The Return of Hell's Bay Boatworks

Those of us who love small boats — and particularly the ones that let us to get close to fish — have been in turns intrigued and saddened by the story of Hell’s Bay, which came to life in the late 1980s as the brainchild of Chris Morejohn, Hal Chittum and Flip Pallot. In short, the company was sold in 2002, assumed an overly large debt, lost some key craftsmen and gained a lot of management problems, and by 2005 was in bankcrupty (see “Skiff Manufacturer Hell’s Bay’s Difficulties“). To compound the problems, owner Brian Broderick had taken many deposits on boats that were never built. It looked like the brand — and the idea of building highly technical skiffs for anglers — was dead.
But in 2006 businessman Chris Peterson was looking for an opportunity and came across the scuttled company on a tip from his accountant. Peterson was two years out of treatment for lymphoma, which doctors had diagnosed four years earlier, and felt to urge to rebuild his professional life. He began unsuccessful negotiations with Riverside National Bank and several months later, after the bank refused his many offers, showed up in early December 2006 when Hell’s Bay went on the auction block. Peterson acquired all the assets — the physical plant, the molds, the intellectual property, even the coffee machine — in mid-December. He also convinced the key craftsmen and even the office manager to come back, and by the end of January 2007 Peterson’s new business was only weeks away from producing the next Hell’s Bay skiff.
The story since then has been one of careful management as Peterson has resuscitated the brand. For several months he worked with suppliers on a cash-only basis. “They wouldn’t even take a cashier’s check from Hell’s Bay by the time I acquired the company,” he told us in a recent conversation. “But then again, I didn’t want to do business on credit.” He decided not to take deposits on the first new orders and to honor the old deposits within reason. He also began delivering boats. A year later, Hell’s Bay is producing skiffs faster and with better quality than it has in years, all under Peterson’s careful supervision. “It’s never a single problem that kills a business,” Peterson said. “The straw that broke the camel’s back on the last owner’s business was that he was an absentee manager. I won’t have that problem. My wife and I live and breathe Hell’s Bay. I am in the plant with the guys building the boats every day.”
It’s fascinating to watch a company like Hell’s Bay being brought back to life after it was written off by creditors, customers, competitors and even a large number of owners who figured their well-loved skiffs would become the Studebakers of the technical skiff world.

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