels became overwhelming, Jim’s intelligence and sense of adventure guided them through. “There were times out in the ocean where I was like, ‘I am in a fiberglass box with my babies, we’re all going to die, this is the end of our family.’ Jim kept saying ‘This is a great boat, you know how it’s built, it’s meant to shake a little. Many people do what we’re doing.’ I was like, ‘We’re going to die!’” Jeanna says, laughing.
Jeanna and Jim’s kids got their education not from decade-old textbooks, but from helping their parents out on the boat. “We didn’t allow them to do night watches,” she says, referring to when she or Jim would take shifts sailing the boat overnight. “But they did day watches with us, they helped me fix dinner, they would climb up on the mast 20 feet above the boat to see rocks and they would say, ‘Turn starboard ten degrees.’ We became a real team. They learned navigation, learned to read the electronics and tell their dad what to do, where to go, and how many nautical miles were left. They learned it all.”
While Jeanna did concede that the kids once got stung by a jellyfish in New Zealand, between jellyfish and 13-year-old bullies, the jellyfish was far less dangerous.
Over the course of the two years they spent sailing, the Rard family sailed down to San Diego, Costa Rica, and the Galapagos. “In the middle of that trip, you’re the furthest from land that you can be anywhere in the world. The water is 6,000 feet deep. You have to watch for ships, watch for whales, someone is always on watch 24/7.”
“We had a water maker, so we were able to make fresh water through a desalinator. We had 200 gallons of fuel, but we had to conserve it. We would sail very slowly until the wind picked up. We went around the world at eight miles an hour, that’s where our boat was comfortable.”
During this time, their star salesman, Dan, took over running the boat yard and the sales office. Jeanna and Jim also kept a satellite phone on board in case they were needed. They checked in every ten or fifteen days when they reached a port to make sure the business was running smoothly.
While Jeanna wishes that she had a stronger background in business and accounting prior to going into this business; she recognizes that it was her and Jim’s passion and intuition that allowed them to connect with customers and make the business what it was. “We both enjoy people, we both enjoy talking about sailing, and so did [our customers], that is their passion. If you get excited about their passion, you can make the experience really positive for each customer.
By 2020, Marine Servicenter had relocated the repair aspect of their business to Anacortes 100 miles north of Seattle. The boat sales side of the business remained in the same location. They had 40 employees in Anacortes, with their sales team still based in Seattle. Jeanna and Jim had begun feeling the effects of so many years running the business and were ready to retire. They decided to sell the repair business to a local company that had been buying up local manufacturers. Six months later they sold the sales business to Dan Krier, who had run the business for so many years. “It was time,” Jeanna says. “I was 69, my husband was 71, and we had been doing it for 43 years. We were tired.”
Before selling Marine Servicenter, Jeanna had never heard of IBA. She found them online and reached out to Gregory. While initially concerned that Gregory did not specialize in boats, she was quickly reassured by his confidence. “Gregory educated me on the fact that a sale is a sale, he’d sold so many different businesses. You don’t really have to know about the business itself, but about the reputation and the money. He was very calming.”
Being sales brokers themselves, Jeanna and Jim recognized many positive qualities in Gregory. “You have to be a good listener,” Jeanna says, “you have to listen to concerns and not minimize them but address each and every one. You can’t have a big ego; I’ve seen a lot of brokers who are all about ego and making a sale, Gregory wasn’t like that.”
While negotiating the sale of the yacht sales aspect of the company, Jeanna developed Covid. There were times when the fog rolled into her brain, and she just couldn’t stay on a conference call or negotiate any longer. She appreciates Gregory for remaining understanding and helpful during that time
Jeanna advises that people looking to sell their businesses find a broker who addresses their concerns and is equipped to meet an existing need rather than trying to sell the customer something they don’t want.
Since retiring, Jeanna volunteers twice a week at her local dog shelter, and once a week at her church. In 1997 the pair moved onto dry land into a house that they built themselves. Jim, a man of both air and water, has developed a love for the earth. “Jim has turned into an arborist,” Jeanna says, “He has learned all about trees and plants, he’s cleared half our property and turned it into a park. He’s planted every little tree and knows all of them and when they’re going to bloom. He turned five acres of land into a beautiful park.” However, they still have their 49’ sailboat to this day, currently moored in Petersburg Alaska where they take frequent trips to fish and sail.
When asked if she feels she has embodied the American Dream, Jeanna confesses she doesn’t think in such terms. “It was never like; we are living the dream. It was just day-to-day. This is what we do, and this is what we need to do to make it bigger. Figure out [the business] as we go.”
She is aware, however, that Marine Servicenter has provided her and her family with some invaluable opportunities. “It has afforded us to be able to build a house and allowed us to give our kids work ethic. [That business] has given us many things, which I believe is the American Dream. You don’t start out thinking I’m going to live the American Dream but looking back you think we had a pretty good life; we did some great things.”
Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.