Back in 1964, when two brothers from New Jersey purchased a little-known yet admired boat company named Peterson-Viking Builders that built wooden sport-fishing and cruising boats, no one could have predicted what their new company would become in the next 50 years. The Viking Yacht Co. was formed when Bill and Bob Healey created their family-based joint venture, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Viking enjoys the hard-earned position as the undisputed leader in the production sport-fisherman market, but it wasn’t always so. It took lots of hard work, dedication and vision to take that fledgling boat company and transform it into the powerhouse it is today.
Much of the company’s story centers around the people involved in the Viking family. The company has remained under the private ownership of the Healey family for the past 50 years, and the Healeys intend for it to remain that way. That’s a remarkable feat in today’s business world. Much of the rest of the boatbuilding industry has been subjected to repeated turnovers and turmoil in terms of both ownership and management personnel. Corporate ownership is the norm in much of the boat business but not at Viking.
The brothers each possessed a skill set which suited the new endeavor perfectly. Bill Healey was, and is, a passionate boatbuilder; it’s what drives him and makes him the best at what he does. Bob Healey, on the other hand, is the businessman with a head for money, so when you put the two together, you have the perfect team for the boatbuilding business.
Keeping It Private
Pat Healey, Bill’s son, serves as president of Viking Yachts. “We’ve always had private ownership,” Pat says. “And that has allowed us to make decisions and act on them instantly. There’s no corporate board to consult … just us.” This flexibility has served them well, and Pat points out that Viking’s excellent dealer network is also privately held with a keen sense of entrepreneurship.
In addition to the Healey family itself, many of Viking’s employees have been with the company for decades, providing a consistency many other builders lack. “It’s all about the people, from the workers on the floor to the management team,” Pat says. “We’ve all been able to integrate together to form a complete, 100 percent team with only one goal: to build the very best boat possible.”
In the early days, Viking built boats much like some Carolina boatbuilders — assembling the boats on frames at interval-based work stations. But that changed in 1971, when Viking built its first all-fiberglass model, the Viking 33 Convertible. The 33 became an overnight hit and launched larger models that brought the company more fame in the fish-boat community.
The next milestone boat debuted in the fall of 1972, when Viking rolled out what would become one of its bestsellers ever: the 40 Convertible. Viking sold more than 600 40- and 41-foot models over the next 16 years, and every Viking built since has shared this basic hull design, with evolutionary refinements being made to accommodate steadily increasing available horsepower and speed.
Viking continued to grow during the ’80s, and the company expanded into a new market when it acquired Gulfstar Yachts, a West Florida-based motor-yacht builder whose designs were considered among the best in the industry. But fishing boats always made up the backbone of the company, and by 1990, Viking offered a complete line of convertibles as well as motor yachts.
In 1991, however, the boatbuilding industry suffered one of its most serious setbacks with the implementation of the infamous “luxury tax” on Jan. 1 of that year. A 10 percent tax was automatically tacked onto boats with price tags greater than $100,000. At that time, the National Marine Manufacturers Association estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 boats would be subject to the tax, and many of those were Vikings.
The luxury tax caused Viking to fall from 1,500 employees and two plants to just 80 employees working in a single plant. The entire marine industry suffered massive plant shutdowns, with many related closures in businesses including engine manufacturers, equipment producers and many more. The Healey brothers were forced to cash in some of their personal savings to keep the company afloat.
Bob organized a national grass-roots campaign to fight the tax. He took bus loads of out-of-work boatbuilders to Capitol Hill to show Congress precisely what this new tax had done. His leadership was instrumental in overturning the ill-advised measure, which was officially repealed in August 1993. It is interesting to note that Viking’s decision to remain open despite dismal sales attributable to the luxury tax allowed the company to tool up new models. So when the tax was lifted, Viking was uniquely poised to acquire new market share.
More milestones occurred in the ’90s, as Bill and Bob founded the Recreational Fishing Alliance in 1996, a nonprofit organization formed to promote sustainable fisheries and a healthy marine environment. Viking has contributed several million dollars to the RFA to date.