Trio of young men keeping family boat business afloat

MONROE — The proprietors of Lavro boats are young.

Do a double-take around for a real adult — that kind of young.

Two are 21 years old, the other just 18. They spend most of their days in a workshop that smells faintly of chemicals, learning the intricacies of building rock-hard fiberglass drift boats to exacting standards.

They’re in training, apprenticing to take over a business that’s older than they are.

Dan and Dustnn Smith are the grandsons of Ron Lavigueure, longtime owner of Lavro Boats in Monroe. Along with childhood friend Nicholas Riddell, they’re gearing up to assume ownership of the nearly 40-year-old company.

“Hopefully, some of it’s in the damn genes,” Lavigueure said. “We’re going to see what they want to do. They want to go big time.”

If this were 1909 — or even 1959 — this wouldn’t be an unusual story. Traditionally, businesses were passed through families like genes, and apprenticeships were the standard mode of learning the family trade.

But today, it’s not such a common tale. It’s not common to see young people becoming craftsman at all, let alone carrying on a family trade, some educators say.

The fresh-from-prom set might be more interested in jobs that keep their hands clean. But that doesn’t mean Lavro Boats’ up-and-coming owners haven’t been approached by a few of their friends asking for jobs.

“How lucky are you?” Dan Smith said that seems to be the response most often heard when friends discover the trio is gearing up to assume ownership of the company.

That might come as a surprise to some public officials and educators who are pushing for increased trades training for high-school-age students.

Congress, the Legislature and a number of state agencies have strategized for years about how to improve disappointing turnouts in vocational programs — especially those that stress technological innovation.

“We know business is in the throes of transformation,” said Eleni Papadakis, executive director of the state Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board. “Sixty-five percent of the jobs listed with (the Department of) Labor and Industries did not exist 30 years ago.”

Still, apprenticeship numbers have spiked in recent years. Active apprentices went from about 8,900 in January 2006 to almost 14,800 in January of this year, according to a report from the state Department of Labor and Industries.

That was peak enrollment for the state’s registered apprenticeship programs. Active apprentices dropped off in the first six months of 2009, ending July about 13,900.

Ron and Sharon Lavigueure had their doubts that the business would be passed on within the family. Their children didn’t have much interest — but then their daughter’s sons started hanging out around the shop a few years ago.

“I always felt that if we could just keep it going until they were old enough, maybe they would take an interest,” said Sharon Lavigueure, who has long handled front-office operations for the company.

Ron Lavigueure is a man of few words, but he’s pleased. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a bit of ribbing that comes with passing the torch, though.

“These two — they don’t have their heads on straight,” he joked at his grandsons one afternoon in the shop. “They don’t know what they’re in for.”

Dustnn graduated from high school in June, a quiet 18-year-old in a T-shirt that ironically advertises a beer he isn’t old enough to buy. He’s in training to be finishing manager for Lavro.

Dan Smith and Nicholas Riddell, both 21, have been friends since their school days. Smith is the new company president, and Riddell is the shop manager.

The three new owners have big plans.

“My grandpa slowed down quite a bit about 15 years ago,” Dan Smith said.

Now, they’re re-examining their product line, thinking of bringing back hibernating models that might entice customers to invest in a new boat. They’re looking at tapping into the so-called green revolution by marketing their motorless boats as environmentally conscious.

There’s a subtle trick to moving fiberglass boats in a down economy: Convincing a fisherman that he needs to upgrade, even though the boat he owns is in fine condition — well, that isn’t easy.

“They don’t need to buy a new one,” Dan Smith said. His goal is to make them want one, though.

His grandfather says it’s working. Despite the lackluster economy, sales have picked up since his grandsons came on board.

But marketing that isn’t the hardest part of taking over a nearly 40-year-old business. That comes in the everyday details — learning the intricacies of each boat and keeping productivity up without compromising their grandfather’s high standards.

“My grandpa has a strong reputation for having things a certain way. He’s kind of a perfectionist,” Dan Smith said.

Read Amy Rolph’s small-business blog at www.heraldnet.com/TheStorefront. Contact her at 425-339-3029 or arolph@heraldnet.com.

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