After 35 years of owning and running Candlewood East Marina in Brookfield, Mitch O’Hara Sr. is ready to hang it up.
“My wife and I have been working for 60-some years,” O’Hara said during a recent visit to the marina, noting that before buying Candlewood East in 1983, he had spent 22 years working for the Byrne Brothers Chevrolet dealership in White Plains.
“I haven’t had a Saturday off in a long time,” the marina president mused. “We have a wonderful deck at our house in Brookfield that I haven’t sat on once this summer.”
“Before you get to feeling too sorry for him, you should know that he spends a lot of time on the deck at (the marina’s restaurant) Ships Galley,” interjected co-owner, vice president and son Mitch O’Hara Jr. Nevertheless, he said, “He’s threatened to retire at least three times before, but this time I think it’s really happening.”
With a formal succession plan in place, O’Hara Sr. said he expects to retire on or about Nov. 1, when the 81-year-old’s wife, Ruth – controller and “the rock,” according to O’Hara Jr. – turns 80.
“She’s going to have a harder time with it than he will,” O’Hara Jr. said. “She has a
hand in a lot of things and the idea of finally letting someone else do it isn’t going to
Ruth wasn’t available for comment, but O’Hara Jr. said she’s already butted heads – in a friendly way – with his daughter Michele, who is taking over the company’s controller position.
Candlewood East is very much a family affair. In addition to the aforementioned, O’Hara Sr.’s daughter Sandy Chengeri serves as secretary and treasurer; her husband, Michael Chengeri, is service manager; daughter-in-law and O’Hara Jr.’s wife, Lori, manages the Ships Galley; and another of O’Hara Jr.’s daughters, Carolyn, is working part time as she earns a business management degree. Sandy’s son Michael was in charge of shipping and receiving before recently moving to Florida.
“Working so closely with so many family members has its ups and downs,” O’Hara Jr. said. “Things can get a little heated sometimes. But my father and I have always had a great relationship. Even when we’ve gone at it, everything’s okay by the next day.”
Things seem to be more than okay for the business. As a privately held company, Candlewood East does not divulge revenue, but O’Hara Jr. said it has experienced 10 percent growth over the past few years and is on target to realize similar growth this year.
“Of course, when revenues go up, costs do too,” he said.
It’s been “quite a ride,” O’Hara Sr. said. A trip to Lake George after the Chevy dealership closed led him to join the marina and, when it went up for sale, to buy it for $490,000 in 1983.
“It was a pretty big step, given that we’d only recently bought a boat, which at that time was usually sitting in our driveway in White Plains,” O’Hara Jr. said. “I was at Clarkson College when my parents asked if I wanted to partner with them in the business. I only knew Candlewood as a place to
Candlewood East at the time “was a little rundown,” he said, consisting of 80 slips and catering to sailboats. But a steady increase in powerboat traffic at 8.4-square-mile Candlewood Lake soon led to a change in direction. By the early 1990s the marina had made the switch, selling powerboats by the likes of Nautique and especially Cobalt, which O’Hara Jr. describes as “the BMW or Lexus” of powerboats.
Cobalt would prove to be the catalyst for Candlewood East’s growth. “They took us to the dance,” O’Hara Sr. said. An expensive proposition – base prices today are in the $120,000 to $150,000 range – the O’Haras originally took four Cobalts, and ended up selling 15 in their first year. Almost all of the boats the company sells are in the 20- to 26-foot range, he said.
“We’re now one of the largest Cobalt dealers in the country,” O’Hara Jr. said.
In 2008, Candlewood East bought what was a tennis and fitness club across the street from its lake property at 204 Candlewood Lake Drive. They transformed it into a 40,000-square-foot facility with an indoor boat showroom displaying new and pre-owned boats, a service department, heated indoor rack storage for 120 boats and additional outdoor storage.
In 2013, a 5,400-square-foot waterfront club house was completed, affording members access to 240 boat slips, three acres of picnic grounds, 24-hour security, a private launching ramp, a designated swimming area with lifeguard, playground, conference center, store, the restaurant and restrooms with showers. Each of those projects cost about $2 million, O’Hara Jr. said.
“What we’ve done is create a destination,” he said. “There’s plenty to do for family members who may not want to join dad and the kids on the lake all day.”
Further expansion is not on the immediate horizon, he said. “We’re the right size for now.”
Annual membership rates are $5,300 for a single slip and $4,300 for a double-berth. A social membership for those with lake houses who don’t need a slip but are attracted to the site’s other amenities goes for $1,750. O’Hara Jr. said all three categories have waiting lists.
“We’re more expensive than our neighbors are,” he said. “But we offer a lot more as well.”
He said that Candlewood East operates on a “three-legged stool” model, consisting of the slips and storage, service, and sales. “We’ve been lucky in that, if one of the legs is a little wobbly at a given time, the other two are solid enough” to withstand the downturn, he said.
O’ Hara Jr. was confident that the business will remain in the family for the foreseeable future.
“Michele is already telling me all the things I’m doing wrong,” the 54-year-old laughed. “She’s got big plans for when I retire. Even though I don’t think I’ll be doing this when I’m 80, I keep telling her that I’m not ready to get tossed out yet.”
O’Hara Sr. said that even if retirement does become a reality this fall, he expects to keep a hand in by dealing with boat registrations and the like.
“It’s been so rewarding,” he said, “especially since I didn’t inherit this business I built it.”
But “I’m done. It’s time for another generation to take over. They know where to send my check.”