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East Lyme — After 25 years in the financial services industry in New York, Tobey Russ was ready to do something completely different — something that involved creating an asset rather than simply moving money around.
“I wanted to do something tangible and hands-on,” Russ said.
So, nine years ago, he bought the 150-slip Bayreuther Boat Yard in Niantic and renamed it Three Belles Marina in honor of his three daughters.
An avid boater, he spent months searching for a marina to buy in New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Connecticut before coming across Bayreuther. He was immediately struck by the beautiful private setting on six acres in a protective cove.
“It was a diamond in the rough,” Russ recalled. “By the time I got her, it was pretty run down.”
So Russ went about quickly building the boating business back up, knowing that the marina’s location not far from prime fishing areas such as Bartlett’s Reef and The Race, as well as manageable distances to Fishers Island and Montauk, would give it a strategic advantage over other facilities.
“We have some of the best bass fishing on the eastern seaboard,” Russ said.
But marinas come with a lot of overhead costs just to maintain the facilities, Russ said, to say nothing of the extra expense of upgrades, rising insurance premiums and new environmental requirements. And he wanted to do things first class, becoming one of the first boating facilities in the state to be named a certified clean marina.
So Russ soon hit on a series of ideas to bring in new revenue, including a ship’s store, a galley cafe, a Hobie boat dealership, a Suzuki motor dealership and boat rentals open to the public. He also built a three-story, 16,000-square-foot valet rack building, where up to 72 boats can be stored, as well as installing outdoor valet racks and expanding dry-land trailer options so people could leave their vessels on site.
In addition, Russ built 28 permanent shallow-draft moorings and a private launch ramp that he invites the public to use at a nominal charge. Three Belles personnel — a total of nine year-round and 18 in the summer — also will be happy to launch a boat for a family that wants to get right on the water as soon as they arrive.
“We cater to everybody — all different economic strata,” Russ said. “For your money, you’ll get more here than anywhere else.”
Three Belles doesn’t cater to huge yachts, with 50-footers about as big as they get and the average being about 28 feet. But Russ aims at providing services that even some of the bigger boat yards do not provide, such as having a mechanic in during the weekends.
“We’ve saved lots of weekends (for boaters) by having a mechanic here on Saturdays and Sundays,” Russ said. “It’s one way we try to differentiate ourselves.”
Russ has upgraded the marina’s buildings, landscaping and pool, installed a security gate and in the past few weeks set up a video camera so families can watch online as their boat is being launched before their arrival. Protected by Smith Cove, Three Belles sustained no serious damage during the past two hurricanes, though Irene “redid the landscaping,” requiring some fixes this spring, Russ said.
Russ said the kayak-rental business that he started last year was so successful that he is adding more boats this summer. He also has recently invited a community crew club to take advantage of the Three Belles facilities.
“Almost everything we do is designed to get people to come here,” Russ said. “We would like this to be a community where there’s a lot going on.”
But the big push this year, he said, is to develop an e-commerce website where Three Belles Marina can sell Hobie boats and accessories as well as other products online, including Jetfloat modular docking systems.
Russ said he has not been able to raise fees at Three Belles since he first took over the facility because the economic circumstances of many boaters have changed, resulting in some leaving and others taking on more maintenance work to reduce costs. Unlike some closed yards, Three Belles allows outsiders as well as customers to work on boats at the marina.
The economic stagnation has made it more imperative to develop other revenue sources, he said, and to control costs as much as possible. Unfortunately, expenses are always on the rise, he said, including a recent tax hike of 42 percent.
“Finding ways to grow the business is our biggest challenge,” Russ said.
The challenges were particularly intense in 2010 and 2011, after Pfizer Inc. announced a major downsizing in Groton that eventually eliminated more than 1,100 positions. Russ figures he lost about 75 Pfizer customers over a two-year period out of the marina’s capacity of 330.
“It’s taken us a while to claw our way back,” Russ said.
But Russ, who has an apartment on site as well as a home in Westport, is determined to make a go of it, and looks to customers — many of whom seem like an extension of his family — to offer suggestions on how to make Three Belles an even better destination. One possibility he has been entertaining lately but hasn’t yet decided on: guided kayak fishing tours of the Niantic River.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” he said. “It’s given me a great sense of accomplishment in watching the business grow.”
What: Three Belles Marina
Who: Tobey Russ, owner
Where: 113 Oswegatchie Hills Road, Niantic
Phone: (860) 739-6264