Like their father and grandfather, Sean and Justin Healey wanted the chance to perfect the boatbuilding formula—this time with center consoles.
The name Mankiller Bay does not bode well. It’s midday, and Atlantic City is awash in sunlight. The casinos, without electric artifice to doll them up, are exposed for what they are: chintzy and drab. A dice throw away in the inlet, the dark blue center console I’m aboard doesn’t have that problem. Its sleek design is built for days like this as we cruise at a steady clip through marshland. On the banks, cordgrass sways in the wind.
At the helm is Justin Healey, who points out the name of the bay and chuckles. Justin is the third generation of boatbuilders who founded Viking Yachts, and this model, the flagship of the Valhalla Boatworks lineup, has a trick up its sleeve. Justin gooses the throttle and the quad 400-hp Mercury Verado outboards respond in kind. We climb to 65 knots as Justin picks his way through the marsh.
Justin knows these waters like the back of his hand, so I trust him, even when he tells me to “Hold on” and throws the V-41 into a hard-over turn. (I have never been to Atlantic City and not gambled; thanks to this stunt that remains true.) Suddenly we’re in the middle of a 35-knot donut like we’re the Duke boys running from Johnny Law. The maneuver has a joyride-ish feel to it, but it’s also illustrative. Keeping us locked in place is the boat’s twin-stepped ventilated hull, which allows for tight cornering, even at higher rpms. Satisfied with this demonstration, and my reaction, Justin guns it through the inlet and into the awaiting swells of the ocean.
Fate had brought us here. And luck. And squaring the two disparate viewpoints could be a tricky proposition for a contingent of journalists. Arrayed in front of the Golden Nugget casino were not one but three center consoles started, somewhat improbably, mere months earlier by Viking and finished just days before this VIP event. The day the first one rolled off the production line, the firmament might as well have been torn asunder in New Jersey. Viking’s 55-year-old operation on the Bass River in New Gretna could be counted on for a new sportfish model almost every year. Now they too had shifted to offer outboard power. Such a move was inevitable, depending on who you asked. In fact, the concept had been mulled over for almost as long as Justin has been alive.
It’s hard to imagine any of this happening without Justin, 26, and Sean, 27. Together, they pushed their father, Pat Healey, president and CEO of Viking, to turn a concept into reality. The company finds itself at a new juncture: Not only have they opened an entirely new segment, but the third generation is at the helm of Valhalla Boatworks. I can walk into the Golden Nugget and place a couple chips down on a craps table, but to my mind, the better bet is right here, gleaming in the midday sun. Viking doesn’t seem to miss. Before the center consoles were even splashed, orders sprang up overnight. Interested clients came from as far afield as Japan and Italy. Around 70 Valhallas will be built in 2020.
And yet nothing is promised. The brothers stand to inherit an empire, but only if they can keep youthful fisticuffs in the backyard from morphing into corporate infighting—or worse, fraternal backstabbing. In either case, they must also contend with the often-cited statistic that a whopping 90 percent of third-generation businesses fail, for reasons as varied as poor succession planning, conflicting visions or complacency. Will these two South Jersey guys be the exception?
“Failure is not an option,” Sean tells me. Later, so does Justin. My first impression of them is man, these guys are polished. Of course, they’ve been trained from a young age to hold themselves to a high standard. But something I find equally as remarkable is the genuine excitement and passion the young Healeys have for these boats. Both could’ve chosen to pursue a career outside of the family business. It’s telling that neither did.
Pat made sure to cultivate his sons’ nascent interest in fishing. When the two were still in diapers, he bought a 1966 Alglas Wahoo, which he used to fish for striped bass near the family’s home in Great Bay, New Jersey. Sean remembers taking the Wahoo to what they called the “boat beach,” at Corson’s Inlet, and playing run the bases in the sand. From there, Pat purchased a 26-foot Regulator, a 31-foot Jupiter and a 35-foot Contender. “It’s funny to see the evolution of boating that I’ve done in my lifetime,” Sean tells me on the docks. The Wahoo had a single inboard Crusader engine that topped out at 27 knots; the Contender’s triple 300 Yamahas had a top end of 59 knots. The constant has been two boys that love to fish.
One morning, Sean and Justin’s mother, Leanne, told them their father wanted to talk to them outside. They marched into the driveway and were surprised by what they found: a beat-up, 13-foot Boston Whaler hitched to his truck. Call it tradition, or a rite of passage: When Pat was 15 years old, his father, Bill Healey, started him off the same way. Pat must have been itching for this moment, as Sean and Justin were not even teenagers. Pat gave each of them a toolbox and a deadline of next summer to repair the Whaler. They tacked a 25-hp two-stroke Yamaha on the back and called it Double Trouble. Before long, the brothers were zipping around the inlets by themselves in search of flounder.
Justin says it’s his father’s trust that allowed the boys to grow into such capable boaters. “He’s never been shy to put us on a big boat and let us learn the hard way. It was just like, ‘The keys are here, go take it for a spin.’ That really gave us motivation and humbled [us].” (Says Sean, “It’s crazy; somehow I was able to get a boater’s license before I was even of age.”) But if Pat raised his sons with a guiding hand toward his favorite pastime, he never did the same when it came to working for the family business.
Before his senior year of high school, Sean was working different odd jobs in the restaurant industry. While busing tables for a local restaurant on the waterfront, he remembers the manager calling him “you.” “She didn’t want to take the effort to learn my name. And I was like, ‘You know what, I’m not going to be anybody’s you. I’m done with being you.’” He quit. Afterward, he told his dad he was ready to start working for the family business. Pat was elated. Two weeks later Sean was working at the New Gretna facility. “It all started from being somebody’s you,” he says. “I’m not you. I’m Sean.”
Says Justin, “So we have her to thank for Valhalla Boatworks.”
Her and Don Gemmell. Don is a close friend of Pat’s and a member of the Viking design team. In the early 2000s, he sought to develop a smaller Viking-quality boat. Don put together a four-page business plan calling for a line of outboard-powered center consoles from 26 to 34 feet. In it, he suggested the creation of an independent company that would design, build and sell the boats. “We were all excited about the project, but at the time the economy was turning for the worse and it got put on the back burner,” Don says.
Viking had been developing sportfishing boats in the 40- to 60-foot range for decades. At that time, Pat couldn’t justify building smaller boats. With the level of detail the production builder puts into each build, it would have been difficult for them to price each one competitively. Instead of going in that direction, Viking ramped up production on a 70-, 76- and 82-foot sportfish. Even in the face of a looming recession, they continued to put millions of dollars into R&D every year. It was a big bet, but it paid off. In those days, “we were borderline broke,” says Justin. “But this is our gig. We’re sportfish guys. That’s what we do.” On the docks at international boat shows, the competition could barely put out a new boat; Viking had two or three new models. The New Jersey builder was separating themselves by leaps and bounds, coming out of the recession stronger than ever.
Justin followed Sean’s lead in working for the family business. Not everyone grows up being gifted a boat, even a fixer-upper, as a kid. But if they were raised with a silver spoon, they left it at home. Like their father before them, they worked all areas of the production line: detailing; engine aligning; laying-up fiberglass; building fuel tanks, water tanks, waste tanks; installing Seakeepers, struts, props, rudders; running wire. Says Justin, “You name it, we’ve done it.”
It doesn’t matter if your last name is Healey; all the vital management roles go through that training program. “We just did it a little longer than everybody else,” Sean says. And it paid off. “You get a lot of the respect from the guys on the shop floor, because you get to meet everybody and everybody gets to meet you. So when we go to them [now] with something we want to change for the better, they have a little bit of respect for why you want to make that change because you’ve been in their shoes and you relate to them.”
Still, it would be easy to get lost in Viking’s 800,000-square-foot facility, even if you had been around it all your life. It takes a lot of passion to rise through the ranks—or push a bold new direction. While touring the New Gretna facility, I got to see the cafeteria where the team casually bats around ideas. The real thing is smaller than I imagined. A few tables share space beside a salad bar replete with sandwich toppings, and a large refrigerator with enough eggs to feed a small army. It’s here, I’m told, where the idea for a line of center consoles finally took hold in the collective imaginations of the design team.
This time, the timing was right. In 2016, a combination of factors led Pat to seriously consider building center consoles, including customer feedback and the acquisition of the Ocean Yachts facility, only a short drive away on the Mullica River. In fact, the acquisition was key. At the New Gretna facility, Viking couldn’t expand any farther onto the surrounding wetlands. With this new facility, which they renamed Viking Mullica, there was an opportunity to grow. There they began tooling up the Viking 37 Billfish, which was a perfect fit for the space’s low ceilings. “It looks like this place was designed around building center consoles,” Justin says. On their first yard visit, the two brothers looked at each other with a knowing smile.
Before it was ever called Valhalla Boatworks, it was known, simply, as the V Project. In 2018, Pat tapped yacht designer Michael Peters to create the running surfaces of three center consoles. While the brothers were always confident in pushing headlong into this category, their father required some coaxing. In the early stages of production, Justin butted heads with his father. “He said to me, ‘You don’t even know if this is going to work out.’ And I turned to him and I looked him in the eye and I said, ‘I know it’s going to work out.’” Justin pointed to the commitment of Viking’s employees, to guys like Rudy Dalinger, who has been working there for 56 years. And David Wilson, the son of Bruce Wilson, one of the pioneers, who started working for Viking right out of college and never looked back. The people they have assembled under that roof were their secret weapon. Failure wasn’t an option.
Pat saw how motivated his sons were, and before long they were sea trialing the first Valhalla, the 37, in the Atlantic. With them was David Wilson and Ryan Higgins, both integral in conceptualizing the design. David was at the helm. There was a northeasterly wind, and the conditions were sporty. The team was itching to find out what this brand-new center console could do. The 37 came off that first wave in the inlet and everyone braced themselves. The boat landed softly, and they all looked at each other. Right after came the high fives and hugs. Collectively, they breathed a sigh of relief.
Back at Mullica, I ask what fuels Sean and Justin. What about the competitiveness that pushes them on the sportfishing circuit? Could they ever see their relationship sour from the hardships of business? “Whether it’s skeet shooting, flounder fishing—absolutely, we’re always trying to outdo each other,” says Sean. “But it’s a friendly competitive environment. He’s my brother, and one of the most important people to me.”
“We’re different in some ways but very similar in other ways, so we complement each other,” says Justin. “One thing that’s consistent is our passion for Viking. Each generation—the statistics are crazy—in a family business, your odds of failing increase dramatically. So that being said, we kind of have a bullseye on our back. And that certainly motivates me and I know it motivates Sean.”
The name Valhalla refers to a hall of great warriors. It was taken from Valhalla Boat Sales, which Sean and Justin both worked under. But it also refers to their grandfather Bill Healey’s Viking 42 Open named Valhalla. Famously, Bill tried to steer his son, Pat, away from fishing, and didn’t see the possibilities in the market for developing a line of sportfishing boats. Eventually he came around. Each generation of Healeys seems to teach and be taught in return. Reinvention being the only constant, that and a willingness to change.