It’s been some time since Lars Nilsson made his living as a professional yacht captain, but the years he spent running boats taught him valuable lessons that he continues to draw from today while managing his marine business in Anacortes, Washington.
“When you’re out at sea, you can’t rely on someone else, particularly when there’s a problem or an emergency,” said Nilsson. “You have to be resourceful, and often, you have to go beyond your comfort zone to get things done. You learn to think fast on your feet and to quickly evaluate the end result.”
Not surprisingly, the time he spent managing large and expensive builds for discerning clients also taught him a good deal about service. “As a captain, you know your guests expect a very high level of service, so you have to deliver what is promised and never compromise on that.”
Armed with those hard-won lessons, Nilsson now runs MarineTec US with his partner Costica Gheorghiu. The company sells, installs and services hydronic heating and domestic hot water systems that employ Kabola furnaces built in Oudewater, Netherlands, and Solaris water heaters. It’s a business Nilsson knows very well and one he hopes will continue to grow.
For those not familiar with Kabola furnaces, these units bear a strong resemblance to home heating units. In addition, they boast great efficiency — think 90 percent — which means they’re good at turning diesel fuel into heat and hot water. They’re simple and functional, too, features that are very important to Nilsson.
Nilsson grew up in Sweden, where he sailed as a teen and stoked a love of the sea that would become a lifelong passion. He then enrolled in Sweden’s merchant marine academy, graduated with a degree in marine engineering, and joined the merchant fleet, where he eventually became chief engineer. In that role, he worked aboard a variety of vessels, from tankers and bulk carriers to ferries and fish-processing ships. His time aboard these ships gave him a real appreciation for the value of high-quality and reliable marine gear, a perspective he said is very valuable to him today in his role at MarineTec.
Nilsson’s career path veered in a new direction in 1984, when he went cruising aboard a 35-foot ketch through much of Central America and the Caribbean. He landed in San Diego, where Nilsson met his future wife, Judy. The couple then settled on the West Coast.
For the next 14 years or so, Nilsson worked as a captain on several yachts, mostly in the Pacific Northwest. He did two seasons on the steel boat Alegra, which was based in southern Spain in the winters and the Med during the summer. He then started work for a family in Washington state, first aboard a 48-footer and then the 90-foot Cheoy Lee Odyssey 3, which he operated for six years. When the owner was ready to trade up again, he sent Nilsson around the world to research yachts and yards. In 1997, the owner commissioned a new Feadship, the 158-foot Katrion. Nilsson supervised the construction of that yacht at the De Vries Shipyard in the Netherlands and then ran the boat from 1997 to 2000.
By this time, Nilsson and his wife had had two children, and the busy and well-traveled father was feeling the pull to step ashore for a while and set the anchor close to home. Although he would go on to operate yachts for the same Washington-based family in the years ahead, the Feadship was the last boat he would run full-time.
In 2001, Nilsson started his own business, Nortec Marine, which specialized in the marine heating systems he continues to sell today. Nilsson said the idea for the business had been percolating for some time.
“I realized there was a need for this type of system back when I was doing research on marine heating systems for the 90-footer,” he said. “I couldn’t find a suitable product. I found it later in Europe, when I had the opportunity to meet with a number of Dutch suppliers and manufacturers. Through them I heard about Kabola, and realized that when I did decide to step ashore, I wanted to work in that field. I knew there was a need for it, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where a high-quality marine heating system is necessary all year long. “
With his new business, Nilsson became the distributor for the Kaboloa brand in North America, educating builders, dealers and consumers about the distinct benefits of the system and essentially building the brand in a new market. His target audience: boats sized from 42 to 80 feet, with an emphasis on the trawler market.
Kabola products are well-suited for that market. The rugged systems (available in a range of sizes, from 35,000 to 400,000 Btu) place a strong emphasis on simplicity — the furnace itself comprises only about 10 major parts — and because the furnaces share many components with residential and industrial heating systems, the design and parts are proven. They’re designed to meet stringent CE safety and construction requirements, and they’re compact. In addition, the Kabola brand is designed specifically for the marine market.
Nilsson’s business was doing well up until 2008, when the recession took the wind out of many marine companies. Nortec, like many others, fell on hard times. “I had some tough years, and there were moments when I was ready to give up and go back to sea again, but that’s not something you can do when you have children and a family.”
Just when things were looking dire, Nilsson attended a boat show where he met up with Gheorghiu, who had run boat yards and worked with Nilsson in the past. In fact, Gheorghiu had become a customer of Nilsson’s after seeing how well the hydronic heating systems he installed worked. The meeting led to a restructuring of the Kabola distribution network in North America. Gheorghiu formed MarineTec, of which Nilsson is a partner today.
MarineTec is unlike Nilsson’s first business in that there’s an even stronger focus on installations, which are done at the new Anacortes facility (the business was previously located in Seattle). “We’re even more hands-on now,” said Nilsson, “which benefits our customers, as we can guarantee our installations. We have very loyal clients. Among them are repair yards, builders and retail end-users.”
As for future goals, Nilsson and his partner plan to focus on delivering “excellent customer service” as well as cutting-edge technology. In fact, the company has plans to announce a new low-emission “green” boiler. Although Nilsson said there are some things he misses about being a professional captain (“you meet a lot of interesting people and get to travel to places you wouldn’t see if you weren’t in that position”) he is very excited about the potential for his company and about the products it will be releasing. “The technology is exciting, and you’ll be hearing a lot more about it in the near future.”
Jeanne Craig is an award-winning marine journalist and editor based in Rowayton, Connecticut