By Lucy Chabot Reed
John Spencer of Spencer Boat Company, the scrappy upstart that started with his life savings in the aftermath of a Christmas disaster four years ago, is now partners in a new company that has taken over the former Merrill Stevens yard on the Miami River.
RMK Merrill Stevens purchased the yard from David Marlow of Marlow Yachts for $7.7 million in mid-December, nearly four years after Merrill Stevens fired most of its employees and stopped operations.
The majority partner in RMK Merrill Stevens is Turkish industrial magnate Rahmi Mustafa Koc, who owns the shipyard RMK Marine in Istanbul. Power and sailing yachts from that yard have won design and superyacht awards in the past few years and are nominated this year for more.
Koc is an avid yachtsman, sailing around the world on a series of yachts called Nazenin. The latest, a 52m ketch of Sparkman & Stephens design called Nazenin V, launched in the summer of 2009.
RMK Merrill Stevens, however, is likely to remain a service yard, Spencer said. The yard has a 500-ton Synchrolift and a 500-ton railway, two undercover sheds for yachts up to 200 feet and 240 feet of dockage along the seawall. Employees and subcontractors can do anything from painting and carpentry to welding, electrical and mechanical work.
“We’re set up as a service yard,” Spencer said. “We’ll continue to operate as we have the past four years, though I look forward to increased efficiency and technology.”
The shipyard’s core staff is scheduled to meet this month to make decisions about how to move forward. Spencer visited the Istanbul yard and said he was impressed with the modern facilities and equipment.
“I’m hoping we can use that model to move forward into the 21st century,” he said.
The name, however, is a nod to the shipyard’s historical past. Merrill Stevens Drydock began operations in Jacksonville in 1886, making it the oldest operating company in Florida. It moved to the south bank of the Miami River just west of the 12th Avenue bridge in 1923. The shipyard now includes a portion on the north side of the river, too.
In its heyday, it serviced many of the industry’s most notable large yachts, including the 143-foot M/Y Lord Jim, the 150-foot M/Y Magic, the 123-foot Feadship M/Y Blackhawk, the 153-foot Feadship Lady Allison and Malcolm Forbes’ 151-foot Feadship M/Y Highlander.
“Merrill Stevens has worldwide recognition,” said Spencer, who is now operating partner of RMK Merrill Stevens. “People around the world know the name. And Mr. Koc is not only a passionate yachtsman, he is also passionate about history. I think he likes the history of it all.”
During Marlow’s tenure, new concrete was laid and work on the offices and facilities on the north side have begun, a far cry from the “green boatyard” he announced he would build in 2011.
“He made significant progress in cleaning up a 90-year-old shipyard,” Spencer said.
Spencer, who lost his job as a yard superintendent that fateful Christmas, started SBC in February 2010 with his own money in an effort to put his former employees back to work. The yard now employs 30.
“I’m going to keep the name,” Spencer said. “It’s kind of been my whole life for the past four years, and when something is your life, it’s your little baby.
“But this is better for everybody, better for the industry, better for my guys, better for Miami-Dade County.”
Though his company will be absorbed into RMK Merrill Stevens, he is proud of what he’s accomplished.
“You don’t drive your car looking out the rearview mirror; you drive looking out the windshield,” he said. “Without Spencer Boat Company, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Lucy Chabot Reed is editor of The Triton. Comments are welcome at email@example.com.