By Mark Urban
“The Little Engine That Could” is a nearly 100-year-old story teaching children the value of optimism, perseverance and hard work. In the parable, a little engine is able to pull a long train over a steep mountain climb with its “I-think-I-can” approach.
The children’s story could translate to a former welder and his 18-year-old son deciding to open a marina on Michigan’s Portage Lake in the 1960s. A lot of people — family members included — had doubts about the idea. But Walter and Jim Mrozinski had plenty of drive and determination as “The Little Engine That Could,” even if it was an outboard motor at the back of a 17-foot fishing boat.
Sixty years later, Onekama Marine is still motoring along under the third generation of family leadership that began with Walter Mrozinski and his son back in 1963. Today, the business offers year-round boat storage, recreational vehicle storage as well as storage for motorhomes, trailers, motorcycles, snowmobiles and cars. Additionally, it offers over 85,000 square feet of indoor heated and cold storage as well as outdoor storage and shrink wrapping. Short and long term up to 70 feet is available with very competitive rates.
“To me, looking back on everything, it’s pretty amazing,” said Matt Mrozinski, the current president of Onekama Marine. “My grandfather did it and my dad joined him because they enjoyed boats and they were passionate about boats. But they didn’t have any business experience. It should have never succeeded.
“Plus it was on a lake in a little town with not a lot of people.”
Matt Mrozinski said a lot of people deserve credit for the business making it to the next decade, much less an additional five.
“They did not make much money for a lot of years,” he said. “They relied on friends and customers that became friends to keep it going at the beginning. It was sometimes an uphill battle to get started.”
Onekama Marine had a motor drive in Jim Mrozinski, who took charge of operations in the mid-1970s when Walter Mrozinski began pulling back from the day-to-day workings a bit.
“I know why it succeeded,” Matt Mrozinski said. “It survived because my dad put everything into it. It was perseverance, hard work and never giving up. He worked seven days a week. He made it not fail.”
Jim Mrozinski, who died in February 2021 at the age of 78, saw Onekama Marine grow from its 4378 Crescent Beach Road location to “offering dockage at four locations, summer and winter storage, full mechanical service and sales of new and pre-owned boats,” according to its website. Onekama Marine and Lake Michigan Yacht Sales added to its name with the opening of a sales office in Bay Harbor at 801 Front Street in 2004.
Not bad for a businessman who wasn’t supposed to stick around.
“It was my grandfather’s idea,” said Matt Mrozinski, who said his mother, Jane, expressed her doubts the day before the purchase of the Portage Lake Boat Company. “He bought property that had one small building and one short dock on it.
“My dad was 18 years old and told my grandfather that he would help him out for a year and then do something else. He never left.”
A lot of other employees have decades working at Onekama Marine.
Ted Bromley, who married Jim Mrozinski’s daughter, is the general manager and vice president. He oversees the Onekama locations.
Two others, Mike Skimins and Bob Patulski, have worked at Onekama Marine for more than 30 years. Several others have more than 20 years with the company, which has about 25 employees. Some years Onekama Marine has more than 30 during the busier summer season and can drop down to 20 in the offseason.
“I think they stay on because their jobs are diverse, and every day is different,” said Bromley in a release. “They go above the call of duty and want what’s best for the marina and everyone here.”
“It’s pretty amazing how long some of our people have been there,” Matt Mrozinski said. “A lot of those guys stayed because of my dad. He was big on giving people second chances, both in work and life.”
While Walter Mrozinski had the vision for Onekama Marine, the late Jim Mrozinski had other foresight into the business. The original marina was expanded several times. The business made several big infrastructure improvements since 2008, including phasing out the use of a railroad, a cart filled with concrete and steel and a winch truck to get some boats out of the water.
“When they built some of the buildings my grandfather said, ‘Why would we need to build this so big, we’ll never service boats bigger than 27 feet.'” Matt Mrozinski recalled. “But my dad insisted we’d service boats in the 30s. Now we service boats up to 65. It’s pretty funny.”
Onekama Marine can now store more than 400 boats and has 200 slips. The infrastructure improvements have allowed the business to serve more and a wider range of boats, not that it doesn’t have time for jet skis and 17-foot aluminum fishing boats.
“We (also) do service for boats in different towns,” Matt Mrozinski said. “We have a lot of Bear Lake customers, we have a lot of Manistee customers. People that don’t dock with us or store with us, we still service their boats.”
Onekama Marine received the Riviera Yachts International Service Excellence award in 2022.
“The customer service at Onekama Marine is unsurpassed,” one boater shared in a testimonial on its website. “Everyone is very professional at all times and customer focused. There is no better ambassador for your business than Ted (Bromley). He is the epitome of reliability, efficiency and a pleasure to work with.
“I look forward to talking to him and totally trust his judgment. Could not recommend a better marina.”
As Onekama Marine & Lake Michigan Yacht Sales has expanded, so has the market.
“The last couple of years have been record years,” the company president said. “The COVID boating market took off and it’s still a very good market. From the mid-2000s to now we doubled revenue across the board for sales, storage, service. Everything we doubled or more.”
Mrozinski runs operations in Bay Harbor most of the time while Bromley keeps things ship-shape in Onekama.
Both have kids who work from time to time in the business during the summer, just like Mrozinski did while in high school and college before starting full-time in January 2003.
“We’ll see how that all shakes out,” Mrozinski said. “We’re still getting them used to working and responsibility. We’ll see what they end up deciding to do.”
Mark Urban is reporter for The Record-Eagle in Traverse City, Mich.