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Spark goes out in South Florida yacht industry

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When William Ward Eshleman was born in 1915, boats passed through a small, man-made cut to the Atlantic Ocean from Ft. Lauderdale, a town of about 3,000 residents. Boats had minimal electrical systems.

When Mr. Eshleman, known as Senior, died in February, Ft. Lauderdale had grown into one of the busiest ports in the country with its waterways filled with megayachts. And Mr. Eshleman, his family and his company, Ward’s Marine Electric, had grown right along with it.

In the mid 1930s, 20-year-old Mr. Eshleman moved to Ft. Lauderdale from New Jersey, just after the deep-water harbor of Port Everglades was built. He worked in electronics in the military but couldn’t enlist during World War II due to injuries from a motorcycle accident.

Instead, he worked on the U.S. Navy’s PT fleet.

After the war, he repaired generators on a green bean farm in the Everglades. When boaters needed help with their electrical systems, he hired an employee and they did that. When Broward County Sheriff Walter Clark needed help with his police car in the 1930s and 40s, Mr. Eshleman did that.

“Before Ward’s, the sheriff used to come to him and say, ‘this car of mine has lots of voltage. Can you make it more convenient?’” said Keith Swinehart, a salesman with Ward’s Marine for nearly 20 years.

Swinehart heard tales from his fit and trim boss each day as they ate lunch together. Mr. Eshleman did whatever the community needed as the times changed. When the local bordello needed electrical work, he did that, too.

“He used to tell of an old cat house where Shooters bar is now; it was on a floating barge,” Swinehart, said. “He was in charge of the light plant, what we would now call the generator.”

It was the time of gangsters; even Sheriff Clark was indicted on charges of working with gambling casinos.

“Two guys killed somebody and dumped him in the water near the cat house,” Swinehart said. “Senior said the body popped up and was stinking up the place. He told a kid to take the body to Bahia Mar, where the inlet used to be, and drop it in.”

The kid didn’t take the tide into consideration, so the body washed back to the bordello.

“Guess that’s where he really wanted to be,” Mr. Eshleman told Swinehart.

“Get onto a subject and he had a story,” Swinehart said. He could talk about politics, weather, guns, you name it. He was knowledgeable on it all.

“Think about it, he watched from horse and cart to motors,” Swinehart said.

In the early 1940s, Port Everglades was a U.S. Navy military base and the city was growing. By 1950, Ft. Lauderdale had more than 80,000 residents and Ward’s Electric became official.

In 1952, Ward’s moved into a warehouse by the railroad tracks near downtown.

“Then he used to work on juke organs, what we call juke boxes, in Northwest Ft. Lauderdale,” Swinehart said of a time of racial tensions in Ft. Lauderdale. “He said he was the safest white man, that no one would touch him, because if the juke organ isn’t working, no one’s selling beer and wine.”

Mr. Eshleman had gotten married and lived near the shop. But his wife, Lucille, died at age 35 and he was left to care for their five children; 13-year-old Ward Eshleman II and four younger girls.

The kids, too, grew along with his company.

“Originally, the focus was strictly dockside marine electrical service,” the now 64-year-old Ward Eshleman II said. He is currently president and bought the business from his father in 1980.

During the 60 years since Mr. Eshleman started the company, his business grew from juke boxes to two locations that provide all levels of marine electrics including surveys, compliance, service, sales, manufacturing and production.

“He had a company that could have been perceived as a noose, but he was big on living life and having fun,” his granddaughter and company COO Kristina Hebert said. “It was always family, softball games, Christmas parties. Fun was a priority; that’s what’s important.

“Even with the burdens of work, he always had a boat and went fishing,” she said. “The entire industry used to be closed on Wednesdays to go fishing.

“All the businesses got together and all were closed, so there was no one that was getting ahead of the other guy,” she said. “Actually, I think that would be great for the industry today.”

Hebert remembers her grandfather as patient and methodical, and illustrated with a story of bugs in his yard.

“Instead of just spraying poison, he got one, pinned it to a board, researched what it was and decided what to do,” Hebert said. “He liked to figure what to do about things.”

In those early days, Ft. Lauderdale docks didn’t have electricity, except for Bahia Mar, but only 15 amps.

So Mr. Eshleman and others with businesses in boating figured it out. They created an association — the Marine Industries Association of South Florida — and used their united voice to get boats to come to Ft. Lauderdale and to get the city to install power on the docks.

“The whole point was to get the city to listen, a united voice that they wanted the boats to come,” said Hebert, who is now president of the MIASF.

Mr. Eshleman was what was people called a self–made man, a guy who achieved success by his own efforts.

Mr. Eshleman loved to fly his Piper airplane, and advertised his service to work on electrical systems in the Bahamas.

“That’s what separated him, when people found out he could fly and service them back in the 60s,” Hebert said.

At the same time, he realized he could solve many electrical problems by understanding and conquering corrosion.

“He built a saltwater test tank for the shop, probably in the mid 1960s,” said his son, Eshleman II. “His expertise in marine corrosion was largely self-taught. He was able to test Capac Impressed Current Cathodic Protection systems off the boat in a controlled environment.”

At the time Capac was the major U.S. manufacturer of the systems created to control corrosion.

“They relied a lot on Dad for installing and maintaining their systems on yachts,” he said. “He also developed a comprehensive corrosion survey protocol which we still use today for our survey work. Ward’s has long been considered an expert in recreational marine corrosion surveys and reports largely due to Dad’s pioneering efforts in the field.”

Swinehart saw it all in action. Over their lunches, people in the community would drop by, just to pick Mr. Eshleman’s brain or to ask for his thoughts. And he always delivered.

“Senior would be chewing on a sandwich and someone would come in with a question,” Swinehart said. “Sometimes people would bring a prop up there, he would keep chewing and matter-of-factly tell them what was going on. He would know it was crevice corrosion, he just knew, he would delve into things.”

Mr. Eshleman’s son is proud of his dad’s impact in the field.

“Francis LaQue, the author of ‘Marine Corrosion – Causes and Prevention,’ one of the best books ever published regarding marine corrosion, made a point of visiting Dad many years ago,”  Eshleman II said. “He had heard of Dad’s reputation and wanted to personally talk with him about corrosion in the yachting industry.”

By the early 1970s, Ft. Lauderdale was not yet connected with U.S. Interstate 95, the main corridor to the east coast of the country. That happened in 1976 as the population neared 140,000.

“He worked through the gas crisis in the ’70s and kept the business growing,” Hebert said.

Hebert points to what she thinks is the key to that success, a little red plaque that sat on her grandfather’s desk, and now sits on her father’s.

“Wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.”

In the 1980s, the company opened the counter to some customers for parts and as that continued to grow, it opened to sales and parts.

“He was always an optimist, and felt it was better to keep things in house to keep control of them,” Hebert said.

In 1983, Mr. Eshleman “retired,” but he continued to come to work every day.

“He had an office and did his daily banking,” Hebert said. “He scheduled the orders each day, the line up of the vans, through to 90 years old.

“He was not super impressed with my cellphone; he said, ‘you’re cheating’,” she said. “He said the phone is for contacts but you have relationships with people.”

In 2010, Mr. Eshleman’s business celebrated 60 years.

“It would be egotistical to say the industry would be less without us,” Hebert said of her grandfather’s influence. “It would have happened, but we are different in our dedicated focus.

“He started what is now the third generation in Ward’s and MIASF,” she said. “The industry would miss our professionalism and what we all give back.”

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