The History of Reed’s Marine
In the Beginning
Last Updated: Jul 12, 2020
The History of Reed’s Marine
In the Beginning
Harold and Betty Reed started Reed’s Marine over fifty years ago. In the early 1950′s Harold gave up selling tires as he decided he wanted to be in the boat rental business. Harold hung a phone on an old post in the Delavan Inlet and began to rent small fishing boats. Betty gathered night crawlers from Lake Lawn’s golf course so they would have some bait to sell…very humble beginnings. Not many success stories begin with, “We got up real early and collected worms.”
Harold went from renting boats to selling boats and motors. He had one of the earliest Johnson Motor franchises in the state. Soon, the boats got bigger along with the buildings and the crew. By the late 1960′s Harold and Betty had built up one of the largest boat dealerships in the area. They also sold Johnson and Ski-Doo snowmobiles at this time, when snowmobiling was just getting started.
In 1970 the business had actually become too large for them to handle. Sales, service and storage at this level, with all the inherent problems, were just too much for this small town couple.
As fate would have it, an off-handed comment about their frustration led to a small ad in the Chicago Tribune placed by an over-eager real estate agent. The ad was read by Tom Shallcross who was working at a big corporation in Chicago and suffering from a little “mid-life crisis.” He called his boyhood friend Harry Johnson, and convinced Harry that this might be the change they were both looking for. At the time, Harry’s tool and die shop in Melrose Park wasn’t doing very well. They were both familiar with Delavan Lake since their fathers were friends and had brought them up here all the time. Tom’s family had owned a cottage on Delavan Lake since 1936.
Tom and Harry thought it was destiny when they read Reed’s Marine was for sale. They imagined working together in this great location, and it would be everything that their current jobs were not (fun, relaxing, independent and prosperous). At this point it would have been good if they had heeded the old proverb, “Be careful what you ask for…you might get it!”
The business that had grown too big for the small town couple was also much too big and unwieldy for a couple of big city boys. Running a factory with 50–100 employees was much easier than a boat dealership with two mechanics!
Harry became the manager, and Tom would work at Reed’s when they could afford him (Tom never actually worked full-time at Reed’s Marine). The business had so many facets that Harry felt he was trying to learn how to swim in a pool that was deeper than he thought…and full of alligators!
In 1976 after five years of oil embargoes, recessions, confusion and ignorance, most of all the boat sales and all the money were gone. The only thing keeping things going were Harry’s fear of going out of business and the bank’s fear of coming in. The bank didn’t want to own it, and Harry had nowhere else to go!
But a light appeared at the end of the tunnel – and it really was a way out of the darkness. The crew at Reed’s had always stressed service, so there was a firm base of customers on which to build a future. All the suppliers had always been paid (except the bank), so merchandise was available. A couple of finance tricks developed some working capital, and, most importantly, the economy got better and stayed better for a long time.
Ten years after the initial purchase and five years after being in the deepest part of the pit, Reed’s Marine crawled out. By the early 1980′s they were back to “even”. Throughout the 1980′s Reed’s became healthy again. Service and storage expanded, new buildings were purchased, and the crew went from 7 to 16 people as sales increased every year.
In 1990 Harry handed Hal and Betty their last monthly payment. Harry had made it to his finish line! Over the next couple of years, ownership was transferred to Tom and Harry’s sons. Harry retired and turned his efforts to local charity work. He was recognized for his work with an “Advocate of the Year Award” in Wisconsin and, after his death in 2001, the naming of the Harold Johnson Food Pantry of Delavan.
It was nice to be recognized, but he always knew his greatest achievement was keeping Reed’s Marine together. Day after day for months that drifted into years he had to struggle despite little hope of success. He wasn’t succeeding, and yet he couldn’t fail. There were too many people depending on him to make it. To paraphrase Joe Garagiola, “Owning a small business gives you every chance to succeed. Then it puts every pressure on you to prove that you haven’t got what it takes. It never eases up on the pressure.” Harry just would not give in to the pressure until Reed’s Marine had succeeded. Any person who does that, in any endeavor, is truly a hero.
The Sons Step Up
20 years ago Keith Shallcross and Tom Johnson took over the ownership of Reed’s. They had both worked here since 1971 and were more than ready to have their dads move out of the way. Keith would control the service and storage while Tom worked sales and general management. The keys to this successful partnership have been respect for each other’s abilities, an appreciation of how hard the partner works, and the fact that sales and service are two miles apart! Admiration from afar is always easier than constantly bumping into each other.
Reed’s Marine is currently what Tom and Keith had always hoped it would be – large, clean storage buildings, a 12-bay shop, a large display of boats, parts and accessories, and, most importantly, a great crew.
Tom and Keith now feel they have in place everything they need to perform their most important job, which is to take care of their customers’ needs. In the old days, antiquated facilities and lack of inventory meant that the customers weren’t treated optimally. Reed’s lacked the capability to do the job for their customers that they wanted to do. But now that has all changed.
Reed’s has grown over the years from a couple of rental fishing boats to being able to sell some of the best boats in the industry. The parts and accessory shops carry over $300,000 in products that our customers need. Service, anchored by five veteran technicians, has grown to 14 people who work full-time catering to whatever need the customer wants taken care of. Now, when a customer calls with a problem, Reed’s can concentrate on fixing their problem right away. Sales, customer satisfaction and employee morale have all increased dramatically over the last 20 years.
Keith and Tom have mixed feelings about their current success. They know how much it cost their fathers in time, effort, and money to not let it fail. They also know how hard and long it took them to get this far. A small business success story is hard to achieve – and even harder to hold. But for now, they feel thing are very, very good. At their current ages, their fathers were seeking big changes in their lives, but Keith and Tom are hoping they can keep the changes to a minimum. Why mess with success?
When asked what they could have done differently if they could turn back the clock, Tom replied with what he thinks Moses probably would have said, “It wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t perfect, but it was the only way we knew how to get to the Promised Land.”
Reed’s Marine’s Pledge to You
•We will always put you, the customer, first as our #1 priority.
•We will work towards developing each customer relationship as one based on friendship, respect and trust.
•We will gather the best line-up of products that you will not only find attractive, but will also give you the longevity and quality you desire.
•We will not sell you anything until we are both convinced that it will perform to your satisfaction.
•We will always give you more in value and service than you paid for.
•We will not be happy unless you are.