MJM Yachts: The second act

MJM Yachts is one of those great American success stories. Founded back in 2002 by renowned sailboat builder Bob Johnstone, who set out to create a cruising boat that checked all the boxes for him and his wife, Mary. Mary Johnstone Motorboats garnered a stellar dock-talk reputation and became a brand synonymous with refinement and quality craftsmanship. His son Peter Johnstone recently took over the helm of the family-owned business after buying out his parents and forging a new path for MJM. Establishing a new boat building facility in Washington, NC, focusing on technology, greater production capacity, and distribution has catapulted the MJM brand and firmly established them at the high end of the boat market.

The moving of MJM to Washington, North Carolina, is serendipitous. The small town of 10,000 plus residents has seen a rebirth and transformation of its own in the past few years. So, the timing of MJMs decision from building their boats in partnership with Boston Boatworks to establishing their own production facility in a 200,000 square foot space in Washington, NC, couldn’t have been better.

close up shot of steering controls and angle of boat deck
The expansion of the MJM operation has seen the focus shift to production, operations, and distribution

“It’s remarkable to see what’s happened to Washington, North Carolina, in the past few years,” says Peter Johnstone, Chairman of MJM Yachts. “From the once boarded-up downtown, it now has two gourmet restaurants – first The Bank and then The Hackney, which I just love. In addition, there’s a new microbrewery called the Mulberry, and they’ve built a new boutique hotel above that. It’s just incredible to see this resurgence happening. I currently live in Washington, and it really is a great place to be based. North Carolina has, without question, the friendliest people out of any state.”

While Johnstone waits for his house to be built in Washington, he lives aboard his 40z MJM yacht. And while the 40z is without question a beautiful head-turning boat, with its blueblood good looks, airy summer porch feel, and teak decking, it is also a symbolic gesture and strategic marketing decision for the MJM brand. “I repurchased the boat from a Dutch gentleman we had sold it to in 2009,” says Johnstone. “It was based in Ibiza, Spain, and was one of only 3 boats we shipped to Europe. The 40z really was the company’s backbone in a particularly dark period in the industry when boat sales were flat. Buying this boat and shipping it back to the US and for me to end up living on it really became quite symbolic. It has at the same time, allowed me to drill down into the design of the boat and see exactly what works and what doesn’t and use that information in the new boats being built.”

MJMs partnership with Boston Boatworks is well documented and was originally based upon a deep connection and personal relationship between co-founder Mark Lindsay and Bob Johnstone in 2004. But when Lindsay passed away suddenly, that once solid connection and commitment to producing the volume and maintaining the high standard sought by Peter Johnstone simply wasn’t there. “Mark Lindsey was a spirited, kind, gentle character, but when he passed away, a sort of confluence of events happened, and I knew we had to step up our operation and build our own boats,” explains Johnstone.

man driving boat and rear angle of boat from dock
While Johnstone waits for his house to be built in Washington, he lives aboard his 40z MJM yacht

“My dad was a product guy and a marketing genius. It was a very personal business to him, and so he established this company around his passion that suited his focus and enjoyment. He built this brand to a very high standard, and the dock-talk reputation it garnered was pretty incredible. He had close-knit personal relationships with everyone he dealt with, but, unfortunately, that sometimes means you’re at the mercy of others who don’t necessarily agree with how you grow your business.”

The expansion of the MJM operation has seen the focus shift to production, operations, and distribution. Starting with production, roughly two years ago, MJM set up an incubator shop in Washington, starting small, building the structure, and putting operations in place. Now that it’s up and running and building boats in the 270,000sq ft facility staffed with several hundred people, MJM has expand capacity to build 5-6 lines of boats consecutively, producing 50 to 60 yachts this year and 100+ next year.

“North Carolina, with its boat-building legacy and skilled boat-centric labor pool, stood out to us when selecting a place to build MJM,” explains Johnstone. “It’s also very business-friendly, has lower overall costs on real estate, and the weather is excellent. Washington is a beautiful place with easy access to water from the Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic Ocean, and also somewhere we could find the square footage we needed.”

Coming out of the new facility will be the 3z MJM. A 38 footer, dual console, family day boat with all of the luxury expected from an MJM. And like all MJM boats, built with the highest quality materials, a composite sandwich of E-glass and epoxy contributing to MJMs being the most fuel-efficient yachts of their type by a wide margin. “All the laminates are done with vacuum infusion so we minimize the amount of resin used in each part to reduce the weight of our boats by about 25%, making them lighter, stronger, faster, and more fuel-efficient than the competition,” says Johnstone.

Before taking the helm of MJM, Peter spent 3 months with father Bob, drilling down into the brand essence and what lay at the heart of the MJM brand. “We really looked at how people were using boats,” says Johnstone. “Most people want a day boat with all of the luxury but also a boat that is going to keep them safe and comfortable in nasty weather. At the same time, we didn’t want boats with the swiss army knife approach. No floating condos. They needed to be high tech but very functional and have an unmistakable look. A racy sports car sheer, the Carolina fishing boat bow, and the classic lines of an Adirondack. They needed to have an heirloom quality about them. A boat worth keeping.”

MJM is at a point where the brand has attracted a lot of attention from both buyers and distributors on a commercial scale. With 25 A-level dealers onboard, including MarineMax nationwide, the 3z is sold out until September 2023. “As part of our overall operations, we’ve been focused on getting distribution right and working with the likes of Joe Jackson from Wrightsville Beach MarineMax, which has meant we’ve sold many more boats,” explains Johnstone. “The person buying an MJM boat is at the high end of the market, so by the time they walk into a dealership, they have already done hours of research, watched all the videos, and read the reviews. So, you need a dealer that understands that and is, therefore, a specialist in that market and able to take the customer to the next level.”

It can’t be easy taking over a family business, let alone an iconic brand. Moreover, certain expectations and specific ways of doing business make it more challenging for growth and progress. Nevertheless, MJM Yachts, under the guidance of Peter Johnstone, has managed to hold onto the integrity that established them in the first place but has at the same time maximized the potential. And while founder Bob Johnstone is no longer involved with the company, his opinion still matters.

“I had bought and sold seven boat companies by the time I bought MJM from my parents. By far, my dad was the toughest seller I had ever encountered. He had poured 17 years of his life into the company, so he wanted to ensure it was being done right. But, once he had handed it over, he was done,” says Johnstone. “And while I think he’s shocked at the pace and development of MJM, he’s also totally at peace with it. He’s now writing his memoirs and cruising up and down the Carolinas. He’s still our greatest critic but also our greatest supporter. I get his input on everything, and while we don’t always agree, he still has gems of wisdom to impart.”

However, the core message of MJM remains the same as it always has. “We create shared adventures for people who live for boating,” says Johnstone with a hint of pride. “And if we can create more boats, then we make more make families’ lives better.”

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