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Ride the wave

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  • | 11:00 a.m. October 9, 2015
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Mark Bahr may be wearing flip-flops, shorts and sunglasses, but don't mistake him for the cabana boy.

The well-bronzed Bahr runs a water sports operation that's as sophisticated as the customers he caters to at luxury hotels on Marco Island and Naples. That includes the Marriott Beach Resort and the Ritz-Carlton Beach Resort.

Bahr, president of Marco Island Water Sports, operates a fleet of 75 Yamaha WaveRunners, three $200,000 parasail powerboats and a 45-foot catamaran for sightseeing tours. He also rents chairs, umbrellas and cabanas in front of luxury hotels in Collier County.

Bahr has deep roots on Marco Island. His father, Neil Bahr, was the former chief operating officer of Deltona Corp., developer of the island on the southwest end of Collier County in the 1960s. “He priced every lot on Marco Island,” says Bahr, whose father died in 2000.

A competitive water skier at the University of Florida, in 1980 Bahr moved to Marco Island, where his brother had a real estate office. But it was during the Jimmy Carter era of high interest rates, and business was slow. “There wasn't much real estate,” Bahr recalls.

So Bahr purchased a single-engine outboard boat to pull guests at the new Marriott on tubes. “Then we started parasailing off the beach,” he says.

When parasailing off the beach was banned a few years later, Bahr built a 46-by-32-foot platform. A pair of 200-horsepower engines would motor it out in front of the hotel where guests would take off. Since then, the development of a special parasail winch lets riders take off and land on the boat.

The business got its big boost in the late 1980s, when Bahr sold two condos in a single day, funding two new ski boats. Today, Bahr says he gets special discount pricing from Yamaha because of the size of his fleet of personal watercrafts. He rents the WaveRunners for $140 an hour or $185 with a guide. “We're one of Yamaha's biggest [WaveRunner] customers,” he says.

Bahr says he gets special pricing on the three 31-foot parasail boats, too, which can carry as many as 12 people at a time. The Volvo Penta marine engines that power the boats have computer chips that monitor the performance for the Swedish engine maker.

Because Bahr runs his boats for prolonged periods in extreme conditions, Volvo uses the data from the computer chips in Bahr's boats to refine the motors. “We do their R&D,” Bahr says.

Bahr doesn't disclose financial information for the company, but he estimates revenues have grown 10% annually in recent years. Business grew even during the recession because many hotels filled rooms with leisure travelers who had more time for beach activities. Bahr shares revenues with the hotels in return for exclusive rights to operate on the property and the ability to charge customers on their hotel bill.

But the costs of doing business have grown, too. In addition to traditional benefits such as paid vacation, Bahr offers a profit-sharing plan that pays employees an amount equal to 10% of their gross pay. The company has about 40 employees, and two of Bahr's three young sons are involved in the business. “It retains our best people,” Bahr says.

In addition, Bahr has $10 million in liability insurance, 10 times the amount required by municipalities to operate. “I'm just fortunate to be able to get it based on our track record,” he says.

The costs are personal, too. The company operates seven days a week and is especially busy during traditional holidays. “Our days off are bad-weather days,” says Bahr.

For now, Bahr says there's plenty of business in Collier County, the gateway to the Everglades. He has added a 42-foot catamaran to his fleet so younger and older people can enjoy seeing dolphins and birds without having to ride a waverunner. “The Everglades is a recognizable name,” Bahr says.

Follow Jean Gruss on Twitter @JeanGruss


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