Along Mattituck Inlet, on a dock lined with boats of all kinds, Jeff, Re and Ryan Strong stop and wave to each captain passing by. They stop and chat with the boaters and keep a close eye out to make sure the slips are clear of any floating debris.
For more than 70 years, the Strong family has helped cultivate a community of recreational boaters on the North Fork and beyond.
The sales, service and docking business was actually started by Stewart Strong in Lindenhurst in 1945 as Strong & Holland Marina. From there, it has evolved with each new generation that has taken the helm.
Dave and Dottie Strong took over the business in 1965 and moved it east to its Mattituck Bay location. Dave still worked as a full-time commercial bayman, scalloping and clamming, so Dottie would oversee the marina, which started out with about 30 clients.
Their son, Jeff, was 8 years old at the time and did not hesitate to start at the bottom, painting, cleaning up and pumping gas for customers.
“We definitely didn’t have to get involved,” said Jeff, now president of the family business. “We were encouraged always to do something else if that’s what we wanted to do, for sure.”
And it was no different for Jeff’s sons Ryan, now vice president, and Jay, a member of the board.
“We knew we weren’t just working for Mom and Dad,” Ryan said. “We were working with Mom and Dad for a business.”
Jeff and his wife, Re, who grew up in Southold lobstering on her father’s boat, purchased the Mattituck Bay location in 1992 and from there made a series of decisions to grow the business.
Now in its fourth generation, Strong’s has locations across Long Island, with showrooms and marinas in Southampton, Port Washington and Freeport and more than 100 full-time employees.
Beyond sales and boat service, Strong’s also has a destination water club in Mattituck, which includes a pool and restaurant and offers boat rentals and dockage services.
It takes research and a family vote before any major addition is made to Strong’s Marine, Re noted, along with a bit of convincing her at times.
She recalled when Jeff wanted to go for the water club and, more recently, when he and Ryan wanted to pursue what is now the Strong’s Yacht Center on the west side of Mattituck Inlet, which they hope will grow over the next five years to become the largest yacht service facility in the Northeast.
“I said, ‘OK, if you really want to do this, then I will support you guys in every way,’ ” Re said with a laugh. “But sometimes it’s like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ ”
Beyond considering the financial implications of taking on a new location that might be older or run down, decisions also come down to the question of whether it’s really a business with a passion to get people out on the water versus one focused solely on the profit, with no emotional attachment.
“We don’t want to be that guy,” Ryan said of the latter. “We want to be the people still fulfilling dreams and have that family connection, so that sometimes outweighs just what the numbers look like on paper.”
Over the years, the Strong family business has watched the industry and attitudes toward recreational boating change. Technology has been a significant part of that.
On the product side, it’s simply made boating easier, Jeff said.
But on the personal side, it’s made a difference with people needing a break from handheld technology.
“So many people are wrapped up both at home and at work with iPhones, computers, you name it,” Jeff said. “When you’re out on the boat, you get pretty close to escaping a lot of that. It seems like more people are appreciating that.”
With the economy doing fairly well, young families are now able to get into the boating community. People are comfortable starting with smaller, entry-level boats and then get hooked, later buying bigger boats, Ryan noted. Strong’s Marine sells vessels ranging from 18 feet to as long as 131 feet.
Jeff summed up what it feels like to see a first-time boater get onto the water by calling it “fun.”
“They’re genuinely excited,” Ryan added. “They’re nervous excited.”
But Strong’s Marine also has captains that help train new boaters so they’re confident out on the water.
The fourth-generation business has also served generations of families, who have become repeat customers at their showrooms and marinas.
“It’s very rewarding for sure,” Jeff said. “Having those relationships and just seeing them go through the next generation of family members is cool.”
As for what’s stayed the same in the business, the Strongs all agreed it’s the family tradition of helping others enjoy the waterfront and going to whatever lengths necessary to do it.
“We, by design, like being around water,” Re said. “It just creates a different feel.”
And realizing that they get to work on it feels pretty good.
“During a team meeting once,” she recalled, “One of the employees said, ‘Just look out the window; why wouldn’t you want to work here?’ You stop and think, ‘Look at what we’ve got.’ ”