Navigating Successful waters: Allure of water runs deep for Bellingham Yacht founders

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By Tamara Anderson-Loucks

What started as a small, three-person yacht brokerage in Bellingham over three decades ago is today a thriving full-service, family-owned yacht brokerage and charter service. Owners Dean and Donna Ouilette and Dean’s brother Nick Ouilette have successfully navigated Bellingham Yachts through the sometimes-choppy waters of the pleasure boating industry, attributing success to hard work, perseverance, and a focus on their customers.

Dean Ouilette said Bellingham Yachts is in the business of “facilitating fun on the water.” While Ouilette has had a love of the outdoors since childhood, his interest in pleasure boating was not seeded in his youth in Maine.

The allure of the water and traveling the world drew him to the Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. Following graduation in 1979 he joined the Merchant Marines. He and Donna moved to Bellingham, and he accepted a position as 3rd Mate aboard ARCO tankers (Atlantic Richfield Company). While he loved his time on the water, he grew tired of being away from his family.

With extensive commercial boating experience and a passion for spending time on the water, Dean and his wife Donna purchased Bellingham Yachts in June, 1984. Two weeks later Nick Ouliette, also a Merchant Marine Academy graduate and professional seafarer and engineer, moved to Bellingham and joined them.

Dean Ouilette said, “We came into the business as professional mariners and had zero experience in the pleasure boat industry. But it’s worked out – that was 33 years ago.”

Initially the company subsisted as a three-person brokerage operation selling used boats and as a bareboat charter service renting privately-
owned boats to persons qualified to operate a vessel on their own. Ouilette compared the bareboat charter service to “property management, but with boats.”

In 1986 an opportunity came up for Bellingham Yachts to become a dealer for a unique yacht built in Delta, B.C., called West Bay SonShip. Four years later the team at Bellingham Yachts went in search of additional quality lines to represent, and in 1991 they became a dealer for Sabre Yachts of Raymond, Maine.

Bellingham Yachts now ranks as the second oldest dealer in Sabre’s domestic and international dealer network. Bellingham Yachts has earned Outstanding Dealer of the Year five times, and Dean Ouilette was awarded the prestigious Sabre Yachts Broker of the Year for top sales achievement in 1996 and 2006.

In ‘96, Bellingham Yachts became a dealer for Back Cove Yachts, a sister company to Sabre in Rockland, Maine, and most recently for Cutwater Boats, a family-owned boat manufacturer located in Monroe, Wash.

“It’s no coincidence we offer two lines manufactured in Maine. We grew up in Maine, and wanted to introduce the quality of Maine-manufactured boats to the Pacific Northwest,” Ouilette said. “All the boat lines we offer have great synergy. They complement each other, and it’s been really helpful to have a variety of sizes and price ranges for people to look at.”

Bellingham Yachts has 12 full-time employees, plus some part-time employees and contractors. This past February they opened a second location – at the Port of Everett – to better serve their large client base in the greater Seattle area.

“People are busy,” Dean Ouilette said. “If they’re going to buy a boat or need to service their boat, it’s difficult to make the time to drive to Bellingham. We wanted to make it easier for our customers. Since we opened we’ve sold four boats we may not have sold otherwise, so the Port of Everett proved to be a great choice of locations. The Port was very welcoming, and it’s encouraging to be welcomed by a public port in that way.”

While Bellingham Yachts has prospered during its three decades in business, it wasn’t always easy. The Ouilettes had to manage economic downturns that severely impacted the viability of the pleasure boating industry. Many brokerages shuttered.

“The luxury tax years in the early ‘90s almost single-handedly destroyed the boating business, with 45,000 jobs listed in an 18-month period,” Dean Ouilette said. “That, plus the recession after 9/11 and the most recent recession – it’s a challenging business.”

Ouilette attributed their survival to his faith, his experience in the Merchant Marine Academy, the company’s conservative fiscal management, and their relationships with their customers.

“I believed God would take care of us, and going through the academy is very difficult,” he said. “You develop the ability to persevere. We also recognize that there are lots of options for discretionary spending, so we strived to take great care of our customers and their boats.” He said that during the latest recession “we had many customers call to ask if we were okay. That says the world to me, because they didn’t have to take the time to do that. It’s those relationships that sustain us.”

After 33 year of relationship building, the Ouilettes have helped to create fond memories for many generations of families in Bellingham and throughout the Pacific Northwest.

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