Mega yacht’s make Burger Boat world famous

Mega yacht’s make Burger Boat world famous

Hurt, Jeanette

BACK WHEN ABRAHAM LINCOLN WAS PRESIDENT, BURGER Boat Co. started making fishing boats in Manitowoc. Over the years, this little shipping yard has built boats for some of the wealthiest dynasties in America. Its clients included such recognizable names as Walgreen, Ford and Rockefeller. Not to mention in more recent years such personalities as Chicago Bulls superstar Scottie Pippen and the king of Morocco.

But in 1990, expanding its roster of famous clients wasn’t on the company’s agenda. In fact, just five years after the family-owned business transferred ownership to John McMillan, chairman of the Allegheny and Western Natural Gas Co., the once thriving company nearly sank. McMillan ended his absentee ownership in 1989 – he had tried to run the Wisconsin company from his Florida home – and the boatyard was shut down in November 1990.

Enter Chicago businessman David Ross and his partner Jim Ruffolo. “The main reason I went ahead and acquired the company is because of a meeting I had with Burger’s craftsmen,” said Ross, Burger’s president and CEO.

“I found them to be so genuine and so sincere. They only wanted to give their best. Truly, they are some of the finest artisans on the planet.”

The quality of their work and their professional work ethic won Ross over, and he and Ruffolo purchased the company in 1993. At that time, he began rehiring all 160 workers who had been laid off. Though his first few years at the helm proved challenging, Ross not only rebuilt the company, he began to take it to a new level.

“For about 55 years, Burger built custom yachts in the 60- to 90-foot range,” Ross said. “In the last 15 years under my ownership, we brought up our entire range up to between 80 and 120 feet.”

The new range proved more profitable, but there was stiff competition.

“The vast majority of ship builders in that size range were building boats on a production basis versus the full custom basis of the way we build,” Ross explained.

“What that means is you could get a similar sized yacht that looks pretty good for substantially less money. We felt there was a lot of pressure on us, as there was more and more resistance to building custom yachts in that size range.”

With about 100 competitors in that size range, Ross decided to take Burger out of the competition and into the next level of yacht building, as the 140- to 160-foot range offered comfortable room for a custom-yacht builder like Burger. In 2003, he began that transition. A $25 million renovation and expansion of Burger’s shipyard has allowed the company to do just that.

Its first yacht in the new mega-yacht range, the Mirgab V, purchased by a Kuwaiti businessman, made a splash on the international yachting scene, winning the “Yacht of the Year” award from Yachts International magazine.

“It’s like winning the Academy Award for our industry,” Ross said. “A year ago, we were certainly below the radar screen, and now, we’ve been nominated for four more awards.”

Luxurious features have put Mirgab V in a class all its own. For example, its custom, bronze staircase has illuminated glass treads that spiral up three levels around a glass tube elevator, exiting onto onyx floors. “They make jewelry out of the stuff we put down as flooring,” Ross said. “It’s just jaw-dropping stuff.”

It’s also pretty profitable. Mega yachts typically sell for $20 million or more, and right now, Burger has six other custom yachts under construction, with two additional ones waiting in the queue. The new designs under construction should outshine Mirgab V. One is a sleek, high-speed Euro-style custom boat. Another is a 144-foot fantail cruiser that is made to look like a 1920s ship with an art deco interior design.

“We’re now considered a Rolls Royce of the industry,” Ross said. “We deal with entertainers, sports celebrities, royalty.”

To accommodate that kind of growth, Burger expanded its workforce to just under 500 employees, and Ross is always looking for skilled craftsmen to add to his team.

“I have been very fortunate in my life that I have always made a living from my passion, and my passion has been yachting and boating,” said Ross, who in his spare time enjoys setting sail on his 1972 Burger yacht.

“I always say that if you have an opportunity to turn your passion into your livelihood, I don’t think there can be any better potential for success.”

Copyright Trails Media Group May 2007

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