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Sailing through four decades in business

Two doctors came into Rick Lenard's office at the RCR Yachts marina, along the Outer Harbor in Buffalo, on a Saturday afternoon about five years ago to get help putting up the mast on their sailboat.

No one was in the service department, but Lenard, a yacht broker, went with the men to the Small Boat Harbor, untangled the rigging and got the men on their way.

The grateful doctors came back the following Monday with a bottle of Greek wine for Lenard, and they returned a couple of months later with an interest in buying new sailboats.

Over the years, Lenard and RCR Yachts have sold four boats in total to the two doctors.

"It's that personal relationship," Lenard said in a recent interview in his office.

RCR Yachts has built a loyal customer base over the years, growing from its headquarters location in Youngstown to add offices in Buffalo, Rochester, Sodus Point and Erie, Pa.

RCR Yachts sells and services new and used sail and power boats, docks boats during the sailing season and stores them during the winter.

The brokers are part car salespeople, part real estate agents, and they say they've been successful because they are sailors themselves who understand their customers' needs.

RCR Yachts over the years has weathered the economic downturns that drove other marinas and ship sellers out of business, and the company now is celebrating 40 years in operation.

"We ride the same waves everybody else in the economy does," said CEO Don Finkle.

Robert C. Reese founded the company -- Reese's initials make up the name -- in 1972 after he bought out most of the Youngstown Boat Co.

Reese, who remains RCR's president, had worked at Youngstown Boat with Finkle, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War, and Reese brought Finkle on when he started RCR Yachts.

Finkle, who became an RCR partner in 1975, grew up sailing, so he said working at a boatyard was a natural fit for him.

Reese, his then-wife, and Finkle were RCR's only employees at the beginning.

"We were young, energetic guys and we just wanted to grow that business," Finkle said.

They had no initial interest in expanding, but opened new locations as opportunities presented themselves, he said.

The 14-acre Skyway Marina came first, in the late 1970s, built on a former railroad yard along Furhmann Boulevard.

"That gave us the opportunity to greatly expand our boat storage and dockage," Finkle said, and provided a foothold in Erie County's population center.

Then, in the early 1980s, RCR bought a marina near Watertown, a facility the company recently sold. RCR in the 1990s opened a sales office in Rochester, on the Genesee River, and in the 2000s opened a seasonal office in Sodus Point and a sales office in Erie.

"That's been very good for our business, because it's allowed us to stay close to our customers," Finkle said.

For years, RCR sold only sailboats, which make up just 10 percent of all boat sales nationally, Finkle said.

RCR Yachts still doesn't have a lot of competition locally in the sailboat market, except for a couple of independent brokers, Lenard said.

But RCR has entered the powerboat market, and they now make up 15 percent of sales.

Across its five locations, RCR Yachts has 20 full-time, year-round employees and 15 part-time or seasonal employees.

RCR primarily sells sail boats from the three largest manufacturers: Beneteau, J/Boats and Sabre Yachts.

The company's brokers try to reach prospective clients by advertising in trade periodicals and on social media, issuing email newsletters and attending national boat shows.

"It's a process," Lenard said.

For new boats, RCR has a defined sales territory for each of its brands.

But its brokers can sell used boats to clients all over the world -- Canada is a big part of their business -- and they can represent the seller, the buyer or both parties in the deal.

Boat buyers usually are men in their mid-30s or older, Lenard said. They often are doctors, lawyers or business owners, but you don't have to be "a Vanderbilt" to own a sailboat, he said.

Lenard said he sells used sailboats for as cheap as $5,000, while a new 58-foot Beneteau will set you back $1 million.

He typically sells sailboats between 30 and 37 feet in length, which can cost $30,000 used or up to $175,000 new.

"It's not too big, not too small," said Lenard, who worked in jewelry-making and sales before switching over to boats eight years ago.

Some people are buying a boat for cruising, some want to race against other sailors and some want to go on extended trips to the Caribbean or other sites.

Boat brokers have to understand how their customers plan to use their purchase.

"That's our job -- to help people live their dreams," said Lenard, a past commodore of the Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club.

Some sailors plan to buy just one boat, and it can take months or years before the buyer pulls the trigger.

Others upgrade regularly, for a bigger boat or a newer boat with improved sailing technology, and some are on the 10th or 11th boat they've bought through RCR.

The company's brokers work to maintain a relationship with these customers.

Lenard has won Beneteau's Top Gun award, for most sales in North America of new sailboats in the 31- to 38-feet category, three years in a row. "We treat our customers as we would want to be treated," he said.