Serial entrepreneurs

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:43 pm

When it opened in 1955, Gordy’s Lakefront Marine Inc. was a small family operation in Fontana that rented boats and gave boat rides to vacationers on Geneva Lake. Since then, Gordy’s has grown into a remarkably diverse collection of companies, including a ski school; a high-end watercraft sales, storage and service business; a charter boat; a clothing line; a restaurant and sandwich shop; a travel agency; a land holding company; and more.

Suffice to say that the children of Gordon “Gordy” Whowell are serial entrepreneurs.

Gordy’s has become a destination, an identifiable brand and an icon within the Lake Geneva area.

Gordy’s Marine is run by the Whowell family and had about 17 percent sales growth in 2006. The company projects 12 to 14 percent annual sales growth for the next three years.

Whowell opened a boat ride and rental company after moving his family to the Lake Geneva area in the late 1940s. Gordy died in 1988, but his spirit of customer service, creating a fun and family-friendly destination and his giving nature has been deeply ingrained into his son, Tom W. Whowell, and Tom’s children who run the company today.

“My grandpa was a visionary,” said Rallee Chupich, Tom’s eldest daughter. “He had a lot of contacts with business people who owned top businesses, and he was a great friend who would bend over backwards for them.”

Gordy’s focus on customer service was evident from the company’s start, Tom said, when it was one of the first marinas in southeastern Wisconsin and northern Illinois that rented power boats.

“Families would line up to rent our boats,” Tom said. “In the early years, Gordy’s philosophy was that you could rent day or night. He’d turn on Christmas lights at night so people could navigate back to our dock. He thought if a customer was here, you should take advantage of that.”

One of the core competencies that has led to the success of Gordy’s is the constant communication to staff members that quality customer service is the most important part of their job, according to Jeff Koepke, director of human resources and business strategy for Gordy’s.

“The family is saying to their employees, ‘Exceptional customer service is our hedgehog concept,'” Koepke said.

Tom took over day-to-day operations in 1968, and Gordy’s expanded several times in the 1960s and 70s, purchasing a bait shop that has been turned into a sandwich and snack shop, and a former drive-in restaurant that has evolved from an antique store to a swim shop, and now a pro shop that stocks swim, waterskiing, wakeboard, clothing and water accessories.

The company also expanded its water-based offerings, opening its marina, service department, off-season boat storage, water ski school and fuel stations.

Tom W. has four children involved in the Gordy’s business – Chupich, Tom G Whowell, Steele Whowell and Tigrr Workman. All four have worked there since they were children and have learned just about every position in the business.

Gordy’s Marina has 39 full-time employees, which increases to more than 200 in the summer months.

In 1997, the family also bought a former bar and grill adjacent to the dock, where they opened Gordy’s Boat House Restaurant. The Whowell family also agreed to become a dealer of Cobalt Boats, a brand of high-end recreational watercraft.

“We were seasonal until that point,” Chupich said. “When we added the bar and restaurant and sales for Cobalt, we created a year-round enthusiasm for Lake Geneva.”

The company sold more than $1 million worth of boats in 1998, its first year of sales. Sales have increased an average of 16 percent each year since then.

The family began construction of Cobalt Farms, a 35-acre parcel that houses its service and storage facilities, in 1997. Cobalt Farms, just a few miles from Gordy’s Marina, opened in 2001.

“It’s like a spa for your boats,” Chupich said.

Much of Cobalt Farms is devoted to land conservancy, Tom W. said. It currently has three buildings for boat storage. A fourth storage building will be constructed this year, and one of the existing buildings will be converted for boat service.

The Whowell family recently purchased another 70-arce parcel a short distance from the current Cobalt Farms, where it plans to develop sales and service buildings for Cobalt Yachts, a new boat line that Gordy’s Marina is carrying this year.

This will be the first year Cobalt Yachts will be available, and Gordy’s will be one of 10 dealerships in the nation.

Leveraging the response to Gordy’s Boat House Restaurant, the family will launch a new catering service this year. Many Lake Geneva area residents host private parties during the summer months, and several family members have received requests for catering, Tom W. said.

“We know and understand the society we’re serving,” he said. “We have a built-in clientele, and it’s another way to give them an opportunity to do business with us.”

Small- to medium-sized businesses have expanded quickly in the Lake Geneva area in the last several years, Steele said, and will give the family more opportunities for catering business.

Those same businesses will be able to take advantage of the third new business line that Gordy’s is launching this year – a human resources and business strategy consulting division. That division will be led by Koepke.

“My background is with a few Fortune 100 companies,” Koepke said. “I’ve worked with the family on a few projects over the last seven years. Their business growth allowed them to make me a full time employee, and this is being done to capitalize on my background, with a separate branch to specialize as a boutique consulting firm.”

Both Koepke and Whowell family members say a natural clientele will be other marinas around the country seeking to expand their businesses.

“I think Gordy’s has a nice story to tell that could help any other marina,” Koepke said.

The expansion into year-round operations has deepened the connection that Lake Geneva-area residents and visitors feel with Gordy’s Marina and the Whowell family, Chupich said.

“There’s a huge family touch,” she said. “(In the summer) we see Mom, Dad and the kids when they’re getting gas for the boat. Now at the restaurant, we see them over and over. They get to know us and we get to know them.”

Gordy’s Lakefront Marine Inc.

Address: 320 Lake St., Fontana.
Industry: Boating sales, service and rentals, hospitality and related businesses.
Leadership: Tom W. Whowell and children, Rallee Chupich, Tom G. Whowell, Steele Whowell and Tigrr Workman.
Employees: 39 full-time, more than 200 during summer
Web site:
Vital Factors:
• Use the distinctions of the Lake Geneva area and the company’s history to create a valued brand – including a clothing line, restaurant and several new business ventures that are being launched this year.
• Develop the next generation of family members to bring into the business. Younger family members have driven growth by bringing new ideas for additional business ventures. In turn, those new ventures have created new revenue streams and additional ways to serve existing customers.
• Create lasting customer relationships by providing outstanding service. Gordy’s is now serving several third-generation customers.

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