ABOVE: The 130-foot Westport yacht "Next Chapter" sold by Mike Burke
A Career Path That Stretches from the Midwest to South Florida
By GERRY BARKER
North Palm Beach Life
How does a Midwest kid, from a blue collar family, end up as one of the most successful yacht brokers on Florida's Gold Coast?
Ask Westport Yachts' Mike Burke and he gives a lot of the credit to his upbringing.
A native of Gary, Ind., Burke recalled "as a kid going to Chicago, seeing the boats on Lake Michigan, I never thought I would ever get involved in the marine industry. " In his youth, Burke imagined a much different future. "I come from a very blue collar area," he said. "My dad, all my uncles, came out of Bethlehem Steel. Going all the way back, coal miners from West Virginia. "
What he got from that was a strong work ethic that would serve him throughout his life. "Whatever I was going to be doing, I felt like I would be doing it well."
Burke's journey to Florida began when he went to diesel mechanic school. Living near the intersection of the major north-south, east-west Interstate highways, he saw "there were trucks everywhere -- being a diesel mechanic seemed like a logical choice." And for a few years, it was a good career -- up until he got laid off one year right before the holidays.
That's when a buddy working as a diesel mechanic in Riviera Beach suggested he come to the Sunshine State. "I had never been to Florida," Burke said, "and really, hardly out of Indiana, so I said okay." It was a life-changing decision.
"I went swimming in the ocean on New Year's Day, 1981. I was hooked," he said. "What's not to like. South Florida has an allure. Few people know it, but the yachting industry is the number one industry in Florida."
He was amazed by what he saw. "I see all these yachts everywhere. I was blown away," he said. "And they were all so clean -- not the typical diesel environment I was used to. It was like working on a NASCAR team. You felt special. "
Within a few years, Burke and his friends started their own company -- Palm Beach Power, and Burke spent the next 15 years servicing and repairing boats for the rich and famous. The boy who hadn't been far from home was now a world traveler. "I flew all over the world. I went to Egypt three times and worked on a Sheik's boat, plus trips to the Caribbean, Mexico, Bahamas. Whenever boats broke down, they would fly us in. I loved it. I was the Diesel Doctor and got special treatment. Life was good."
Then came the mid-Nineties, when the U.S. government enacted a luxury tax. Suddenly, the rich stopped buying boats, and Burke said some of the bigger boat manufacturers were hanging by a thread. Still, that didn't impact the repair end of the business, and he found himself busier than ever. In fact, Burke was frequently asked by major yacht dealers to perform inspections on the engines of the boats they sold.
"They would sell a boat and I would show up to inspect the engines. In the boat world, the engines are the most expensive part --probably 30 percent of the value of the boat."
One of the dealers he worked with was HMY Yachts, a major player with an office in Palm Beach Gardens and locations from Key West to Charleston. The owner made Burke a proposition: Why not come to work for me and sell yachts instead of working on them?
At the time, Burke and his wife were new parents of a one-year-old son, Eric. The sales job on the table was commission-only and no benefits. Around the same time, he had a sitdown with his then-boss about his future prospects there. "I didn't get the right answers," Burke recalled, so after 15 highly successful years as a diesel mechanic, he quit to become a salesman for HMY.
"Some thought I was crazy," he said, "but within two weeks I sold my first boat." But that initial euphoria got a reality check. It would be five more months before he sold another. Over the next 19 years, he sold over 400 boats and became one of HMY's top seller, generating over $35 million in sales yearly. "I had a lot of fun and got to travel and fish a lot in some major tournaments," Burke said.
Still, two years ago Burke was ready to make some changes. His son Eric was graduating from college, while Eric's younger brother, Reed, was about to start college. He wanted to spend more time with his wife at their Jupiter home. Burke gives a lot of the credit to his wife Martha and her support for the long hours and travel. "I told her if she would take care of our home and raise the kids, I would make the money." It's been a good arrangement.
"My dad passed away at 55," Burke said, never having the chance to know his grandson, who was three weeks old at the time. "We have a saying at my house - we're not waiting to retire. We're living now." His philosophy is, "Do everything in moderation and have fun along the way - that's what life is all about. "
"I wanted to slow things down -- the old less is more thing," he said. Plus, he wanted to take his sales game to the next level.
With that in mind, he left HMY to become a yacht broker at Westport Yachts, one of the country's most respected boat builders. "My last year at HMY I did $40 million selling 20 boats. I wanted to get to $50 million doing 10 or 11 boats."
Westport deals in larger yachts, 112-164 feet, while HMY offers boats in the 40-90-foot range. Burke can sell fewer boats and make the same or more money, and enjoy extra time with his family. By the way, the biggest sale he ever made was last year -- a new 40-meter Westport.
As Burke looks back on his career, he attributes his success to simple lessons he learned in kindergarten: "Don't lie, cheat or steal." That, along with his work ethic and commitment to customer service, which he said is second to none.
"When I was a diesel mechanic, my whole thing was making sure that guy's boat didn't fail -- because they have so little time to use it. I'm a service guy - whatever it takes. Customers can call me anytime. I want to be known as your Boat Guy. I tell all the young guys coming up you don't want to sell someone one boat - you want to sell them five boats."
That's been the case with Burke, who is now selling boats to some of his clients' kids. And Burke's oldest son, Eric, has just started his own career in yacht sales at Dennison Yachts.
Here's how Burke sums it up:
"Look at life like a wagon wheel that's got 10 spokes. If you only have three and hit a bump, that's a problem. You have to have faith. I'm not the best salesman in the world, but God has blessed us, and we give back. And if you put that first in life, everything else will fall into place. Balance is the key. We hit bumps, but we have a lot of spokes in our wheel."
Retirement? No way. "I'll be doing this until the day I keel over."
"Whatever I was going to be doing, I felt like I would be doing it well."
Few people know it, but the yachting industry is the number one industry in Florida."
Retirement? No way. "I'll be doing this until the day I keel over."