From Wall Street To 21st Street

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Though he came to appreciate high-performance powerboats, Lee Kimmell, the former chief executive officer of American Marine Holdings, the parent company of Donzi Marine and Pro-Line Boats until 2008-2009, never had much use for the high-performance marine industry. A former Wall Street investment banker, Kimmell was fond of glaring into the audience and saying “I hate the boat business” to begin his keynote addresses at Donzi’s annual dealer meetings.

Another frequent Kimmell zinger? “There’s a reason the corporate headhunters of the world aren’t beating down the doors of marine industry executives.”

The Donzi 38 ZRC earned Steve Simon and Lee Kimmell (right) the 1999 V-Bottom of the Year Award from Powerboat magazine.

Of course, that contemptuous attitude didn’t exactly endear Kimmell, who was 67 years old when he died last week of undisclosed causes and had been out of the marine industry for almost 10 years, to his marine industry colleagues. But Kimmell, who I got to know a bit through spending two often-challenging days of interviews with him at the Donzi headquarters in Sarasota, Fla., for a 2002 Powerboat magazine question-and-answer profile, was—openly and unapologetically—who he was.

Did I say challenging? Interviewing Kimmell was more like two days mental and verbal sparring. Never have I sat across a desk and asked questions of someone more intelligent and calculating. I tried to avoid being managed or handled by my subject, but to be honest I’m not sure I succeeded.

At least outwardly, the Texas-born Kimmell, who reportedly was sent to manage Donzi after convincing his investment banking colleagues to buy the then-struggling brand, didn’t care what anyone thought of him.

“Lee was a smart guy, but he had a short fuse,” said Bob Christie, who formerly owned Typhoon Performance Marine, the top Donzi dealer for multiple years from 2002 to 2008, in Toms River, N.J. “He was from Wall Street and we’d even known of each other when he was in investment banking and I was the president of the Standard & Poors Equity Group before either of us was in the marine industry.

“So he was used to instant gratification,” he continued “On Wall Street, you do a deal and you see the results—it either works or it doesn’t. But it takes years in the boating industry to get established and see results. I think that was frustrating for him.”

Taking his cues from Steve Simon (left), Lee Kimmell helped make Donzi a force in the offshore powerboat racing world in the late 1990s to early 2000s.

Josh Stickles, the vice president of marketing for Metal Shark Boats, a Jeanerette, L.A.-based company “spawned by a Kimmell initiative” worked under the mercurial Donzi head—with the same title he currently holds—for seven years.

“All of us who worked with him, Lee affected on a deep level,” he said. “There was no one else like him. He could be ballistic and imperious, a crusher of souls. He could publicly eviscerate people. He created a culture of warfare within our company. I used to have two Red Bulls before 9 a.m. just to get ready for my meeting in the trenches with him.

“And yet he could be very kind and very loyal to his team,” he continued. “He just had these incredibly high standards and he wanted his team to meet those standards. I am still so freaking driven because of Lee Kimmell.”

With Donzi’s Steve Simon leading the charge in the design and creation of the Donzi 38 ZRC sit-down sportboat—an immediate hit with consumers and the high-performance marine media—introduced in 2002 and its stepped-hull and production-improvement programs, Kimmell felt Donzi was on the right the track. The death of Simon in an automobile accident in 2003 left Kimmell without a go-to marine industry veteran on his Donzi management team.

“Losing Steve was a huge blow,” said Stickles. “Steve was so hands-on involved with the 38 ZRC but he passed before the rest of the models in the line could be produced. There was an internal struggle with new leadership.”

“When Steve passed away, Lee had to step up and try to assume Steve’s role,” said Christie. “But that’s very difficult when you don’t actually come from the boating world.”

Stickles said he had not spoken to Kimmell for many years. And though I regret it, the same goes for me. In fact, I’m not sure if we ever spoke again after my Powerboat magazine profile of him was published. For the record, more often than not that means the subject is happy with the published story because you always hear from those who are not.

Still, I couldn’t resist asking Stickles if Kimmell ever said anything to him about it.

“He was so proud of that story—it was on his mantle,” he said. “He loved the persona that he had crafted. To me, that persona was so calculated. The man was a genius, a brutal genius.”

Though I wish I did, I don’t have the Powerboat issue with Kimmell’s profile. (I’d to be able to read through it and pull some of his more colorful quotes for you.) But I do remember the final line of his answer—the final line of the interview, in fact—to a question on his ambitious plans for the future of Donzi.

“I’m not here for the health plan.”

That was vintage Lee Kimmell—wisecracking, pointed and lightning quick— and a vintage that will never come again.

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Matt Trulio is an award-winning journalist who has covered the high-performance powerboat world since 1995. He wrote for Powerboat magazine for 17 years and was the magazine’s editor at large until it ceased publication in 2011. Trulio is the founder, editor-in-chief and publisher of speedonthewater.com, a daily news site that covers the high-performance powerboat realm. He’s also the former editor of Sportboat magazine.

 

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