Longtime president of yacht yard Merrill-Stevens dies

Apr 12, 2020 by Lucy Chabot Reed

By Lucy Chabot Reed

An icon of the South Florida shipyard and brokerage industry died on Sunday, April 5. Fred Kirtland, previously president and general manager of Merrill-Stevens shipyard in Miami, was born and raised in Miami, and spent nearly 50 years at the legendary shipyard on the Miami River. He was 91.

“Fred was an icon in the industry,” said Kevin Merrigan, CEO of Fort Lauderdale-based brokerage firm Northrop & Johnson. “He was the nicest, more honorable man you could ever know. At the time he was building up Merrill-Stevens, it was the yard where the wealthiest of the wealthy took their yachts. And Fred treated the owners just as he treated the varnisher, with a smile and respect.”

Whit Kirtland, left, with his dad, Fred Kirtland, at the 2015 Miami Yacht & Brokerage Show. Photo by Lucy Reed

Mr. Kirtland was born at Coral Gables Hospital and attended public elementary school. He was sent to Riverside Military Academy in Georgia for high school — “because he was bad”, his son, Whit, said — then started college at the University of Florida before transferring to the University of Miami and graduating in 1953 as Army ROTC cadet No. 1. His life-long best friend, Lester Johnson, would graduate as cadet No. 2.

He served in the Korean War at the Port of Inchon in the supply division. When he returned to the United States, he joined the Dictaphone corporation and would eventually become its No. 1 salesman, according to Whit Kirtland. 

But it was in 1961, when Merrill-Stevens owner Alex Balfe hired him as a broker, that Mr. Kirtland’s yachting career would take root.

“Dad had a real sense of fair play,” said Whit Kirtland, a long-time yacht broker with Merrill-Stevens and now with Northrop & Johnson. “He was always concerned that the industry not see him giving me a free ride. All our family friends were well-off, and my friends all went to work in air conditioned offices at the bank or the offices of their dads. I went to work on the docks, scrubbing fuel tanks. … Dad was a big believer in earning your way. And he appreciated hard work.”

Mr. Kirtland saw that trait in Walter Richardson, who grew up going to the same church and schools as the Kirtland children. 

“The first thing I did when I graduated was take a resume over to Merrill-Stevens,” Richardson said. And for the next 25 years, Mr. Kirtland was instrumental in finding him yachting jobs, including working for the owner of the classic 55-foot Rybovich M/Y Miss Bradford over in Spanish Wells, on the old Burger M/Y Stone Face and among the Highlander fleet. Until finally, Mr. Kirtland offered him a job at the shipyard.

“I had a captain job on a yacht and we were at Merrill-Stevens, getting ready to leave,” Richardson remembered. “I had two sons by then, 5 and 8, and they were crying, my wife was crying. Then I get a call from Fred offering me a job at the shipyard as a superintendent/project manager. So in 1998, I started working under Ron Baker, Tom Dinan and Fred. It was a great experience. They were a wealth of knowledge. 

“I’ll always remember one of Fred’s most common sayings: Owners don’t have yachts to be miserable; they have them to have fun and enjoy themselves on’,” he said. “He was always telling us to get the owner his boat on time and at a fair deal. If someone was not happy, we were to take them to talk to Fred. We were to make sure they left the shipyard happy.”

Doing the right thing

Mr. Kirtland had a tough side, to be sure.

“You either keep your word with Dad or you didn’t,” Whit Kirtland said. “And if you didn’t, he was done with you. That was all it took. Because if he told you he was going to do something — good or bad — he was going to do it.”

At one point, a vessel belonging to the Pegan motorcycle gang was in the shipyard, and one of the members was giving Mr. Kirtland a hard time, threatening him. Whit Kirtland recalled that scene, and remembers being shocked when his father told the man to get out of his office (in less kind language).

“These guys would kill people, and here’s Dad telling him to get out,” Whit Kirtland recalled. “He said, ‘If you want to talk business, sit down and we’ll work this out.’ But if you pressured Dad, he told you in no uncertain terms that was not how he worked.”

He was also forgiving. Richardson said when he made mistakes in his early days managing shipyard projects, he wasn’t fired.

“He certainly gave me a chance at Merrill-Stevens,” he said. “The first couple times I screwed up on a job, he didn’t run me off. He helped me learn from my mistakes. He would sit you down, look at you in the eyes, put the fear of God in you, and you worked it out.”

And Richardson remembers a less intimidating side of Mr. Kirtland — the one who would not only gladly accept a share in Richardson’s fresh catch, but who would also go to Richardson’s house and help himself to a share in his outdoor freezer.

“And he’d come over and walk through the backyard garden, too, taking a tomato or whatever was growing,” Richardson recalled with a laugh. “Yeah, he loved having fresh fish. And he would tell me ‘You need to go out there and go fishing again.’” 

Building a brand

Although he was technically in charge of the main shipyard, Mr. Kirtland was officially given the title of president and general manager in 1965 or 1966, his son said. He would remain with the company until 2009 when Merrill-Stevens went into bankruptcy.

But those nearly five decades under his command would be the modern glory days of yachting. He sold Malcolm Forbes, the millionaire entrepreneur and magazine editor, his last five boats, including the iconic Highlander yachts.

Other regulars at the Miami shipyard included oceanographer Jacques Cousteau’s research ship Calypso, the Amway family’s Enterprise vessels, and M/Y Blackhawk, the 130-foot (37.5m) Feadship owned by the Wirtz family, which owns the Chicago Blackhawks hockey team.

“As far as shipyard managers go, he was top shelf, no doubt,” said Capt. Sandy Broome, who ran the Blackhawk for 26 years. For most of that time, the yacht called Merrill-Stevens home.

“Merrill Stevens was convenient for us,” Capt. Broome said. “You come out of the ocean and you’re in the shipyard in 30 minutes. But more than that, we were treated well. All of the big yacht programs were there, Forbes, Amway. Not for a short time, but for years. That’s because of Fred.”

When it came to his core group of shipyard clients — those that visited the shipyard twice a year for regular maintenance — Mr. Kirtland would do whatever needed to be done to make sure they enjoyed their yachts. Richardson recalled one summer when a good client was in the Great Lakes when a motor stopped working. Mr. Kirtland put the shop foreman on an airplane and sent him to get the yacht running again.

“He was always ready to do whatever it took to make sure our good customers were always taken care of,” he said.

“My father was a people person,” Whit Kirtland said. “He always liked to help people. Some of the stories I’ve heard since his passing of the things he did for people have been truly heartwarming.”

Some of these were stories he said he never knew about his father. Two of his friends called to tell him stories of how kind his father had been after their own parents had died. And for years after Tom Dinan, the second in command at the shipyard, was in a car accident and left paralyzed, Mr. Kirtland would visit him every Saturday for breakfast.

“Dad was genuinely an honest guy who cared about everybody, from the owner of the yacht to the janitor,” Whit Kirtland said. “It’s like Dad always said: Everybody’s important, and you need to make sure they feel like it.’ ”

Mr. Kirtland would walk around the shipyard every day, stopping to talk to workers, asking about their spouses and children. 

“He knew everyone by name, he knew your kids,” Whit Kirtland said. “He was genuinely interested in everybody.”

A little about loyalty

“The thing Fred loved the most was loyalty,” Capt. Broome said. “There’s not a lot of that left anymore.”

That thread carried over into his personal life as well.

“When Dad got out of the military, Lester picked him up from the airport and took him to a party, and that’s where he met my mother, who was there with another man,” Whit Kirtland said. “It’s like Lester always said: when Dad saw Dot and Dot saw Dad, there was no one else in the room.”

The pair were engaged three months later, married four months after that and were married 64 years at the time of his death.

Mr. Kirtland collapsed as he was retrieving his Sunday newspaper last weekend, likely from a heart attack, Whit Kirtland said. 

“It was a bit of a surprise,” he said. “Dad had some health issues, but the doctors told us we’d have him for two or three more years.” 

Mr. Kirtland is survived by his wife, Dorothy; son, Whit; daughter, Kindy; four grandchildren and a legion of yacht brokers and shipyard workers whose careers he helped forge. A ceremony of his life will be planned when restrictions over gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic are lifted.

“I just remember him as a compassionate, stand-up guy who always looked after everyone else,” Whit Kirtland said. 

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher of The Triton. Comments are welcome below.


About Lucy Chabot Reed

Lucy Chabot Reed is publisher and founding editor of The Triton.

View all posts by Lucy Chabot Reed →

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