To physically find Elmer Strauss, you have to trudge through a storage hall to reach his desk. But to find his influence, yachties need only look around Ft. Lauderdale at some of the biggest and longest-running names in the industry: Cable Marine, Boat Owners Warehouse, BOW Worldwide, DS Hull and Yacht Equipment and Parts.
Because his name is not on any signs, yacht captains and crew might not realize he’s the man they have done business with over the past 30 years. But they have.
So why is his name not on a marquee?
“He finds the stars and lets them shine,” said Kristy Fox, now a broker who has worked with crew in South Florida for more than 10 years. She got her start with Strauss when she met him at Cable Marine.
Strauss has always hired like-minded and competent people to run his marinas, retail stores and parts and service companies. He puts them in charge and steps back, fostering the rise of many that might not have been given a second glance.
Kelli Milliken had three kids and was going to night school 12 years ago when she answered a three-line newspaper ad, hoping for a steady 9-to-5 job.
“He was a really good judge of character and gave me a chance,” she said.
Now Milliken is Strauss’ right hand as controller and vice president for all the companies he owns.
At 75 years old, Strauss has become used to having the upper hand and making the decisions. Being on the other side of that equation is one of the rare situations that makes him uncomfortable. He leans back in his chair to size up a reporter before talking. He’s not fond of journalists.
He moves deliberately, placing his large hands, fingernails worn from a youth as a fisherman and oyster-shucker, in his lap. He still has the frame of the athlete; it’s just below a layer of years.
At first meeting, he is guarded and watchful, waiting for the other person to divulge something personal before the conversation will flow. It is one way he sizes people up. And how he finds the gems.
“If he takes a liking to you, well, that’s it,” Fox said.
That was it for Steve Baum. He followed a well-traveled path south after high school to enjoy Florida and do whatever job he could find. He started by scraping barnacles at Cable Marine.
When Strauss found out he attended college at night, Strauss paid for Baum’s business management degree. Baum is now president and CEO of DS Hull in Ft. Lauderdale.
“If we added them up I would say he’s helped hundreds, maybe thousands of people like me,” Baum said.
“According to Elmer, this would have happened anyway,” close friend and partner George Cable of Cable Marine said. “But those people would say it was nurturing and his daily example.”
“I would say he saw the big picture and hired potential,” 32-year employee Dede Cable said. “He’s been the architect of it all.”
Strauss is a big man. And he’s got influence to match. In 30-year-old office photographs at Cable Marine, Strauss is easy to spot at near six feet tall with a broad chest and shoulders. Even in the midst of 40 yard, shop and office workers, he had a presence.
He could have sway solely on his stature – and possibly with stories of his arm wrestling conquests – but he has an air of being unassuming.
“I haven’t acted alone,” he said deliberately, with a slight accent left over from his youth. “I’ve had lots of wonderful people in my life.”
This is the man who has been integral in early Ft. Lauderdale boat shows, has helped rejuvenate the Ft. Lauderdale boat parade, has been Marine Industry Association of South Florida president and Ft. Lauderdale’s Man of Year.
How has he accomplished so much?
“My success has been because of the people that work with me, the employees,” Strauss said, taking off his glasses, and with a slight right-side grin added, “This also works out to be profitable.”
“When you make good jobs, a by-product is money,” Cable explained as a key to Strauss’ formula.
Strauss continues to navigate the aisles of BOW as he has for decades, as employees approach to say hello with handshakes and shoulder hugs. He asks of their families by name, mutual friends are checked on and Strauss grins at mention of the recent visit of his great-grandson, grandson of daughter Terri Strauss, manager of BOW Worldwide Yacht Supply. He often mentions the support he gets from his family which includes six children, 10 grand-children and two great-grand kids.
That’s why his employees describe him as humble, caring and giving. Most importantly, though, they say he treats everyone like family.
“Like family: right, wrong or indifferent, that’s the way it’s done,” said Gary Sturm, manager at Cable Marine who Strauss hired in 1984 after meeting him at Florida Detroit Diesel.
Before Florida, Strauss had lived a depression era youth in New Jersey where he shined shoes and sold newspapers to help his family. After being kicked out of high school, he went to a military academy and then to Penn State.
In the 1960s he worked as an industrial engineer with Glidden Paint and next at Pacemaker Yachts, which owned Egg Harbor Yachts. With beginnings in industrial engineering and service he eventually handled quality control and was assistant to the president.
Life in Ft. Lauderdale began when he was transferred to be president of Miller Yacht Sales, a company owned by Pacemaker.
Strauss was fired from Miller when his attempt to take it over failed and it was sold to Fuqua Industries. Nonetheless, his marine career in Ft. Lauderdale was just beginning.
In 1977, Strauss took who he thought were the best guys from Miller, including George Cable, to start Cable Marine on the property just east of Miller on Southeast 16th Street. The restaurant near there now – Bimini Boatyard – got its name because of the boats Strauss stored on the then-vacant lot.
In the 1970s, companies such as West Marine were just gaining footing as the marine industry was proving a moneymaker. With a global vision of the industry, Strauss saw a way to be efficient in business and he hired the best people he could find.
Needing parts for their yard, Strauss and partners started DS Hull, which was named for friends from New Jersey (Denny and Shirley) and a secretary with the last name Hull.
Needing service for their boats, Strauss started Yacht Equipment and Parts.
He realized he could return bids that were 30-40 percent lower when he owned the parts supplier and service provider.
The business model he incorporated early in his career is taught in elementary economics today, explained Sturm.
“Vertical integration,” he said. “You own the land, grow the crops, own the trucks and sell the crops. That’s what Elmer did.”
“Elmer is a businessman’s businessman,” Cable said.
Still expanding, Strauss built on work he had done while at Pacemaker. He had set up a True Value Hardware store to incorporate fast-selling boat parts. Then he bought one of the True Value franchises, which became his retail branch, now known as Boat Owners Warehouse or BOW.
“When I bought the property for BOW, they said I was crazy,” Strauss said from the parking lot full of customers and work trucks. “When I bought this lot, they said I was crazier.”
During this period in the early 1980s Strauss and his partners acquired and sold properties including a marine store where they built a pier for lifting boats. That property is now the Waterway Café in Palm Beach Gardens, the only restaurant with a dining area out in the Intracoastal Waterway, thanks to the permitting of that pier.
“The reason not everybody does it, creating all these businesses? It takes patience and perseverance and saving capital,” Sturm explained. “You don’t take profits, you reinvest. Oh god, yeah, you need a lot of patience, a lot of time.”
These traits are visible in Strauss’ quiet, immovable strength. The strength is persistent and you can practically see his mind making decisions that will no-way be changed.
He’s met plenty of resistance and had failures, like ES Yacht Sales, but he has forged through with the quiet authority of a bouncer who knows he’ll never have to use his power.
Over the decades, there were suggestions that Strauss’ ideas wouldn’t work. And over a corned beef sandwich at a local diner, Strauss does things his doctors suggest he shouldn’t. He has ongoing health problems, maybe he could eat a better diet and quit the cigars, but at least he’s not stressed.
Winding down from decades of high-action business, Strauss has begun to cut his working hours. Still, anyone looking for him is likely to hear “he was just here.”
He can’t give up the work completely, and now spends part of his day researching politics and economics for personal newsletters and Web links to share his strong opinions.
“He likes to be at-large,” Dede Cable said.
“He used to stop in here two to three times a day,” Sturm said. “He would check on us. Get us to pay attention, do better on our estimates.”
For a guy who has owned so many businesses, he’s never had much of an office. He prefers to borrow a desk at each of his companies. Although he’s behind-the-scenes, Strauss still likes to be among his employees and customers.
“He’s good on business plans, taxes and current laws,” Sturm said. “He briefs us at meetings on upcoming conditions. And he’s right.”
Milliken said Strauss can go to the yard, look around, come back and tell her the sales and statistics.
“I think it’s something you’re born with,” she said. “I’m still trying to learn. We’ve had bets and I’ve lost every single time.”
From behind piles of files and cabinets of paperwork, Milliken points out Strauss’ nearly empty desk.
“You see his desk versus mine? And he knows more…”
Dorie Cox is associate editor of The Triton. Comments on this story are welcome at email@example.com.