Some 25 years ago, Chuck Laughlin was building a marina in North Myrtle Beach, S.C., and Beneteau Yachts, a French sailboat manufacturer, was building a factory in Marion, S.C. “Hmm…,” thought Chuck, “I could fill the marina with their boats with very little transport cost!”
And so, in May 1987, Laughlin and his partner Bill Nagel not only opened the Harbourgate Marina but also St. Barts Yachts dealership. At the time, his territory consisted of Horry and Marion counties.
There were four other Beneteau dealers in South Carolina then. Laughlin pointed out that Tripp Fellabom, a Charleston sailmaker, fixed sails for 25 boat dealers in South Carolina in 1987. “Now, St. Barts is the last sailboat dealer in the state.”
In November 1996, Beneteau USA decided to move its corporate offices to Charleston and asked Laughlin to do the same. “At the time, our kids were five and two years old, so it was easy to move. Actually,” Laughlin said, “I had no choice. My wife said yes before I even thought about it.” He sold the marina and kept the dealership.
This summer, St. Barts celebrated its 25th Anniversary in Charleston. Nagel and Laughlin have expanded the business to include a sales office in Oriental, N.C., and a sales and service office in Jacksonville, Fla., at Fleming Island Marina. Of Nagel, Laughlin said, “He’s been the perfect silent partner. When I want to do something, I run it by him to get his opinion. He’s an investor and doesn’t try to get involved in the operations side.”
In 25 years, St. Barts Yachts has commissioned 700 new Beneteau sailboats built at the Marion plant. As a full-service company, they also deliver the boats for the customers. In doing so, they have sailed, according to Laughlin, “in excess of one million miles offshore. All the boats arrived safely – the only acceptable result.”
Laughlin’s philosophy is to emphasize having a good service department. “It’s very hard to live up to customer expectations without one,” he said. “You can’t just rely on sales.”
The 25th Anniversary was a great party at Charleston’s old Rice Mill Building overlooking the Charleston City Marina and a fleet of Beneteaus. Laughlin combined it with a Beneteau Owners Rendezvous and the stopover of the Beneteau Swift Trawler 34 during its Great Loop trip that started in Annapolis, Md. “We originally planned three separate events,” Laughlin said. “I’m glad we combined them because it was a lot of work for my staff. I can’t imagine having to do it three times.”
With 25 years behind him, what’s in store for the future? “I look forward to continuing what we’re doing. I hope the economy rebounds.” He continues, “With the baby boomers reaching retirement age, I see a lot of opportunities for sales as they look to travel.”