MANCHESTER — Clark Marine isn’t located on the water, doesn’t sell much of anything other than boats — or things related to boating — and is part of an industry vulnerable to declines when the economy falters or fuel prices climb.

Nonetheless, the business has seen major growth in its 60 years, despite ups and downs, changes in ownership and an industry that has shrunk from more than 12,000 dealers to just over 3,000 dealers nationwide.

Co-owners Rob Brown and Dave Harriman said the business has endured — and grown from a $500,000 a year business to a $5 million a year business with locations in Manchester, Monmouth and Belgrade. That growth can be attributed, in large part, to maintaining a focus on two things — its service work on boats and serving the community of central Maine boaters.

“We’re fortunate. We’re right in the middle of around 30 lakes and ponds in the area,” Brown said while chatting at Clark Marine’s Manchester headquarters. “We really are a boating community here.

“Fifty percent of our business is local people. The rest have camps here and are here seasonally. We could not do what we do here unless we had that mix of clientele,” he added. “That’s the mindset — you’re serving a community and, in turn, our community has embraced us, because we’re not here just for our own good.”

The Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce’s 2019 Small Business of the Year isn’t really all that small anymore. Among its three locations — Manchester headquarters, Belgrade boat storage, and Monmouth boat storage and service — Clark Marine employs around 32 workers during the boating season and around 25 through the winter.

It stores 250 to 300 boats during the winter and — in an industry in which an average dealership sells 50 to 60 boat-and-motor packages a year — usually sells 150 to 175 a year.

The business even grew after the economic crash of 2008, when disposable income for “toys” such as new motorboats was hard to come by for many Americans. Central Mainers were affected by the crash as much as anyone, Brown said, and new boat sales suffered. But servicing existing boats, as owners held on to them longer, thrived.

“After the crash of 2008, our type of customers had to pay their mortgages first, and put new toys kind of to the side,” said Brown, who joined the business in 1985 as a technician and worked his way through various positions before purchasing a major share of it in 1997. “But people didn’t stop playing. We had such a strong service department we grew as a company.

“Because people, instead of buying, they’re fixing up what they already owned,” he added. “We’ve grown the business because we’re not reliant on selling somebody a new boat. We’re service-centered.”

Boat and motor service and sales continue year-round, even in the dead of winter.

Harriman, who became a partner in the business then known as Clark Buick and owned by his father, Walter Clark, in 1966, said over the years the business has tried to find things to boost business in the winter, including snowmobiles and travel trailers.

“Now we stick to boats,” Harriman said. “We made the mistake of trying to do something else in the winter, when all the while it was right here in front of us. Focus on working on boats.”

Brown said this time of year is actually a good time to consider buying a watercraft. He said some inquiries come informally, such as a recent text he got from a friend saying he was sick of not having a boat and interested in coming in to see what Clark Marine had. He said the business sold a couple of boats last weekend.

“It’s really a good time of year to start considering it,” Brown said. “Purchasing a boat is more personal than buying a car. A car, you just have to have one. A boat, it’s important you think about how you’re going to use it.

“A big part of this is matching the right boat to the right customer,” he added. “It’s not unusual for somebody to buy a boat and have it for 20 years.”

Brown said one of the biggest challenges facing the business — and other service-oriented businesses — is finding people willing and able to do technical and hands-on work. He said the company pays for its workers to attend training sessions, including, recently, arranging for 21-year employee Derrick Turner to go to training put on by Honda, which makes outboard motors. He said school systems should encourage students to pursue technical and trade careers, not just push all students to attend college.

Brown said Clark Marine’s employees take an active role in the business and get to know their customers, and they aren’t just there for the paycheck.

Nancy Fortier-Brown, Rob Brown’s wife, who was worked in the business for about 16 years, currently as office manager, said it’s the partnership between the soft-spoken Harriman, who oversees the financial books of the business, and the outgoing Brown, who, as general manager is a certified technician and salesman, that makes the business click.

“The longevity has to do with the strong partnership between Rob and Dave,” Fortier-Brown said. “Rob has crazy, innovative ideas, which he runs by Dave or just does, and Dave works out how to pay for it. They compliment each other.”

Clark Marine will be presented the Small Business of the Year Award at the Kennebec Valley Chamber of Commerce’s awards night, scheduled for Jan. 25 at the Augusta Civic Center.

Though the business has received numerous industry awards over the years, including, for 12 years, being named a Top 100 Dealer by BoatingIndustry.com, Brown said they look at the chamber award as the biggest they’ve won, because it was awarded by their peers in the area.

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

Twitter: @kedwardskj

Augusta and Waterville news

Get news and events from your towns in your inbox every Friday.


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.