Thursday, December 2, 2021

Pilot Knob Marina sold

By Zander Frost & Mark Frost, Chronicle Staff Writer & Editor

After 35 years, Nick Barber and Mike Smith have sold Pilot Knob Marina on Lake George to John “JD” Donnelly, a Massachusetts healthcare software entrepreneur, for just under $3-million.

“It’s one of those things where it’s bittersweet,” Mr. Barber told The Chronicle. “We just think it was time.

“Neither one of us have children. There’s nobody to follow us up. And you know, we’re not getting any younger. That’s the big thing.”

Situated on the east shore of Lake George next to YMCA Camp Chingachgook

Mr. Donnelly, 52, interviewed Tuesday from his Massachusetts corporate office via Zoom, said of the purchase, “I’m built for this.” He said he’s been coming to Lake George as “long as I can remember, since I was about yea high. My parents had a place up on Cleverdale, Warner Bay.”

John ‘JD’ Donnelly is CEO of FrontRunnerHC, a health software company in Plymouth, Mass.

He said he’s committed to the marina and expanding its operations. “I don’t want to see condos on this property as long as I am sitting behind the wheel,” the Albany Business Review quoted him.

Pilot Knob Marina encompasses a quick-launch and service facility on the lake and extensive storage areas nearby.

It also has a sales showroom on Route 149 in Queensbury that Mr. Donnelly indicated immediate plans to replace.

“That’s imperative,” he told The Chronicle. “This is what I’m excited about.”

He said he wants it to make an Adirondack statement. “My family has a business,” Mr. Donnelly said. “You ever buy a gun from Cabela’s or Bass Pro Shop and see those little red locks? Trigger locks on the gun itself. Every single one of those locks my family sold to Cabela’s.

“…So you walk into those stores, and those big pillars when you come in — that feel like ‘I’m in a great store’ — that’s the kind of thing that I hope to portray. So it’s something that fits in the lake, it’s visually appealing.

“People want to go into a store like that. I mean, think about driving on 149 and seeing a place like that. That…looks like it belongs there.”

Mr. Donnelly said he’ll continue to sell Chaparral boats and Arctic Cat snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles.

“I got some numbers from Arctic Cat,” he said. “We have an opportunity to grow tenfold. That’s what they’re thinking from the current position today.”

And about Chapparal? “I hate to say this as a boat guy, but I wasn’t as intimately familiar with it as I am now,” Mr. Donnelly said. “It’s a nice boat. I mean, I think it gives Cobalt a run for the money if you want my honest opinion. They’re one of the biggest selling brands.

“I’m excited,” he added. “They were not going to give me the brand in the beginning. I had to sell them on the idea of what I’m going to do. And I laid out my business plan for them. And they were pretty excited.”

At the marina itself, Mr. Donnelly said, “you probably won’t see many visual changes, because it’s going to take us a while to put together the business plan of what we want to do…But it’s all going to be about customer service.”

He said, “The marina needs an upgrade, right? So Nick and Mike did it, ran a beautiful business, they had over 7,000 customers in the database. If you go on Google or any of those things you can see they got tremendously high marks with it.

“But what I saw in the business and what I love; it’s kind of like an old boat, like an old Chris Craft. It’s sort of just sitting there and you’re like…when it’s done it’ll be a pretty boat… You can turn it into something really nice.”

He said he retained the Pilot Knob Marina staff with plans to increase it.

“I sat down with them when we bought the place and I said all right, what do you need? Who do we need? Let’s let’s make sure that we’re going to be successful. And they stepped up….

“Ann [Clugstone], who runs the marina. I said, All right. You’re manager of the marina today. Congratulations, you just got a promotion. Let’s hire somebody to help you.”

“And Ron [Ristau], who runs the store up there [on Route 149], Chaparral and Arctic Cat were saying he’s fantastic. So again, what do you need, Ron? Let’s hire. I said to him, pick your favorite customer and offer him a job. Right? That guy that you want to work with every day.”

Mr. Donnelly said, “When I started my career early on, somebody said to me, your business will never be successful if you work in it…versus on it, right?

“So many owners get lost in the business. I gotta sweep the floor, I gotta, you know, answer the phone. I gotta order paper for the fax machine, when they should be focusing on if the customer’s happy, you know, do I need to expand this business, do I have the right benefits for my employees —things that are important to helping the organization move forward.”

He said, “I’m not going to be working in the business…I’ll be there to answer questions, but you won’t find me in an engine room or something. So I’ll be making sure that those guys are successful.”

Mr. Donnelly said of entrepreneurship, “it’s in the DNA, my friend. You can’t teach it, I don’t think.”

He said when he was 10 years old, “my parents bought me a Boston Whaler. And we were on the Connecticut shore, and there was an island in front of us called Duck Island. And all the boats used to come in there so you get 30, 40 boats on the weekend used to anchor there.

“Well, they didn’t want to go in to get ice and coffee and have their trash [removed] so I concocted this idea as a kid to run out to the boats on Saturday and Sunday.

“And I was a little kid, so they probably just bought it out of mercy. But I’d make 50, 100 bucks a weekend and throw it in the coffee can. Little things like that.”

He said his “parents from the 70’s they were like ‘Go, do your thing.’ They just wanted me to go have fun, experience life.”

Mr. Donnelly said he and his wife Christine have other business plans here. “I’ve been married 22 years. We’re a good team…She knows this is important to me. She supports me wholeheartedly.

“She wanted to obviously do some other things, start an antique store. Obviously, the Adirondacks are a beautiful place to do that. So if we can create some sort of side business where we can marry the two together it’d be nice….

“We’re looking at other business opportunities up there. I didn’t want to mention the actual businesses that we’re buying but we’re planning on purchasing some other businesses here pretty quickly and kind of building a bigger entity, you know.”

Mr. Donnelly said he grew up in Kensington, Connecticut, outside of Hartford, and received an electrical engineering degree from University of Vermont.

He has founded two businesses.

The first, TeraHealth in Plymouth, Mass., he founded in 1996 and sold to MPV Inc. in 2008, which sold less than two years later to Experian, said the Business Review.

In 2010 Mr. Donnelly founded and remains CEO of FrontRunnerHC, a health software company that he said has 81 employees and helps manage finances in health care applications.

Its website says, “We empower healthcare facilites and independent labs to capture the correct insurance copay, and patient data right from the start so they can expedite billing and get reimbursed for all services performed.”

“COVID is a perfect example,” Mr. Donnelly said of the service they provide. “You know, everybody’s running off getting COVID tests…And a lot of times,…nobody put in their insurance… when really Blue Cross is on the hook…So we’re making sure that Blue Cross is paying for those tests versus us taxpayers.”

Pilot Knob Marina seller Nick Barber: ‘It just was time’

“It’s one of those things where it’s bittersweet,” Nick Barber told The Chronicle Monday. “We just think it was time.“

1986 photo, Nick Barber & Mike Smith, after buying Pilot Knob Marina. They operated it for 35 years. Chronicle file photo

He and Mike Smith, his business partner in Pilot Knob Marina since 1986, sold it to John “JD” Donnelly for just shy of $3-million.

“Neither one of us have children. There’s nobody to follow us up. And you know, we’re not getting any younger. That’s the big thing,” the Glens Falls native said.

“We got the asking [price],” he said.

“We had some other people that were interested in it and we think he is by far the best. He has an interest in perpetuating it, he’s a very aggressive guy, very smart, he’s keeping everybody so, yeah, I mean, nothing but good to say.”

Mr. Donnelly will keep the Chaparral boat and Arctic Cat snowmobile and all-terrain vehicle franchises.

When Mr. Barber and Mr. Smith bought the marina 35 years ago, “We had no franchises. We operated strictly on service and storage only.

“We just thought there was a need on the lake and there was an opportunity. We just thought there was room in the market for us.”

In 1987 they started selling Chaparral boats. Now, says Mr. Barber, they’re “the number one selling boat in the country between 18 and 35 feet.”

He said, “They started in 1965. But they grew very slowly because they never borrowed money.”

Mr. Barber said of the marina’s new owner, “he grew up around Lake George. He’s a good guy. And I think he’ll do well, just because of his passion. And he’s a sharp guy.” — Mark Frost

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