09 November 2022
A third-generation boat broker, Dean was a good mate, a client, a larrikin and an industry champion. When he walked into a room, you’d usually hear him first but his smile would soon follow. He wasn’t shy in getting his point across and had a fire in his belly – he wanted to right every wrong – and when you needed his help, he was there. Always.
Dean was one of the most charitable people I’ve ever met, with an open hand ready to help those less fortunate. He started the Gold Coast Boat Show at the Gold Coast City Marina to help the little guys in the industry doing it tough after the global financial crisis, and a charity dinner that raised a lot of money for children’s cancer. His passion for helping others had no bounds.
We’ve all had good times in Deano’s presence that we can reflect on. In tribute to these happy memories, we have republished Saltwater Dynasty, a story we ran in 2011 about the Leigh-Smith family; one of their favourites.
I still remember the day of the interview like it was yesterday. It was like herding cats, trying to get them all into the boardroom, but one by one, we captured their story before getting that family shot. The laughs we had.
The Leigh-Smith family has been selling boats in Australia for four decades, and today they are at the forefront of almost every aspect of the industry, from marina management to air-sea rescue. In 2011, Ocean met up with the entire clan – four generations in all – and managed to leave without buying a boat.
The Leigh-Smiths don’t often have time for family get-togethers, and judging by the noise they make when they do this is probably a good thing.
There are 14 of them waiting for me in the boardroom of Gold Coast City Marina when I arrive, but from the racket they’re making it could be 40.
Everyone is talking at once, from 90-year-old Reg (who started the whole thing off when he sold his first outboard motor from a roadhouse forecourt in the 1960s) to his great-grandson Jake, who at 11 months is already showing an interest in the water as he concentrates on cramming ice cubes into his mum’s handbag.
Reg’s wife Mavis is fielding hugs and kisses from late-arriving sons, grandsons and in-laws, all of whom have taken time out of their busy schedules to pose for Ocean’s family photo.
The boys all have their work shirts on, sporting the familiar logos of Maritimo, Riviera, Gold Coast City Marina & Shipyard and of course Leigh-Smith Cruiser Sales. I am struck by the surreal thought that right now, if I had a mind to, I could buy a boat, charter it, haul it out, store it, get it refitted and then sell it again – all without leaving the room. But first I’d have to find a gap in the conversation.
To anyone who’s ever owned a boat in Queensland, the Leigh-Smith name will be as familiar as the smell of weathered teak or the sound of wind whistling in a mainstay.
The family’s history in the industry goes back to the early 1960s, when Reg and Mavis ran a small marine business on the isle of Capri. Reg – a mechanically-minded businessman with a background in the oil and automotive industries – provided sales and services to the little pleasure boats in the area, fixing outboards and selling fuel from a 44-gallon drum.
Reg’s first boat was a custom-built wooden speedboat with a two-stroke Mercury on the transom. Styled like a Chevy Impala with curving fins, silver ash inlays and purple and white striped seats (this was the ‘60s, remember) it was fast, beautiful and unique.
Reg says it was his pride and joy, so I ask him what happened to it. “He sold it!” interrupts Mavis, to gales of laughter from the rest of the family. “He could never keep hold of a boat, always sold them. Couldn’t help himself.”
The compulsion to sell anything that floats appears to run in the family. When Reg and Mavis returned to the Gold Coast and took up larger premises on Southport Spit in 1974, their three sons Glen, Jeff and Noel quickly made a name for themselves as boat dealers (the eldest child, Carol, moved to Sydney to pursue a career in art and fashion – so far she remains the only Leigh-Smith not to have caught the boating bug), and by 1979 it was time to expand again.
“The boys found 16 acres of land down at Runaway Bay, so we bought that, dug it out and made a marina,” says Reg casually, as if building a marina is something one does on a daily basis.
“The residents there complained because of all the dust flying around, but when we finished their houses had tripled in value.”
The locals at Runaway Bay weren’t the only ones sceptical about the Leigh-Smiths’ business plans. “There was nothing like it at the time, and when we built Runaway Bay Marina everyone, even Bill Barry-Cotter, said it would never work because it was too far out of town,” remembers Mavis.
But the Leigh-Smiths had already seen the boating boom in Europe, and they could see which way the industry was going. The marina grew quickly, gaining factory units, a shopping centre and – in another first for the region – a dry storage stand, five stories high, for smaller boats.
Later a travel lift was added too, allowing 35-tonne vessels to be laid up on the hardstand for refit and repair. The Leigh-Smiths could now offer comprehensive marine services to yachts of all sizes on the east coast of Australia. There were some things, however, that not even Reg and Mavis could have foreseen.
“When we first started out there was no industry,” says Mavis. “You couldn’t even get financing on a boat. If you told someone you were a marine dealer they’d say, what’s that? I remember the largest boat we got was a 25-foot Caribbean. It was priced at $13,000 dollars and I said to Reg, no-one’s ever going to pay that sort of money for a boat. And now look at what people are paying for a yacht. The mind boggles. We could never have predicted it.”
As the industry expanded and developed, Reg and Mavis gradually took a back seat, leaving their children to carry the torch forward into the new era of luxury boating. Boat buyers at this time still knew very little about what they were buying (Reg remembers one owner who needed to be shown how to select forward, neutral and reverse on a marine gearbox) and the boys found that their passion for and knowledge of the product was a natural business asset.
“When they sold a boat they’d take the customer out on the water and show them through the whole boat,” recalls Reg. “Whatever boat they sold, they knew everything about it. If you know what you’re doing and how it all works then you can do a lot more than just sell the boat – you can do anything the buyer needs. The boys are still offering that today.“
According to Mavis, her three sons all had different strengths, which when combined made them a formidable force in the burgeoning boat market.
Glen, the oldest, had a pioneering spirit and could always be counted on to push the boundaries. A keen pilot and sailor, he would often disappear on solo adventures – once sailing a tiny Caper Cat from the Gold Coast to Hayman Island, another time flying a single-engined Cessna plane from New Mexico to Australia, ripping out the passenger seats to install extra fuel tanks and island-hopping across the Pacific. (Recalling this, Reg still shakes his head in disbelief).
Glen would go on to found the first air-sea rescue service in Queensland, and today heads up Island Air Aviation, providing marine-based tourism, surveillance and search-and-rescue services around the Whitsundays. Glen has passed his love of boats on to his own son, Justin, who took up the baton and is now a foreman at Riviera Marine.
Jeff, the middle brother, was the one with the business brain. Supported by the family Jeff designed and developed Runaway Bay Marina, operating it until 1988, when he sold it to set up Leigh-Smith Cruiser Sales at Sanctuary Cove, assisted by his wife Jenny and two sons Dean and Ryan, who along with their cousin Justin were already blazing the trail for the third generation of Leigh-Smiths.
In 1995, alongside his long-time friend and business partner Patrick Gay, Jeff set up the Gold Coast City Marina (GCCM), incorporating Leigh-Smith Cruiser sales. With his two sons working alongside him – Dean as Dealer Principal in the retail department and Ryan managing the shipyard – Jeff watched GCCM grow to become one of the busiest marinas in Australia.
While all the Leigh-Smith boys were pretty handy with a toolkit, it was Noel, the youngest, who most took after their dad in that department.
“Noel was the most mechanically-minded one,” remembers Reg. “He could strip an outboard motor down to its bare parts and reassemble it inside a day.”
When Noel wasn’t fixing boats or racing them – he and his brothers were all keen powerboat racers – he was selling them, beginning his sales career in 1972 selling early Mariner models for Bill Barry-Cotter.
He recently returned to the Barry-Cotter stable, heading up the brand’s sales team at Runaway Bay – the marina his family built. In true Leigh-Smith fashion, Noel’s team includes his three sons: Ben, Jackson and Blake.
[Noel Leigh-Smith passed away in 2016 at just 66 years old.]
While the Leigh-Smiths have established themselves as industry stalwarts on land, sea and air (and across many well-known marine brands), most mariners will know the family name best from the blue flags fluttering over the Gold Coast City Marina. The facility is ideally situated, comprehensively equipped and home to a stable of premium marine service providers, but its most invaluable asset, says Jeff, is the fact that it is family-run.
“Being a family means you have the benefit of experience,” he says. “For instance, when the recession hit we just said, ‘We’ve been here before,’ and tightened our belts and pulled together as a family unit. You don’t throw the towel in, you just work harder.”
Jeff adds that being able to draw on the strength of the family also brings a direct benefit to the customer. “We also say that if you don’t look after your clients, someone else will come along and do it for you. As a family you can be on hand 24/7; if you call on Christmas Day and tell us your boat’s sinking, one of us will put down his lunch and come over.”
With after-sales service like this, it’s no surprise that some clients have remained with the family for decades, following the Leigh-Smith name across the generations, even when it’s meant changing boat brands.
For Dean, who over the years has seen his family fly the flag for Grand Banks, Mariner, Sea Ray, Bayliner, Alaska, Hampton and Endurance yachts, the business of selling only begins once the deal has been signed.
“The boat is only one aspect of the purchase,” he says. “There’s also the aftersales service, the attention to detail, the involvement in social functions.
“That’s why we get customers following the family rather than a particular brand. In a day and age when we’re often reduced to a customer or service number, being able to walk into an office and be looked after on a personal basis is what people like.”
“We recently sold a 70-foot Hampton Endurance to a 94-year-old gentleman who’s on his 18th boat from our family,” confirms Dean’s brother Ryan. “He’s had everything from small Caribbeans to 120-foot Feadships, and had done business with Reg, Jeff and now myself.”
And if you’re wondering what Ryan’s doing selling Hamptons when he’s meant to be in charge of the shipyard, don’t be surprised: the Leigh-Smiths are always ready, willing and able to do each other’s jobs if the need arises.
“We all swap hats a bit,” says Dean. “Ryan’s off to Hawaii for a wedding on the weekend, so I’ll debrief with him and then take over. We all know how to do each other’s jobs, which gives us an edge over competitors. Nana always said ‘never ask anyone to do a job you can’t do yourself.’”
With so many family members working in the same industry, often for different brands, you’d expect there to be a certain degree of sibling rivalry, but Dean insists that when it comes to business things remain professional at all times.
“There’s a lot of disbelief about families being able to work together,” he says. “It’s not without heat and tension at times, but it’s also very rewarding. I’m in constant contact with Noel, Justin and Ben, for instance. We’re all related and we work together in the industry, so we talk a lot and share information. It’s the Leigh-Smith thing – head down, all together, business comes first.”
Like all big families, the Leigh-Smith’s is rich with tradition, and one of the most charming is the tradition of the golden propeller.
No-one’s sure how it started, but for a long time, it’s been family custom for every Leigh-Smith to wear a gold pendant, in the shape of a tiny boat propeller.
When Dean got engaged to his wife Sarah, in keeping with family custom he presented her with a custom-made solid gold propeller on a chain. Mavis’ comment at the time has gone down in family legend: “It’s better than a diamond ring,” she quipped. “Leigh-Smith boys only take an interest in something with a prop on it.”
The gold propeller pendant has become a symbol of the family’s bond with boating and with each other. Even Sarah and Dean’s baby son Jake has one in a jewellery box, waiting for his 16th birthday. “When he gets his boat license,” says Dean.
“We already know he’s mad about boats,” says Sarah. “When he rides in the tinny he sits at the front, bouncing up and down with a massive grin on his face.”
If Jake does take over the family business one day he’ll be kept busy, because by the sound of it the Leigh-Smith flag could soon be flying in places other than the Gold Coast.
“It might be a blessing or a curse, but throughout the generations of the family there’s always been an urge to increase business, facility sizes and infrastructure,” explains Ryan.
“Everything’s getting bigger but in a sustainable way – we don’t just develop for the sake of it. If we see a hole in the market, we’ll go and service it. We’ll get involved in the right project at the right time.”
Ryan says the projects currently under investigation include opportunities for expansion in Western Australia, New South Wales and New Zealand.
If you bump into the Leigh-Smiths anytime soon, be sure to be nice to the baby – you might just end up buying a boat from him one day.
If you or anyone you know needs support, please call a crisis line like Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.