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Viking’s Robert Healey Sr.’s Boatbuilding Legacy

Viking Yachts co-founder Robert Healey Sr. fought to repeal the luxury tax that devastated builders in the '90s.

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Bob Healey Sr.
Bob Healey Sr. and his brother Bill launched Viking Yachts in 1964. It became the world’s largest sport-fishing-yacht builder. Courtesy Viking Yachts

When Bob Healey Jr. thinks about his father’s life and all the man accomplished, he can’t shake one story in particular. It’s a tale that his father, Bob Healey Sr., told him about the company he had co-founded, Viking Yachts, and about what happened to some of the most successful boatbuilders, including Viking, after the federal government created a 10 percent luxury tax in 1991 that crushed businesses nationwide.

“He told me a story once of a woman who cleaned the office,” Healey Jr. recalled from near Viking’s headquarters in New Jersey this past December, just after his father’s death. “She had been there for 15 years—for a long time. They used to put a list up in the office of people who were going on furlough, on the Friday. My father was leaving one night very late, and as he walked out, she said: ‘Mr. Healey, will I have a job on Monday? I see what’s happening, and I have young children, and I’m really concerned.’ And he told her that he would do everything in his power to make sure it didn’t happen—and it was one of his greatest regrets, he always told me, that the woman got furloughed. The people who built the boats ended up cleaning the hallways because he needed to keep them to get the boats out.”

Healey Sr. and his brother Bill had co-founded Viking Yachts in 1964, and it took everything they had to keep the yard going during and immediately after that time. Healey Sr. took money out of his own pocket—mortgaging a family farm that he owned outright—to tool up new models, and he tirelessly lobbied lawmakers anywhere that he could get a meeting with them until the luxury tax was repealed 20 long months later, in 1993. By then, Viking’s staff had been slashed from 1,500 to 65 souls.

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“Literally, the morning the tax got repealed, he called personnel director Drew Davala and said: ‘Give me the names of 10 people we can bring back on Monday. I’m coming back from D.C.,’” Healey Jr. says. “I saw him sacrifice his own well-being for others. It really drove home for me just how important the people who work with us are.”

Healey Sr.’s lobbying on behalf of the entire marine industry and boaters alike was relentless—a boat on a barge was even set on fire in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay as a symbol of protest. Healey Jr. was still in grade school back then, but he recalls it being one of the first times in his life that he truly understood the depth of his father’s passion for the company he’d helped to build. Healey Sr. felt personally responsible for the employees who worked at Viking, just as he felt an obligation to do charitable work for people who needed help all throughout his life. He understood what it meant to be of service to others.

“He had traveled a lot for work, but this was different. He wasn’t coming home at night. He was in D.C. meeting with whoever he could,” Healey Jr. says. “My father’s legacy is not on the side of a Viking, and it’s not on a plaque in a school in an inner city, and it’s not on this farm where we do work with a lot of at-risk youth. His legacy is in the people that he touched and the ripple effect that he had on other people. He had this ability to find potential in people, and he had this force of will. I think that’s what people saw during the luxury tax. He could put pressure on people like squeezing a diamond out of coal.”  

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