When John Fitzgerald first joined Saunders Yachtworks in Alabama, the bulk of the company’s business was engine service, and their key clients were commercial boat operators, including tugboat skippers who were running 24/7.
“Those clients lost money every hour their boats were out of the water, so our tradition was to go when the phone rang,” he says. “Our customers needed round-the-clock service and we were in the habit of providing it to them.”
Today, Fitzgerald is the president of Saunders Yachtworks, and while the company has evolved to become a full-service boatyard and basin for both the commercial and recreational fleet, it maintains its commitment to provide that same level of fast, efficient and reliable service.
Saunders Yachtworks is a family business that was founded in 1959 and today operates two facilities. There’s a yard with a 60-ton lift at its original location in Orange Beach, and more recently, a second full-service location on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (ICW) that the owners say is the largest yard in the region. This new location in Gulf Shores (mile marker 155) sits on 13 acres and includes an in-water boat basin with transient slips, a warehouse, a fully enclosed works building for indoor service, and a brand new 150-ton Marine Travelift. With two top-notch facilities, Saunders now serves a wider range of boats, including cruisers, sportfishermen and megayachts up to 120 feet.
The Gulf Shores location, says Fitzgerald, has also enabled the company to expand its customer base, as it can now service boat owners from the inland waterways of the U.S., including the Great Lakes and South Florida, in addition to its network of clients along the Gulf Coast.
While the recent expansion is impressive, the culture at Saunders hasn’t changed. “Our service is still very personal,” says Fitzgerald. “We still believe you’re only as good as your last job. Our customers are demanding of us because they demand a lot from their boats every time they go offshore. They trust us to get them there safely. We get to know our customers so they can develop confidence in us, and that’s how strong relationships are formed. Captains get to know our employees, and our staff is there for them at all times.”
Building trust is key for Saunders Yachtworks, particularly since a good percentage of its customers are serious sportfishermen, some of whom regularly run the tournament circuit.
“These anglers have high expectations,” says Fitzgerald. “In the old days, the guys who participated in the tournaments would throw money in a paper bag. That was the purse. It’s much more sophisticated today, but the tradition is the same. Because the fishing grounds are so far out, these crews will stay offshore for two full days. The captains will call us at all hours, and we’re there for them. That’s part of what we do to keep building relationships. Word of mouth is powerful here. Your reputation on the docks is meaningful and we’re always working at it.”
Saunders Yachtworks has built its reputation on a few key principles. In addition to solid service, the company believes in taking pride in all that it does. That’s evident in the work executed on the boats that come to the yards, as well as in the yards themselves. The Saunders facilities are neat and give those who bring their boats there the sense that the company is a good citizen of the waterway.
“Running a boat yard can be a messy business,” says Fitzgerald. “It takes energy and attention to achieve a crisp look, but we think it’s important. Our Gulf Shores facility adjoins the ICW, so when boats go by they can see all that we do. We want them to take note of a clean operation and think of it as a place where they would like to see their boat.”
Another strength of the company is its ability to offer bow-to-stern service. Unlike some other yards in the area, it’s a full-service facility with expert engine technicians (the diesel staff is certified to work on most major brands), top-notch fiberglass repair and painting crews, yacht-savvy systems specialists and master craftsmen experienced in all types of refit and retrofit projects.
A company doesn’t get to be 54 years old by accident. It takes strategic planning, hard work and perseverance. In the case of this boatyard, that’s been particularly true in the past decade. The company has weathered natural disasters (Hurricane Ivan in 2004 made landfall in nearby Pensacola), the BP oil spill and the Great Recession that sunk marine businesses on the domestic and international fronts. “We’ve had our challenges,” says Fitzgerald “but we never stopped pressing ahead.”
The company’s success, he says, is the result of a combination of things. At the core, though, is its ability to adapt. “We’re very opportunistic. We do things that are out of our comfort zone because we have capable people. That’s part of our culture and it’s allowed us to ride the ups and downs.”
The philosophy is one Fitzgerald says he’s inherited from his father-in-law, Andrew Saunders, who now sits on the board of directors. “He’s a risk-taker and a true entrepreneur. He surrounds himself with dedicated employees and he believes you should pay more for top-quality staff to grow a loyal workforce. I was an educator before I joined Saunders Yachtworks. I was astonished at the level of personal commitment that these employees have. I was drawn to it and I still am.”
Fitzgerald has been at the helm of the company since 2000. In this role, he’s realized the importance of establishing and maintaining relationships in the marine industry. He is a board member of the American Boatbuilders and Repairers Association and a founding member of the Central Gulf Marine Trades Association, a trade group formed after the BP oil spill. “It was organized to help local businesses figure out what to do next. We’ve kept it alive and it’s helped to get more attention for the region. We believe it’s important to give back to the industry when we can.”
The recent expansion has made for a busy couple of years at Saunders Yachtworks, yet the company has no intention of slowing down. It’s developed about eight of the 13 available acres at the Gulf Shores facility. In the future, Fitzgerald would like to carve out space for complementary services to those that already exist, such as shops for canvas work, or electronics repairs, or possibly a location for a boat brokerage.
“We’d like to consider the idea of having tenants, other companies that can help us extend that bow-to-stern concept,” says Fitzgerald, “We’d like our customers to know that if they bring their boat here they can get anything taken care of.”