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May 2009
Dredging a Niche
By Janet Kropinak

     Bob Wilson says business success comes from finding a niche, learning how to operate within that niche, possessing the ability to adapt to a changing marketplace and remaining relevant over time. And he should know…his company has solidified a reputation built on quality, value and service and is considered “among the very best” in its industry.

     Acting as an advocate for responsible development, and the delicate balance between environmental protection and economic development, Mooresville’s Rowboat Dock & Dredge has spent over 30 years creating beautiful waterfronts that developers, contractors, homeowners and the public at large can enjoy.

     The company services the growing resort, marine and industrial markets of the Southeast. Whether you are a developer needing a marina, or a homeowner needing a custom dock, Rowboat has high quality, cost-effective products and solutions.

Niche Business

     Wilson grew up on a farm in east Charlotte, but has called Lake Norman home for over 25 years. He has always felt at home on the water and enjoys the accompanying lifestyle.

     He attended UNC Chapel Hill as a Morehead Scholar, where he studied business with the intention of continuing on to law school, but the Vietnam War changed his plans.

     He became a pilot in the Air Force and was sent overseas. By the time he returned stateside, attending law school had become impractical; instead he joined his father’s contracting business in Charlotte.

     He describes his father, W. K. “Bill” Wilson, as an Irish immigrant with excellent common sense, a keen eye and a big heart. Wilson applied his education to helping grow the business, and eventually bought it from his father in the early ’70s. He restructured the business model and renamed the company Row Industrial Service.

     “It was a niche business from day one,” he remembers. Row Industrial specialized in providing heavy maintenance services to the industrial Southeast, serving synthetic fibers, textiles, power and chemical companies. The other primary service included specialized fuel piping for the major oil companies and the airlines. Row Industrial was favored with the entire concourse fueling system for the Charlotte International Airport from its initiation in 1980 through the completion of the International Concourse.

     “To be successful, it’s best to carve out a niche, and concentrate on quality, value and customer service,” Wilson explains. “You build your business by filling that niche.”

In 1986 Wilson sold off part of the company, retaining his portable cutterhead suction dredges and the corporate shell. He changed the name from Row Industrial to Rowboat Dock & Dredge, maintained a small work force, and began dredging for hire on Lake Norman and the surrounding area lakes.

     Much of the early development on Lake Norman required the use of the floating cutterhead suction dredges, like the ones provided by Rowboat. These machines were used to remove the shoreline shoals and provide deep water access for deep draft sailboats. By the mid 1980s, dredging had become the new niche for the company.

     As it happened, the mid ’80s presented a new opportunity that Wilson couldn’t pass up—former President Jimmy Carter approached him to lead the Jimmy Carter Work Project with Habitat for Humanity, which he did, serving as national director for six years, while also maintaining the dredging business.

     It was during these years that Wilson learned the importance of building a business that stood for something more than just making money: “President Carter taught me that whether your business is big or small, you must care about the people; you must share your rewards with your community; you and your business must have a social conscience.”

     In 1992, after blitz-building several hundreds of homes in major cities throughout the country, Wilson turned his attention back to Rowboat Dock & Dredge, determined to grow the business. The company has expanded its offerings over the years. Rowboat now specializes in the design and construction of high-end waterfront amenities such as marinas, bridges, seawalls, and promenades for individuals, marinas, resorts, municipalities, golf courses and developers.

     Current works include marina and dock construction, bathometric analysis of shoals, dredging, regulatory permitting and design and construction services for high-end residential and commercial waterfronts.

     “The difference between waterfront property and property not on the water is obviously the water,” he says with a smile. “It’s imperative to have an attractive waterfront when you are looking to sell the surrounding land, and that’s where we come in. We add ‘sizzle’ to the waterfront—because that is what sells the dirt around it!”

 

One-Stop Shop

     Not surprisingly, Rowboat has evolved into a one-stop shop for developers. “We are able to save our clients considerable time and money if they need the services we offer. There are many firms that compete with portions of what we do, but there aren’t many firms that span the complete envelope of our focus,” boasts Wilson.

     While their primary market is North and South Carolina, Rowboat has worked all across the Southeast. Much of their work can be seen along the Intracoastal Waterway, with current projects in Little Washington, Wilmington, Holden and Myrtle Beaches.

     A mainstay of Rowboat’s business is designing and building marinas for public and private waterfront developments. Fairway clearance standards, which create a safe route through a channel or between docks, are used to maximize boating density without sacrificing safety or boater friendliness. Rowboat has worked with both residential and commercial developers to create innovative solutions for their clients while adding to their client’s bottom line.

     “We’ve worked with Rowboat on nearly every community that has entailed dock work,” comments Amon McCormick of Charlotte-based Waterfront Properties.

     He names Reflection Pointe on Lake Wylie, Cannonsgate at Bouge Sound, and numerous projects on Lake High Rock and Bayden Lake among their collaborations.

     “In construction you are always going to run into problems from time to time but they have always been very responsive and cooperative when it comes to making changes or renovations,” McCormick attests. “Even on the rare occurrence that something is out of warranty, they’ve stepped up to the plate to fix it, sometimes at their own expense. They go above and beyond what is expected of them—simply because they want to do the right thing.”

     Dredging accounts for a large sector of Rowboat’s business model and remains steady year-round. Wilson jokes that his company is given a recurring economic boost from Mother Nature as she continues to deposit silt in coastal marinas every couple of years. Repeat maintenance dredging is almost always a necessity in coastal marinas.

     Dredging operations are performed for commercial, municipal, golf course, mining, power generation, industrial, and residential customers to remove sediments, shoals and shallows and to provide safe passage for recreational and commercial watercraft.

     Rowboat stands out from competitors with their experience in underwater mapping, a feature not offered by many companies. Water depth surveys are completely computerized and cross referenced to satellite GPS coordinates. With this information, accurate cost-benefit analysis can be provided to clients.

     As with every spring, Wilson says residential work has picked up. Rowboat designs and installs private docks, walkways and gazebos for individual home sites. But he explains that while residential dock work accounts for about 60 percent of their projects, it represents only 20 percent of their revenues.

     Major profit centers include commercial marinas and large dredging projects—fewer in number, but more handsome in returns.

     He also notes that given the current state of the economy, many homeowners are opting to repair their current docks instead of building from scratch.

     “We understand that times are tough, and we are working with our clients to find the most cost-effective ways to meet their needs,” assures Wilson.

     Shoreline stabilization, which includes the use of structures and/or plantings to protect or remediate an eroding shoreline, is another niche addressed by Rowboat.

     Proper shoreline stabilization can prevent bare banks and mud flats, poor water quality, diminished fish and wildlife habitat, and loss of property. Because of the impact development has on the environment, Rowboat is regulated by 11 agencies of jurisdiction and is closely bound to criteria established to ensure environmental protection to the region’s waterways.

     In addition to improving shorelines and building marinas, Rowboat works with golf courses building bridges and dredging ponds. Dredging increases irrigation capacity for golf courses, helping to keep sufficient water available during low-water or drought conditions.

     Always attune to the marketplace, Wilson says that the recent challenges in the financial markets have provided Rowboat with business opportunities to joint venture with developers and marinas which do not have sufficient, ready capital to construct their waterfront needs.

     “We can commence waterfront improvements that are needed to jumpstart a development project under a revenue-sharing model,” explains Wilson. “Often, once the waterfront is developed, the entire project takes off. Rowboat has become the needed catalyst in many recent development projects.

     Wilson has also forayed into commercial development himself with his purchase of a commercial 11-acre tract on Lake Wylie, the “Tailrace Marina,” on which he’s built a 200-boatslip marina, and designated condo space and a premium restaurant site.

     “This project is unique because there is nothing like it on Lake Wylie,” explains Wilson. “We have an opportunity to help define the new ‘River District’ as a first-class, waterfront restaurant destination.”

 

Quality, Value and Service

     From the beginning, Wilson has defined his business as a “service company,” and, over the past three decades has remained committed to this by keeping true to his promise to, “sell on quality, value and service.”

     Crosland’s Russell Rand attests to their service, “They provided us with creative and high-functioning designs for our Lake Davidson Park and Woods on Lake Davidson projects. They did a great job of navigating us through the regulatory process. We found them to be responsive and quite capable of delivering on all that they advertise.”

Rowboat’s company culture is one built on mutual respect and teamwork.

     “Customer service and the quality of work have been crucial to our success,” he comments. “I am fortunate to own this company, but the reputation of this firm is clearly owned by the men and women who work here and have built this business.”

     In regards to keeping a business going in a down economy, Wilson says their flexibility and ability to adapt is what should carry them through these difficult times. “Our diverse portfolio of services is what has positioned us to remain a strong player even in this market,” he comments.

     “We’re getting an increasing number of requests for designs and permitting,” he continues. “Developer clients are taking advantage of the business slowdown to design and permit projects that will be ready to go when the economy rebounds. These slower economic times allow us more time to evaluate options and provide even more cost-effective solutions.”

     When asked how he gauges the success of his business, he pauses for a moment and answers: “We not only measure our success by the bottom line, but also by our commitment to community. We look for opportunities to contribute our talents, our funds and our time back into the community, help fuel its growth.”

     As a testament to this, Wilson was appointed by the governor of North Carolina to serve as commissioner-at-large of the Coastal Area Management Act (CAMA). This quasi-judicial, regulatory body establishes standards, rules and regulations that control development activities in the 14 coastal counties of North Carolina.

     Looking ahead, Wilson eyes retirement and looks forward to the days when he has more time to fly fish and sail, activities he says he particularly enjoys because of their engaging nature. But for now, he says, Rowboat will continue to do what it is doing and continue to try to do it better than anybody else!

     “We’re comfortable with the size of our business,” Wilson says. “We’ll continue to concentrate on quality and efficiency, because these are the essentials on which this company was built.”

 

 

Janet Kropinak is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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