“Who Moved My Cheese” was a very popular business book several years ago, the story about two mice and two little people in a maze and how they adapted to change in their world. The mice were able to deal with change and quickly found a new source of cheese while the little people were bogged down with feelings of entitlement and slower to do anything about their missing cheese. We’ve all seen change in our own workplaces, but for many in the marine trades, the story about how successfully the mice and the little people coped as they struggled to find their cheese was a compelling analogy.
There are a number of marine businesses that started out many years ago, still in operation, that have had to change or make modifications in the product or service they offer. While the principals of these businesses are still around it seemed like a worthwhile project to find out from them how they coped, why they survived and stayed in business while others were not able to.
There used to be fishing stations along the bayfront in a lot of small south shore Long Island communities. A fishing station is a place on the water where people come with the expectation of renting a rowboat with an outboard motor or just the rowboat. People who rented just the rowboats were towed, usually by the owner of the fishing station, out into the fishing grounds and picked up when the day was over.
Buddy Toomey, brought up in Amityville, knew he’d be happy working outside around the water. He bought the Pearl Grey Fishing Station on South Ketcham Avenue in Amityville in 1954 after returning from the Korean War. It consisted of a few broken down rowboats, a shed and waterfront property. He rebuilt and replaced boats and by 1957 he had added a restaurant. Ed Lowe, the Newsday writer, often mentioned eating at the restaurant and drinking at the bar in his columns.
As more people over the years have become boat owners, there has been less need for what fishing stations provided and most of them have disappeared. (One fishing station still exists that is in a more rural area that has expanded its rental fleet to include canoes, kayaks and sailboats.) Toomey has leased out the restaurant for almost 20 years and his son, John, has taken over running the marina, boatyard and service end of the business. The name has changed to Pearl Grey – Toomeys Marine Service. It has outgrown its link to the fishing station and become a marina and service business that local customers need. The rental boats are gone. What has not changed, Toomey said, was that people are still in a hurry to get out on the bay and go fishing.
Until he was 28, Dick Schuchman of Bayport, worked for Eastern Airlines and had a commercial pilot’s license. He decided that the airline life was not for him. He’s a bird watcher, loves the outdoors, loves being in the woods and on the water. He started his commercial fishing career by working as a clammer. He made about $300 a week. A retired fisherman showed him how to make a gill net, a wall of netting held up by cork along the top. The size of the netting was determined by the size of the fish you were trying to catch. The first day out fishing he caught ten bushels of bunker and made $20 or $30. The next day he caught 1000 pounds of bluefish that a dealer paid him $300 for. You took your fish to shore, he said, and a trucker would take the catch to a dealer and the dealer would send you a check. Schuchman sold to Sunrise, a big company, honest, he thought, and good to deal with. He used to put in long days, probably eight to ten hours on the water, then unload and get rid of the catch.
Catching flounder, bunker, weakfish, bluefish, sea bass, fluke, shiners, eels and scallops, Schuchman also caught horseshoe crabs and was paid $3 each. The season for the horseshoe crabs was only 21 days. In the winter the eels hibernate, going down into the mud, and you’d dredge for them. He made something that looked like a big comb – a board with ice picks hanging from it that you’d lower into the water and when you felt something you’d pull up very carefully right away so you didn’t injure the eel. Buyers from Maine and New Jersey had tank trucks and would weigh the eels in barrels. The Chinese paid $5 a pound for very large eels.
Schuchman spent 52 years on the bay and in the ocean. He was happy to be working on the water and would be out there today if it weren’t for several health issues. He fished the ocean and the bay from East Moriches to the Captree Bridge. His boat is an open fiberglass boat with a 110 Hp outboard motor and no cabin.
If you tried to go out and fish as a young person, as he did, you could no longer make a living fishing. He could do it now because he has the cushion of Social Security and his house and boat are paid for. It could probably work part time for a person who does shift work, someone who is a police officer, perhaps.
Mary Schaper recalls when her husband, Lou Schaper, one of the brothers who ran Sunrise Fish, worked at commercial fishing. He worked from the time he was 20 until he got Parkinsons and gave it up at 80. They used to set up pound nets out in the ocean. She thought it was interesting the kinds of fish that got into the nets, sometimes tropical fish from southern waters. For a while a Japanese company tried to buy Sunrise. They were interested in the big tuna Sunrise was getting. That never happened and the company was sold when there was just one brother left.
If you are a commercial fisherman you need nets, traps and dredges that only a specialized supplier will have. Island Fish Net Supply seems to be the only place on Long Island where you can find these things. Elizabeth and Robert Macdonald came to Sayville from East Quogue to see the store when it was advertised for sale in 1973. Although Bob was a brewery supply salesman and Elizabeth was a housewife, she had a background in retail and fashion. Her grandfather had a similar store, Radford’s, in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn and her great grandfather in Devonshire, England, was a fisherman who had a beach concession. It felt right to them and they bought it, with the promise of the owner to stay around long enough to show them how to run the business and how to operate the net making machine. The net maker was about 10’ x 12’ with a 6’ high rack for the nylon twine it used. It was heavy metal and weighed several tons. It was used until the electric bill to use it was so high it became impossible to compete with foreign nets. Now using nets from China, Turkey and sometimes Japan, they’re still making gill nets, trawls, seines and smaller nets for dredges.
Changes in commercial fishing directly affect Macdonalds’ business. More restrictive state and federal legislation, declines in fish stock and availability and increasing amounts of imported sea food mean fewer fishermen and thus fewer Island Fish Net customers. They have coped by adding product lines – nautical jewelry, tee shirts and sweatshirts. Elizabeth now travels to decoy, wildfowler and fishing markets as a vendor to stay in touch with old customers and make new customers. She has a bulletin board where she puts customers pictures and their business cards. She brings dog treats to events that feature dogs. She tries whenever possible, she said, to buy American made products for resale or Canadian if she can’t find suitable American products.
Al Grover became a boat dealer in 1950 with a building in Freeport on the Woodcleft Canal. He started selling the Amesbury Dory, a small lapstrake skiff in a dory design that was distinguished by a high freeboard. It was low enough for fishermen to bring their nets and catch into the boat and high enough to keep children safe when a family went out in an Amesbury. Grover was able to put this “Fisherman’s Special” together as a package for $395 – the Amesbury Dory, a 7-l/2 HP outboard motor, oars, oarlocks and two cushions. There was no financing option – you paid cash. The envelope with the $395 went to the bank and was deposited. It brought people into boating at the low end. There was no sales tax, no registration. The Coast Guard handled registration at no cost until New York State Department of Motor Vehicles took over boat registration.
Grovers High & Dry Marina sold Chris Crafts back in the early years when being in business for a long time, as Chris Craft was, could be a disadvantage. They had so many good carpenters turning out beautiful hulls and interiors, they swore at a national sales meeting that Chris Craft would never build fiberglass boats. Yet, not too long after that, wiser heads prevailed and Chris Craft bought Thompson Boats in Cortland, NY and started turning out a few 20 foot fiberglass boats among the wooden boats they were building in 1965.
Today Grovers sells Grady-White boats, a more expensive line of fishing boats. With financing now available, people can buy a better boat and spread out the cost over years of using it. Grady-White started over fifty years ago, made the change from wood to fiberglass with enough problems that they sold the company to Eddie Smith, a supersalesman who kept the company together while specialists he hired to get the fiberglass process right and who were dedicated to efficiency and knowing the cost of making the boats, did their jobs. The company thrived as more and more new fiberglass models came out, and more emphasis was put on using the boats for fishing. They briefly tried a model with a flying bridge but it was more important to the fishermen to be in the cockpit where the action was and the flying bridge model was discontinued.
Al Grover, like some of the other business owners, started with nothing. Things change. Life becomes more complicated with more government involvement. There were no permits then to start a business, no environmental restrictions, no DEC – “You couldn’t start up today the way I did in 1950,” he added.
Why did these businesses survive? Like the mice, these fishermen and business owners were quick to change their strategies when they had to. They saw opportunities others missed. They were open to doing things in new ways. They were willing to add new products, go out and meet the customers and sell in different venues. Part of it was luck, but being in the right place at the right time did not assure them of success. They were willing to work harder and longer than other people.