There is the inescapable cycle of the seasons on the Shore, but so too cycles of much longer duration, the cycles of succeeding generations of family businesses, some of which date from the 1600s. Richard and Beverly Tilghman, for example, are the twelfth-generation proprietors of the farms at Wye House. Mark and Susan Hill of Easton are the fourth generation of Bailey Marine preparing for the beginning of the fifth with Stephen Hill. Arbre Group Holding, the parent company of Paris Foods in Trappe, has transitioned to the fourth generation of leadership under Dylan Marks. And David and Missy DeLuca of Delco Packaging in Hurlock are second generation, readying the third.
Other generations are of more recent vintage and families more extended, people like Pete and Annie Mathews of Mathews Brothers, a builder of classic Chesapeake Bay yachts in Denton. Pete will be turning sixty in December and, like others at his point in life, has begun wrestling with how to keep the Chesapeake boatbuilding traditions of Lempke, Robbins and Roe, all bundled together under the Mathews Brothers umbrella, continuing as an integral part of the Shore’s culture.
Pete Mathews testing a recently completed Mathews Brothers Bay Explorer 26.
Like other successful businesses, Mathews Brothers started with a dream followed by experimentation, acquisitions, dogged determination, and the building of a skilled team, all fueled by sweat equity, demanding work schedules, and an unconditional commitment to turn that dream into reality. Its efforts over the past thirty years resulted in the creation of a distinctive business model—products that are works of art capable of taking whatever the Bay dishes up enjoyed by a loyal following.
The dazzling teak work of a Mathews Brothers yacht.
The company was launched during the Shore’s residential building boom in the mid-1990s when Mathews noticed that those who had purchased the home of their dreams wanted a powerboat to go along with it reflecting the region’s characteristics. They were looking for a hand built classic Chesapeake deadrise that had the soul of a workboat elegantly carrying amenities for comfortable cruising.
Pete Mathews in the Mathews Brothers manufacturing facility in Denton, phone at the ready.
During the first years Mathews exhibited their new concept at the Annapolis Power Boat Shows, the common refrain was, “Now, that’s what a boat should look like on the Chesapeake.” Mathews then discovered that once owners had taken delivery, they were unwilling to be separated from the builder. The marine industry can be rigidly segmented with companies that only manufacture boats, others that only service, repair, and maintain them, and still others that only store and house them. Mathews yachts are built with considerable customer input during the manufacturing process such that a bond develops between the builders and owners. Once launched, these owners wanted Mathews providing their pride and joy with complete care, sheltering it indoors in the winter and responding to calls on a Sunday summer afternoon when something unexpected popped up. Meeting those demands, a full-service business model emerged that resulted in Mathews Brothers today enjoying an 85 percent customer retention rate, enviable in any business.
A postcard of the first Mathews Brothers 22 cruiser.
Mathews Brothers started in St. Michaels when it purchased several molds from Clarence Lempke, a builder of workboats in Windy Hill, one of which was used to create the first 22 footer. As the concept caught fire, Mathews purchased Robbins Boatbuilders in Cambridge and moved to the Denton Industrial Park. Cecil Robbins had been making 29 and 40 foot workboats for 25 years, and those were lengths Mathews customers were demanding. Later, when Ricky Roe sold his workboat business, Mathews picked up his 26 foot molds, giving it the foundation for a series of Bay style boats from 16 to 40 feet. These molds were the templates the skilled craftspeople at Mathews painstakingly used to fashion their distinctive watercraft.
The author’s Mathews Brothers Patriot 29 at North Hero, Vermont. A blog of his four-week cruise on the Hudson River and Lake Champlain can be found here.
In the current fevered boat market, a used Mathews is listed for only a day or two before it goes under contract, but it wasn’t always that way. The financial meltdown in 2008 devastated the boating industry, forcing many companies into bankruptcy. Mathews Brothers was fortunate that its customers still wanted the same blanket of care even though times were tough, and Pete and Annie weathered the storm.
Today, Mathews Brothers is at that existential point that each generation of small business confronts. Like so many specialty enterprises on the Shore, it is a successful family enterprise with Pete and Annie’s son Spencer Mathews heading sales, but it is also the extended family of its employees, specialty contractors, and customers. For decades, Pete muscled the boulder of the company uphill while pulling the family along with him. Now that gentle nudges are all that’s needed to keep the boulder moving, he has begun noticing the weariness in his bones. It is gratifying for him to see hull numbers 87 and 88 under construction and that more than 100 boats are stored with Mathews each winter, every single one needing some level of service. But as Pete moves into his seventh decade, he is wondering how long he can physically remain fully invested.
Going through the Mathews shop, anyone acquainted with the business leadership philosophy of Phil Jackson and how he built teams that won 11 NBA titles can see those principles in practice. Work proceeds with little confusion or conversation. Each person instinctively knows what needs to be done and how their competencies fit into the whole. Whenever a new project begins, those decades of experience flood the zone to make the next creation even better. That is magic in any enterprise. For Pete, the question is how to keep that magic alive.
A few days ago, I sat down with Pete to ask him who might come into the business in the future. I was thinking about a blustery morning on the Little Choptank River where I’d anchored for the night and was watching dozens of workboats heading out to the Bay the following morning where they were in for a pounding. Nearly half were Robbins workboats, some of them pushing 50 years old still going strong. Does he want those Robbins and Mathews out on the Bay years from now, a vibrant part of the Bay’s heritage? Absolutely, Pete said. What he hopes to see coming along is someone focused on the numbers while committed to carrying on a centuries’ old tradition of Chesapeake boatbuilding, someone who sees the value in all the lessons learned from all the talent and intellectual property Mathews has cobbled together.
A Robbins 40 by Mathews Brothers powering down the Bay.
As I was leaving, I said to Pete that he is an entrepreneur, the creator of the business, and that Mathews Brothers reflects his vision. I asked whether it will be difficult for him to let go and allow someone to come in behind him one day. Yes, he said. He has been doing it for so long, it is who he is. “But what’s on my mind right now is Annie and I going cruising. We hear that it’s great fun!”
Jeff McGuiness was the senior partner of a public policy law firm based in Washington, DC, and founder of HR Policy Association. He was also a partner in Mathews Brothers for ten years. A fine arts major in college who served as a photographer in the Air Force during the Vietnam War Era, he has picked up where he left off 50 years ago with Bay Photographic Works. He lives in St. Michaels, MD.