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Innovators in Boating - Richard "Dick" Genth the Corporate Fixer

Christ-Craft Stinger 390X
The Christ-Craft Stinger 390X

The boating industry is chock full of the most interesting of people -- hard working, dedicated individuals and families who have often put their life’s savings and full-time energies to fulfilling their dreams of creating the boats we know and love.

These are their stories.

In my over forty years in the marine industry I heard the name Dick Genth many times over, even though I had never had the pleasure to meet him. In creating this Innovators series, the name Richard E. “Dick” Genth surfaced time after time. In further researching his contributions to boating, it became clear that Dick Genth was undeniably an innovator of considerable stature, and not just for one brand, but for several.

Born in 1925, Illinois raised Dick Genth dropped out of high school at age 17 to enlist. He became a highly rated fighter pilot, mainly in the P-38 Lightning, eventually becoming part of the famous Flying Tigers. He stayed on with the Air Force after the war as a test pilot until he resigned in the early 1960s.

Meanwhile, in Miami in the mid-1950s John “Woody” Woodson created Plastics Fabrications to make, among other items, boats that he branded “Thunderbird.” In 1959, an 18-foot Thunderbird became the first sterndrive-powered boat to make the crossing from Miami to Nassau. In 1961, Merrick Lewis purchased Plastics Fabrications and the Thunderbird name. Merrick Lewis knew virtually nothing about boats.

Enter Richard E. “Dick” Genth, the recently retired Air Force pilot who also knew very little about boats. Genth studied up on them in a local library and convinced Merrick Lewis he could sell his Thunderbirds. Genth was a hustler and quickly set up dealers, becoming Merrick’s first Sales Manager and soon thereafter, the company president. Dick Genth hired many good people including Mike Collins, who was hired away from Don Aronow’s Donzi Marine.

Much like Don Aronow, Genth also saw the new sport of offshore racing as a way to promote its products. Genth himself started racing and soon became a world champion alongside other legendary names like Dick Bertram, Don Aronow, Jim Wynne, and Sam Griffith. In 1964, Merrick Lewis purchased Formula Boats from Aronow, hoping to do even better on the offshore racing circuit.

The company name was changed to Thunderbird/Formula and production was set up in the existing Formula facility on N.E. 188th St. in North Miami. Winning on the offshore racing circuit propeled Thunderbird/Formula, with Genth at the helm of both the company and the race boats, into one of the largest boatbuilding companies in America. Genth’s marketing genius was also a major factor in the company’s spectacular growth. He recognized the power of television by supplying a 22-ft Thunderbird Iroquois for the highly successful Flipper television series.

Dick Genth boating
Dick Genth

In 1966, Thunderbird/Formula built and raced the world’s first gas turbine-powered offshore race boat. Utilizing a pair of Canadian Pratt & Whitney ST6 marinized gas turbines, the boat easily won that year’s Sam Griffith Memorial Race. In 1967, Genth himself won the grueling Around Long Island Marathon Offshore Race in a record 5-hours and 23-minutes in a 28-foot Thunderbird/Formula averaging 47 miles per hour over the 253 mile race.

In 1969, Merrick sold Thunderbird/Formula, which by that point also built the popular Drift-R-Cruz houseboats, to Fuqua Industries. Genth, now a seasoned boat building executive as well as a highly recognized offshore boat racing champion, moved on.

Genth was almost immediately hired into the top job as President of Wellcraft Marine which was located on the Gulf side of Florida in Sarasota. Naval Architect Richard C. “Dick” Cole had designed several boats for Thunderbird including his patented "Cathedral" hull design. C. Raymond Hunt, considered the father of the modern Deep-Vee hull design was also well known to Genth. He soon hired them both to create new designs for family boats and performance boats for Wellcraft.

Cole developed and patented what would become Wellcraft’s proprietary Airslot hull design, which Genth incorporated into family boats from 16-28 feet. As opposed to two “sponsons” in the Cathedral design, the Airslot was a tri-hull. On the high-performance side, Genth negotiated with Allan “Brownie” Brown at Nova boats for the manufacturing rights to the Nova 24. This became the Wellcraft Nova 24 -- for years one of the most popular rough water performance boats.

Hunt created Wellcraft’s deep-vee Steplift hull, of which the V20 in its various configurations of open, center console, and cuddy cabin became a Wellcraft big water sales winner for almost the next two decades. At one point, Genth’s marketing savvy published a full page ad showcasing a small Airslot in rough waters carrying eggs in a basket without any of them breaking. Rumour had it that the eggs were hard boiled! We may never know.

1973 Wellcraft V20 Steplift
1973 Wellcraft V20 Steplift

One of the most notable, profitable, and lasting achievements of Dick Genth during his time at Wellcraft was to negotiate a licensing agreement with Larry Smith for the rights to Larry’s award-winning and highly touted Scarab designs. Over the next several years, Wellcraft Scarab’s would range from a 22-footer up to the 50-foot Meteor. Larry would design them and build the raceboat Scarabs in his California shop, while the “pleasure” versions were built in the Sarasota facility.

Genth parted with Wellcraft in 1978 having increased its model lineup in both size and scope, but more importantly having increased its sales twenty-fold. Genth had taken Wellcraft from a small regional builder to one of the largest international manufacturers. From this foundation, Wellcraft would continue growing throughout the 80's and 90's while building its racing and high-performance heritage through its Scarab lineup.

In the mid-1980s, the Scarab 38KV (Kevlar) became famous for many years as Sonny Crockett’s (actor Don Johnson’s) ride on the much watched television series Miami Vice. The 38, 43, and 46-foot Wellcraft Scarab’s were perennial and multi-time winners on both the offshore racing circuit and, more importantly perhaps, in dealer showrooms.

Renowned boatbuilder Chris-Craft was faltering financially in the late 1970s following the energy crisis in Western countries. To right the ship, Chris-Craft hired Genth in 1978 to execute a turn-around of the company, much like he had at Wellcraft. Genth believed in hiring good people to work with him and, to that end, he quickly hired Ernest Schmidt away from Hammond Boats, a company Schmidt had co-founded. Schmidt eventually became president of Chris-Craft.

By streamlining production, cutting out waste, and slashing unprofitable lines, Genth quickly turned the bottom line around for Chris-Craft. By the early 1980s he was ready to execute his own corporate plans. As an ex-offshore racer, Genth saw the potential for glamour and headlines that speedsters on the water could bring to a family boating company, just as Scarab had done for Wellcraft.

First, he introduced the Scorpion line of sport boat models intended for family use. Then he made a deal with Excalibur Boats to build its various models under license. Excalibur was a very credible and respected offshore-style boat with credentials to match. This deal saved Chris-Craft the enormous costs of designing and tooling their own larger sport boats.

Chris-Craft 390 (Excalibur)
Chris-Craft 390 (Excalibur)

But the real sales boost came with the introduction in 1982 of the Chris-Craft Stinger, which, designed by renowned naval architect George Linder, eventually built models from 20 feet to 41 feet. These were sleek cuddy cabins with deep-V hulls and construction techniques intended to handle big water and the pounding of racing. The 26-foot Stinger with twin V-8 sterndrives became a market favourite.

By 1980, the Chris-Craft Boat Division under Genth was profitable, and its corporate owner Chris-Craft Industries put it up for sale. Genth became a partner in the new ownership group headed by industrialist G. Dale Murray. The boat manufacturing company became known as Murray Chris-Craft. Genth ensured that Murray Chris-Craft would keep racing and entered (and won) several offshore races with Stingers.

One particular race in 1984 was great for publicity, with a factory-entered 312 Stinger crewed by Genth and Schmidt winning the 425 mile Powerboat Magazine Golden Gate Bridge to Spruce Goose west coast marathon. Chris-Craft, with Genth at the helm, won against six other high profile boat manufacturers including Reggie Fountain. Throughout the mid-80s, the Chris-Craft 390 Stinger was the boat of choice in Miami Vice, and a custom-built Stinger 312 Fittipaldi Edition also appeared in the Hollywood film Tequila Sunrise.

As catamarans became more popular in offshore racing, Genth was approached by George Linder, who had already begun building the 30-foot 'Shadow' cat. Genth loved it, and the design soon became the Chris-Cat 300. This design gained enormous attention with the Lavin brothers, who raced it under the boat name Jesse James. The 30 Shadow Cat design is said to be the first multi-hull to outperform V-bottoms in both rough and calm seas. It dominated offshore racing for some time.

Also in 1984, more eyes were on Genth and his team when Chris-Craft entered the 30 Chris Cat, dubbed the Spirit of Miss Liberty, in the Miss Liberty Challenge Cup. The boat set a speed record on the Hudson River while also raising money for repairs needed on the Statue of Liberty. The cat was driven by national and world offshore racing champion Betty Cook and co-piloted by Kathy Genth, Dick’s daughter, then just 21 years old.

At the tail end of 1984, Dale Murray purchased Genth’s shares in Chris-Craft. Genth left apparently in disagreement over the company's direction. Nobody can deny his management and marketing genius that turned around one of the most recognized and revered names in pleasure boating. Under his tutelage, Chris-Craft went from near bankruptcy to industry leader.

However, Genth didn't rest for long. In 1985, Genth, along with Tampa businessman Jack Staples and my good friend Gordon Houser, then the Vice President and Marketing Director of Chris-Craft, together purchased the struggling Donzi Marine. Genth became President and CEO, titles which Gordon Houser later acquired when Genth retired.

 Donzi 18 Classic
The Donzi 18 Classic

Genth, Staples, and Houser immediately moved Donzi manufacturing from NE 188th St. in North Miami to new facilities across the state in Bradenton, Florida. This would put Donzi very close to the Sarasota factories of Wellcraft and Chris-Craft. Utilizing the marketing genius of Houser and the operational prowess of Genth, the venerable “Classic” Donzi’s in 16, 18, and 22-feet became front and centre in boating magazines. Not only that, but in a first for the industry, they also began appearing in mainstream publications like Sports Illustrated, among others.

Over the next few years, the model lineup was expanded almost exponentially with the “Z” series of high performance race-capable boats, the "Regazza" series of family-oriented lower priced, lower-featured models, and the “F” series of fast fishing centre consoles. Donzi’s were touted as being of the highest quality in the industry with the most advanced technology.

Kathy Genth boating
Dick & Kathy Genth after another racing victory

With the exception of the Regazza lineup, Donzi’s were higher priced, more exclusive, and better equipped with more standard features. Manufacturing quickly grew from around 50 to over 400 boats per year. The Donzi dealership base expanded tenfold. The Donzi Z-33 Crossbow became one of the most talked about and sought-after performance boats of the period.

To appeal to its high-performance demographic, Genth’s grown daughter Kathy posed provocatively for Donzi in late 1980s print advertising with flowing hair down to her waist and made to appear apparently in the nude. She was referred to as The Lady Godiva of boating.

1988 Donzi Z-65 Sportfish
1988 Donzi Z-65 Sportfish

In 1987, Genth went deep sea sportfishing with partner and avid fisherman Jack Staples for the first time. He returned with the determination to build a classy, richly appointed, and fast sportfishing boat. He hired the best designers and, in 1988, launched the first Z-65 Tournament Sportfisherman. That same year, marine design expert and sportfishing enthusiast Bob Roscioli was so impressed that he purchased the Donzi Yacht Division and moved production to his yachting center in Fort Lauderdale.

Also in the late 1980s, Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC) was on a boat manufacturing company buying spree. It was attempting to create guaranteed markets for its massive engine manufacturing business-- both outboard and sterndrive. In 1988, OMC purchased Donzi Marine with the intention of turning it into a mass-production boat company. Genth retired again during the process. Gordon Houser stayed on to become president under the new arrangement until OMC closed down Donzi in 1991.

Genth didn’t stay retired for long as, once again, in 1990 he became President of Century Boats through GAC Partners. Century, of Zephyrhills, Florida had been in operation since 1926 and was the oldest continuously operating pleasure boat company in America.

Genth’s main purpose as president was to find qualified investment partners for the company. He soon made arrangements with Yamaha to have its outboards used on Century transoms. He also created a new and modern fishing-oriented series for the lineup. Then, in 1995, Yamaha purchased Century Boats and merged it with Cobia Boats, a company Yamaha had purchased a few months earlier. The merged company became C&C Boats. Genth once again retired.

By that time in his 70s, Genth slowed down enough in the ensuing years to became a corporate advisor to megayacht builder Broward Yachts. He did the same with the hardcore saltwater fishing boat builder Mako Marine. It is not clear if Genth had any input in Mako Marine becoming part of Johnny Morris’ huge White River Marine Group in 1996.

In 1999, Genth became Chief Operating Officer (COO) of Westship World Yachts in Tampa, Florida. Westship specialized in designing and building custom megayachts from 85 to 150 feet. In 2001, he became President of Westship World Yachts. While still holding this office, Genth sadly died of lung cancer in 2002 at the age of 77.

2004 Westship 145-ft Tri-Deck
2004 Westship 145-foot Tri-Deck

I cannot think of another person who has been the President of so many different boat companies while assuming the responsibilities of charting their turnarounds. Richard E. “Dick” Genth deserves his place in the history of pleasure boat building in America. I wish I had known him.

On another note, after the OMC fiasco at Donzi, my good friend Gordon Houser became President of High Performance at Wellcraft and then its Vice President of Marketing. Houser introduced the boat industry to top notch glamour and celebrity promotion and has received the highest honours in the industry for his out-of-the-box marketing and promotion campaigns that helped propelled Wellcraft to the top of its game. Gordon passed away at age 88 in 2019 from complications from dementia. He I did know well and I will savour some of the many special times I spent with this industry icon. #culture #innovatorsinboating

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1 opmerking

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