EXTRA! Interview by Doug Thompson
7 Questions for Bob Johnstone, Owner of MJM Yachts
Focus on efficiency paramount for this boat builder, who also makes time for leisure cruising
Bob Johnstone, owner and founder of MJM Yachts, keeps a keen eye on the Baby Boomer market. He knows that Boomers might slow down physically a bit with age, but that their love of boating probably won’t diminish.
That’s why his MJM Yachts line of boats offers creature comforts and conveniences that make them easy to use and operate. Johnstone, who also co-founded J Boats in 1977, explains in this interview with Southern Boating Magazine, how MJM has weathered the financial storm and how the company plans to move forward.
SB: MJM Yachts was founded in 2002, and over the last nine years there have been significant economic changes in the United States and abroad. How has the market affected your business?
BJ: Fortunately, MJM Yachts, with its builder Boston BoatWorks, has been able to sustain a steady slow growth over the past five years. Granted, it would probably have been higher without the economic issue. But, the demographics are with us, possibly sparked by owner need to become more practical. Experienced boaters are looking for smaller, more fuel-efficient, elegant, easy-to-use boats that require less maintenance. The excitement surrounding the launch of these unique Doug Zurn designed classic-appearing yachts with their “summer porch” layouts surely helped. The look is patented, by the way
SB: Have your customers cruising habits changed over the last nine years?
BJ: They have changed right along with us (Mary and Bob). Our primary target market has done their world cruising, probably has a nice waterfront home, wants a boat to take to a dock restaurant, maybe a weekend cruise to Key West or Nantucket, spend a day watching sailboat races, harbor cruising or checking out the local real estate. Or, maybe their residence is north and they use their boat as a Florida condo. They don’t need a floating hotel tied up in their slip. They don’t want to have to deal with hiring a captain or to depend on dockhands to land the boat. We find that our owners are spending three times the hours on their MJM as on their previous boat because it’s not a major project to get underway.
Change dawned on us when the sailboat was our primary cruiser. The boats had to reverse roles. Sailing was becoming me racing with guys on our larger J/42 or J/120 while my wife Mary and I were spending our quality time together on a Dyer 29. Eventually I realized that the sailboat had to become our day boat and we needed a powerboat to do our cruising....the MJM 34z was born!
SB: What new technologies have you incorporated into your boats?
BJ: In 2002, I couldn’t find a powerboat builder that had experience building a wet pre-preg epoxy/Kevlar/Corecell/E-glass boat, so fell back on my sailing resources. Mark Lindsay ( Boston BoatWorks) had more high-tech building experience than anyone, having built Olympic, World Championship and America’s Cup racing boats. MJM’s are CE Certified and built to Class A Ocean structural standards. They are lighter, stronger and longer lasting thanks to epoxy being 25 percent stronger with greater flexural strength than polyester and vinylester resins. There is no other way to achieve the agile performance and fuel efficiency of the MJMs. It has to be quality hi-tech construction. The difference in propulsion systems will not approach the doubling of fuel-efficiency achieved by MJM compared to similar boats their size.”
One of our 36z’s was the first boat to incorporate Raymarine’s combination of a touchscreen display with a FLIR night vision system and our 2012 models incorporate the latest from Volvo Penta in engines, drives and docking systems such as IPS and DPS (Dynamic Positioning System), which allows the boat to hover on a constant heading while you get the dock lines out or take a lunch break.
SB:What’s on the drawing board for MJM Yachts?
BJ: We keep getting asked that question as though it’s expected we should now be building a 50-footer, now that there’s a 29z, 34z, 36z and 40z. Fifteen years ago that was certainly the pattern. And, we’d be delighted to if we could come up with a truly unique boat that would offer benefits to the owner not found in the plethora of very nice large cruising boats flooding the market at under 50 cents on the dollar. I keep coming back to demographic trends, because just about every success or failure in the marine market, dating back to the 1960s, power and sail, can be tied directly to what the bulk of those Baby Boomers were doing at the time. Right now there are 70 million plus Americans between the ages of 57 and 67. They aren’t getting more agile or adventuresome. But they don’t want to give up boating. Hence our unique side-opening doors at dock height and single level entertaining space from transom seat to wheel in a boat that can be managed by husband or wife...alone.
SB: You founded J Boats in 1977, and the company is one of the leaders in the industry. What do you attribute to that company’s success?
BJ: Interesting question. J Boats was founded on the premise that sailboat manufacturers were not focused on performance. I took the lead from Rossignol in skis. Remember Jean Claude Killy holding up those skis after winning a race? The sailboats being sold in the mid-1970s were either fun, get wet and cold Sunfish and Hobies, or slow tubs like O’Day 25′s, which maximized the number of bunks and kitchen space instead of speed through the water.
The J/24 was designed to carry that fun of higher performance smaller boats into a more comfortable, sail-with-your-clothes-on family racer... efficiently converting wind power to speed through the water, using cored hulls to hold their shape. And, the boat addressed a wider range of family use outside the local harbor. Now there are more than 12,500 worldwide and typically about 33 percent of the boats at race weeks around the country are “J’s”.
Similarly, MJM Yachts was founded on the premise of improving performance and handling, which in a powerboat is reducing drag and minimizing the horsepower to achieve acceptable cruising speeds of 25 knots or more. If a boat is incapable of 25 knots, then it will have difficulty out-running (and avoid wallowing in) a large following sea. The true measure of success is NMPG (Nautical Miles Per Gallon). Here, MJM is at the top of the class. And, the Sunfish and Hobie of the sailing world is now really the center console of the powerboat world. MJM’s offer the same agility and fun of driving, but in yacht-like all-weather comfort. It’s nice to bring the wife and kids along.
SB: The sailboat market is relatively small compared to the powerboat market–about 8% to 10% of boats built are sailboats. Do you see the sailing boat market growing, shrinking or remaining the same?
BJ: There seem to be a great many more young people coming into sailing now than when I was growing up. It hasn’t translated into market growth but my guess is that when those youngsters become older, their enthusiasm for sailing will sustain that percentage. J Boats has just had the most successful launch ever with its new 36.5′ J/111 with over 70 boats sold. I spent a delightful summer with sons, grandchildren and friends racing on Tuesday and Wednesday nights in Newport on mine.
SB: You have been boating your entire life, what type of boating do you enjoy the most, and where is your favorite place to go boating?
BJ: It changes with the years as you may be able to tell from the above answers. We’re hopefully the boating (vs. condo) role models for the forthcoming generation of MJM owners. Right now we look forward to enjoying a couple of three-week cruises between boat shows on our new 40z ZING in southwest Florida in January and February, mostly in Naples, Sanibel and Boca Grande. Then we’ll head across Lake Okeechobee to see friends in Stuart, Jupiter Island, Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale and on into the Miami Show. After the Palm Beach Show, ZING heads up the Intracoastal to Hilton Head and Charleston in April where Charleston Race Week and a grandson at College of Charleston will be.
Summer will bring more sailing out of Newport on the J/111 with some short cruises on the 40z to Stonington (where I grew up sailing), Shelter Island, Block Island, Edgartown and Nantucket. Having spent many summers in Northeast Harbor and on Islesford, those Maine places remain magical as well.