After Mark Duchow died unexpectedly from medical complications last May at the age of 53, his wife, Margie, and their five kids not only faced the heavy heartbreak of grief, but they also had to grapple with a decision about the future of their 82-year-old family business.

That business, Pewaukee-based Duchow’s Boats, was owned and operated by Mark for more than 20 years and had anchored the family’s livelihood from Mark and Margie’s first days of marriage, through the births of all five children and through the Great Recession.

In both smooth currents and choppy waters, Mark had managed to keep Duchow’s Boats afloat. Without Mark, the wheel suddenly fell to Margie, a devoted mother who had spent most of her adult life at home caring for her kids.

The Duchow family during a 2003 trip to Captiva Island, Fla. Back row: Mark William, Mark and Katie. Front: Matthew, Margie, Elizabeth and Sarah. The family vacationed annually in Captiva Island and boated together often.

Not once did the bereaved Duchow family consider selling the company. Instead, Margie took the helm of Duchow’s Boats with her two oldest daughters, Sarah, 26, and Katie, 23, by her side.

(From left) Al Visintainer, Gene Moldenhauer and Eric Werth have worked for the Duchow family for more than 20 years and have been critical to the company’s survival. Mark’s father, Richard Duchow (right), has also continued to assist with operations.

Though neither Margie nor her daughters had been intricately involved in the inner workings of the company during most of Mark’s tenure, they stepped forward for the sake of their family, the company’s employees and Mark’s legacy.

Boat repair building

“We want this to be what my dad – what it was for him,” Sarah said. “We want to bring it back to its glory days.”

Doug Demuth replaces a bent prop shaft

Industry frontrunner

Mike Hauke tests engine compression

Spread across 30,000 square feet and five buildings at 400 Sussex St., Duchow’s Boats caters to southeastern Wisconsin as a dealer of family runabout boats, a vendor for used boats and a retailer of boat accessories. In addition to selling boats and parts, both in store and online, the family-owned company of about 15 employees services boats and offers customers in-and-out storage, as well as winter storage.

The glory days of Duchow’s Boats, prior to the Great Recession, were crystallized by countless awards in the marine industry. Among the highlights was a 1996 Dealer of the Year designation by Boat, Motor, and Trailer Dealer magazine and a ranking in the inaugural Boating Industry Top 100 list of marine dealers in 2005.

“(My dad) was the top Glastron dealer in the world for many years and then a perennial dealer for every other manufacturer that he sold,” Katie said.

Mark and his general manager Al Visintainer travelled nationally to lead marketing seminars organized by boat manufacturers. For more than 15 years, the two headed national sales training for Glastron Boats.

In addition to creating and patenting a downloadable voucher system called BoatCash.com, Mark conceived of a boat buying program at area Sam’s Club stores, in which Duchow’s Boats would pitch a tent in the superstores’ parking lots and sell boats directly out of the lots.

That program, established in 1994, led to an estimated $45 million in sales over the course of at least two years for Minneapolis-based powerboat manufacturer Genmar Industries, according to an obituary on Mark published by Boating Industry.

Mark’s innovative mindset was matched by his flair for sales. When it came to marketing and selling boats, Mark had the right personality and was comfortable talking with customers, according to his father, Richard Duchow, who was a second-generation owner of the Duchow family’s businesses.

“Mark always gravitated toward sales,” Richard said. “So he was selling boats already when he was 16 years old.”

Mark’s company, Duchow’s Boats, evolved from a long line of family businesses passed down among Duchow generations. The family’s history of owning and operating local companies dates back to 1932 when George Duchow, Mark’s grandfather, opened Duchows Battery and Electric, an automotive repair shop in Milwaukee.

George’s company morphed into Duchows Sales and Service and then Duchows Marine at turning points in its development and ownership.

Richard joined his father, George, in running the Duchow family venture in 1960 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and serving as a captain and combat engineer in the Army.

Similarly, Mark began working for his father, Richard, as a full-time salesman after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“When he graduated, there were some other things he wanted to do but going into the family business, I guess, felt like the right step to take,” Margie said.

“And he was good at it,” Sarah said.

At his first boat show, a three-day event in Madison, Mark was the top Duchows Marine salesman, securing 10 of the 75 sales the company made.

“He was just a natural,” Richard said.

In 1992, Mark and his younger brother, Craig, branched out to launch Duchow’s Boats, first a location in Middleton, and then a second location in Grand Rapids, Mich. Shortly after, the duo also opened Harborside Yacht Center in Milwaukee, with an inventory of larger boats to cruise on Lake Michigan.

Mark’s main focus was Duchow’s Boats, which shifted locations among eight sites in Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois as different territories opened up over the course of almost 15 years.

When the Great Recession hit the company in 2008, it limited its operations to its Pewaukee store, which it had opened in 2006.

“As all companies did, we made necessary adjustments in our payroll, our product lines and our inventory to weather the storm,” said Visintainer, general manager.

Navigating a new course

Little more than a week after Mark passed away, Sarah began working full-time at Duchow’s Boats, exiting a job in retail and re-evaluating her plans to pursue a career in journalism.

Her father’s untimely death coincided with her spring semester final exams at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Devastated from the loss, she could not complete an exam for a course that was critical to a second major she planned to fulfill in political science.

Sarah continued working for the family business through summer 2013, abandoning a chance at a journalism internship at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and setting her sights on December graduation. Come fall, she kept up her full-time workload at Duchow’s and attended her remaining journalism classes around her daily work schedule.

Sarah’s relationship with her father was complicated, she said, and she wanted to earn his respect in the final way she knew how.

“His relationships were built on respect, and I wanted his respect and this was the last piece of him,” said Sarah, who now spends most of her time working in the company’s parts department. “And I really wanted to make him proud. So I didn’t want to be anywhere else.”

Meanwhile, her sister, Katie, had been working full-time for the company since January 2013, following her graduation from UW-Madison. While Katie, who completed a pre-veterinary major, was deciding about applying to veterinary schools, her father had asked her to come in to the office and assist her grandfather, Richard, with a growing eBay sales initiative.

Today, the company’s eBay operation distributes boating parts and accessories to an international customer base and generates $10,000 to $12,000 each month.

Katie, who also helps her mom with the logistics of operating a family business, doesn’t plan to move on from Duchow’s Boats anytime soon and is no longer chasing her original dream of veterinary school.

“My desire to do anything else just kind of dissolved itself,” Katie said. “I never felt for a moment that I have to choose one thing over another. Just what I had wanted to do had changed, more so than making sacrifices.”

Margie’s entrance into the family business was not so much strategic as it was fateful.

“I’ve always been a stay-at-home mom,” Margie said. “Always. (Mark) just always preferred I handled all the house stuff. He did the business stuff. But for some reason in July of 2012 he said to me, ‘Why don’t you come to work with me?’ So I did. I started coming in, and he taught me everything that they do.”

Why exactly he brought her in, so out of the blue, remains a mystery to the family.

“It was God’s will,” Margie said.

Margie leveraged those months of shadowing Mark to continue running the company while mourning the loss of her husband of 26 years.

She relied equally on a backbone of long-term employees such as Visintainer, who began working full-time for the Duchow family the same day Mark did in 1984. The two worked side-by-side for close to 30 years as colleagues and friends.

“We watched our kids grow up, our business grow, and had a lot of laughs through it all,” said Visintainer, who largely maintained daily operations before, during and after Mark’s hospitalization. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t remember Mark. He is very sadly missed.”

Visintainer’s leadership and the support of other seasoned employees were especially critical as Duchow’s Boats did not have a detailed succession plan in place prior to Mark’s death.

“There are some companies that really are extremely dependent on the entrepreneurial leader of the company, and the loss of that entrepreneur is often the death blow for the company, too,” said Tom Nichols, president of Meissner Tierney Fisher & Nichols S.C., a Milwaukee-based law firm that specializes in succession planning.

“On the other hand, there are other companies where the owner/entrepreneur that runs the company is obviously still very critical, but there are a whole group of people that actually do run the company,” Nichols said. “In that setting, picking up the reins is much easier because obviously there’s more of an institutional knowledge within the company itself, outside of that particular individual.”

A vision of growth

As Duchow’s Boats maneuvered through the loss of its leader, many manufacturers, competitors and customers in the marine industry held their breath, wondering if the company would carry on.

“We had to keep pushing on, not only for Mark’s family but for all of the families that we’ve taken care of and that have stayed with us for many, many years,” Visintainer said.

The Duchow family did not flinch.

“I knew what I had learned, and I knew what (my mom) had learned, and I knew that it would be enough,” Katie said. “And the fact that we had that drive that our father had – I never doubted that we (would) be able to do it.”

By adding two new boat lines to its inventory in December and expanding its pontoon boat line, Duchow’s Boats continues to grow.

The family was buoyed by its sales at the 2014 Milwaukee Boat Show, held in January at Wisconsin State Fair Park.

“This year, the people at the boat show were buyers, not just shoppers,” Margie said. “They truly were buyers.”

Once the company has experienced a few more years of consistent sales under its new leadership team, Sarah and Katie, following the entrepreneurial ambitions of their father, aim to open another location and expand capacity for growth.

“This is everything that I envision,” Sarah said. “Everybody wants to find something that they love, and I can’t imagine loving anything more than I love being here every day.”

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display