Starting from a 14-foot Chris-Craft kit boat, Pearson has moved on up to a Hatteras 68.
A boat show in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, changed my life. The venue was the setting for an interview for my first job as a professional yacht designer. While the opportunity was generous, it was the show that sealed the deal. I had been weaned on boat shows in the Northeast, yet I had never seen anything as magical as this. Today the Ft. Lauderdale International Boat Show is the centerpiece event for large yachts in the Americas and perhaps the world. It would not have been so if it were not for the vision of Kaye Pearson, the man behind the magic.
If you have visited the show, chances are you’ve seen him on the docks. Pearson is a man of few words, but when he speaks, people listen. Celebrating his 65th year, he has piercing blue eyes and the strong build of someone who has spent his life working on the waterfront. His clientele can be particular and demanding; however, his word on the dock is final and is always respected, for Pearson manages the event with a soft voice and common sense. As a result of his dockside manner and his marketing savvy, the show has grown exponentially.
In just seven days, more than 2,000 carpenters, electricians and service people reengineer Ft. Lauderdale’s waterfront to accommodate over 1,600 boats from around the world. The tally includes several hundred yachts over 80 feet and a dozen or so over 150. To accommodate the flotilla, hundreds of temporary pilings are driven into the waterway and several miles of temporary floating docks are routed to connect three of the show’s five in-water locations. At the same time more than half a million square feet of exhibit space is prepared at the Broward County Convention Center. If all goes well, and it usually does, the last carpet will be rolled down the dock just a few hours before the gate opens. Pearson and his permanent Show Management team of 115 make it look easy.
Pearson grew up in Miami where boats and boating were a natural attraction. “My dad was a school teacher and we didn’t have a lot to spend on the sport, but I always managed to spend time on a boat or a pair of water skis.” Pearson built his first ride, a Chris-Craft kit boat, when he was just 14. While in college at night, he sold houseboats by day. “They were pretty simple by today’s standards; just the same, they were ideal for cruising South Florida-we sold quite a few.” In 1971 Pearson and a partner bought a refit and repair yard in Ft. Lauderdale and named it the Pearson Potter Yacht Basin. “We called it a shipyard,” he laughs. “I never dreamed yachts would reach the scale they have today. Back then we got pretty excited about an 80-foot boat.” Pearson learned early on how quickly enthusiasts’ interests adapt to the environment. “The fuel crisis in the seventies drove the first real expansion of the sailboat market and launched the trawler market. Once fuel became available again things took off-it was simply a matter of money, and boaters seemed willing to spend.”
In addition to running the “shipyard,” Pearson served on the board of directors of the fledgling Marine Industries Association of Broward County that would later become the Marine Industries Association of South Florida (MIASF). The group was responsible for producing a boat show each Fourth of July holiday and Pearson volunteered as chairman of the event. “The show was really designed to help dealers purge stagnant inventory,” explains Pearson. “It was pretty basic twenty-nine booths and eighteen boats parked along the New River where the jailhouse is located today.” Pearson sensed that boating and South Florida were poised for expansion and felt the marine industry should be doing more. He also realized Ft. Lauderdale’s potential as a major yachting hub. With this in mind he convinced the MIASF board to expand the show and hire professional management. “After writing an outline of how I thought the show should be run, I decided to take the job myself,” says Pearson. “At the time I figured I would get things started and serve for a year or two-I had no idea it was the start of a thirty-year career.”
To grow the show Pearson needed more space and called on a friend who was general manager of Bahia Mar. “I convinced him that the show would be good for his business and he offered the space.” Pearson then changed the show’s dates from the hot, sleepy summer months to October to coincide with boat builders’ new launches. One of his more controversial moves was to open the show to yacht brokers. At the time all the major boat shows focused exclusively on new product. “Adding brokerage boats to the mix made sense. They were and continue to be an important part of the market as brokerage inventories directly effect new boat sales,” says Pearson.
Following Pearson’s plan, the first show at Bahia Mar in 1976 included more than 60 boats in the water; it was an incredible success. Still, Pearson admits that he had no idea how large the event would become. An independent study he commissioned in 1997 found that the show had a $450 million economic impact. Today Pearson estimates the number is probably closer to $650 million.
What had begun as a hometown show is now a significant international event with nine foreign trade associations sponsoring major displays. Thirty-six percent of those who pass through the gate travel more than 500 miles to attend. His solution to the sometimes-tense pre-show atmosphere? “I smile and laugh a lot. While the marine industry is rather diverse, it is a relatively small family-it’s important to get along.”
While Pearson’s business savvy has guided his success, it is his appreciation for creative and interesting products that has always provided his inspiration. He is genuinely interested in the new boats and equipment that debut at the event. “For me the fun is seeing ideas being presented for the first time.”
For Pearson it’s also about the people; there are few in the yachting world he doesn’t know and those that know him well enough to call him a friend are indeed fortunate. Yet Pearson sees it differently. “I have been lucky to have had the opportunity to meet some of the greatest talent in the yachting world,” Pearson offers humbly. To express this respect, Pearson created the Poseidon Award to honor those he felt deserved recognition for their contribution to the industry-Irwin Jacobs (Genmar), Bill Healy (Viking Yachts) and Peter L¸rssen (L¸rssen Yachts) are among the award’s recipients. Pearson also inspired and funded the creation of the Superyacht Society and has served on its board and as its president.
When he’s not running one of the five boat shows he produces or the Bertram-Hatteras Shootout (which he owns), Pearson stays busy designing new marina developments: He’s a partner in International Marinas. “When you build and tear down dockage for 3,000 boats every year, its kind of nice to work on something a bit more permanent.” He has contributed his knowledge and creativity to 35 major projects to date and is currently redeveloping the Chub Cay Club as a major yachting and fishing destination. Behind it all Pearson is still the committed enthusiast he was when he first found the water. He and his wife, Cheri, have migrated through two Rybovichs, a 60-foot Hatteras and have just taken delivery of a new 68-foot Hatteras Convertible appropriately named Showpiece. Given Pearson’s time on the docks and experience on the water, Show-piece is well outfitted and has many custom features. The Pearsons have fished and cruised the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos and wandered as far north as Nantucket. With the new boat their goal is to transit the Panama Canal to fish and cruise the Pacific Coast.
Pearson sees a bright future for yachting, although he is concerned that too much of the attention the sport receives is focused on the biggest boats. Although the Ft. Lauderdale show boasts the largest collection of such yachts in the world, it is clear Pearson has not forgotten his roots and the foundation that the show was built on. “The biggest and most expensive boats always attract the attention of the media, but it is the smaller boats at the show that fuel the sport.”
While Pearson dons a tuxedo to oversee the Superyacht Society Awards, he is most comfortable in shorts wandering the docks at the show looking at boats and boat stuff. Kaye Pearson understands the magic and those of us who love boats and the Ft. Lauderdale show can thank him for five great days in October.