Member Profile: Bill Walker, Water Taxi November 30, 2017
Whoever said, “nice guys finish last,” never met Bill Walker.
Winner of several sailboat racing contests, including, the Rolex New York Yacht Club Invitational Cup, the Commodore’s Cup from Newport to Bermuda, Swan World’s Cup in Italy, plus races in Hawaii, Japan, and additional pro and semi-pro programs around the world, Bill’s competitive spirit belies his calm and friendly external demeanor.
That spirited attitude may have begun back in Marblehead, Massachusetts, where he grew up as the second in a family of four brothers. He and his older brother of 13 months attended Massachusetts Maritime Academy, where Bill earned a degree in marine transportation and became a licensed merchant marine officer in 1980, allowing him to be the 3rd officer on any size vessel in the world, or officially stated as, “unlimited tonnage on any ocean.” Over the years, he and his brother, who earned his license as an Unlimited Master Mariner, regularly competed in sailboat races together and against one another, and remain very close today.
After graduation, Bill began working as 3rd mate on huge container ships and tankers carrying liquified ammonia from Alaska to California. In 1983 at the age of 25, he boarded a vessel in Jacksonville, under charter from the Navy, and spent seven months traveling most of the way around the world. For many years after he spent a few months on and a few months off various vessels, saving his money and seeing the world.
In 1988, Bill became president of Concordia Custom Yachts in his home state of Massachusetts, where he oversaw the building of the first Wally Yacht – a 105’ ketch. Wally Yachts got its name after the owner built a racing yacht called the Wallygator, named from the Hanna-Barbera cartoon of a water-skiing Cajun alligator. They began building custom race boats and yachts with composite technology that made them lighter, faster, and stronger. By 1994, with the completion of Wallygator, they won the Superyacht of the Year award in Monaco. They also used the composite technology to build parts, like hulls, structures, and water jet tubes, for other manufacturers.
Collaborating in 1995 with a friend from Massachusetts Maritime Academy who was working for a company that built high-speed catamarans, Bill and his classmate put together a business plan for a better way to build high-speed, low-wake passenger vessels in Boston using innovation and first-hand experience as their guides. They sold the plan to General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors in the United States. Years later, after the tragedy of September 11th, General Dynamics decided to focus solely on defense, and in 2002 Bill and his partner bought the company back and named it Boston’s Best Cruises.
Always on the lookout for additional opportunities, the pair also bought the New England Aquarium Whale Watch program, and they provided all transportation to the Boston Harbor Islands National Park, a group of 34 separate islands and peninsulas in Boston Harbor, and purchased various other tour operations, ferries, and commuter boats. At a chance meeting during a convention in 2007, they learned that the owner of Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi, Bob Beckoff, was looking to sell.
Although Bill had visited Fort Lauderdale frequently, he didn’t think the Water Taxi business was that interesting, however, during the due diligence process he kept hearing from locals, like officials at the Convention and Visitors Bureau, community leaders, and business owners, that the Fort Lauderdale Water Taxi was iconic to the city of Fort Lauderdale. It was then that he and his partner envisioned having the taxis become as popular on South Florida waterways as the street cars of San Francisco, and made the decision to purchase the operation.
The convenience of the airports in Boston and Fort Lauderdale allowed Bill to travel back and forth once a month for about six years, staying in South Florida anywhere from two to 10 days at a time. In 2014, he and his partner sold their entire Boston operation, and Bill moved to Fort Lauderdale. Just two months ago, he bought out his partner.
Now with 125 employees, including 45 licensed captains, and 14 vessels that carry 20 to 200 passengers, Bill marvels at having his business solidly situated in the best of two worlds – sales and revenue from the tourism industry and operating boats through the marine industry, which he considers the two top industries in South Florida. Spending $3-$4 million a year in parts and service, Bill believes South Florida vendors are phenomenal and their professionalism is unparalleled. While he recalls the marine business cluster in Boston, he good-naturedly remembers that when he needed a part in a hurry it usually needed to be shipped from Fort Lauderdale. In addition to leading the Water Taxi business with plans to grow the fleet, Bill also owns a tender operations business for Carnival Corporation in Eleuthera, Bahamas.
It turns out that Bill is more than a shrewd businessman and champion sailboat racer. He is also a community leader, dedicating his entire fleet to the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show and even chartering additional vessels when needed, donating control boats to help police marshal the boats during the Winterfest Boat Parade, serving on several boards, including the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors and chairing its Beach Council Committee, the City of Fort Lauderdale Marine Advisory Board, Friends of Birch State Park Board of Directors, as well as being VP of the Massachusetts Maritime Foundation, a partner to Riverwalk, an advisor to the Broward College Marine Engineering Department, and a volunteer during Broward County’s Waterway Cleanup coordinated by MIASF.
If he’s not working, sailing, paddle-boarding, diving, snorkeling, or swimming, Bill travels to Boston to visit his family, including his two adult children who have awesome careers and are a source of pride. Having spent his professional and personal life on the seas, he is a huge believer in being the best steward of the water and the environment as he can possibly be.
Now, isn’t that nice.