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Lake Geneva boat company expands into lakefront dining

LAKE GENEVA – When Bill Gage graduated from college, he wasn't certain he wanted to join the family enterprise and help his father run Gage Marine and the Lake Geneva Cruise Line – which dates back to 1873.

He worked in cities around the world early in his career before returning to Wisconsin; he's now been in the boating business for more than a decade and recently guided an expansion into the restaurant field.

"I traveled around and looked at some of the marinas that were vibrant and thriving," he said. "They were investing back in their lakefronts and helping people be boaters and enjoy the water and interact with it."

That was one of the main reasons he decided to develop a waterfront restaurant with a beach club atmosphere.

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"We want to compete with other boat dealers, but we are also competing for the hearts, minds and wallets of people who are boaters," he said.

Gage, an only child who grew up scraping boat bottoms and driving some of the company's tour boats, took an indirect route to his current position running the family business.

"My parents weren't just going to hand me the keys to the business simply because I was an 'S.O.B.,' or 'Son of the Boss,'" he quipped. "They wanted me to go out and try different things. They were not 'helicopter parents.'"

So Gage headed off into the corporate world, working in sales and marketing positions for several companies in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. He even spent three years in London working for Aon, one of the globe's largest commercial insurance brokers.

Though he enjoyed the work, he began thinking in the late 1990s about returning to Wisconsin, in part because his father was approaching 65. All the company's other managers were aging, too.

"He said if I wanted to be a part of it, he'd give me the opportunity, but he also wanted to make sure it would be a good fit," said Gage, whose company also builds wooden boats under the Gage-Hacker name.

About the same time, Gage was offered the opportunity to set up a new division for Aon in California, which would have required a two- to three-year commitment.

"That was when my dad and I had a couple of heart-to-heart dinners," said Gage, who rejoined the family business in 2000.

But not before he and his wife took a bit of a "sabbatical" to travel to southeast Asia and Africa and "see some of the places we might not get to with a young family, and that might not be the same in 20 years."

Gage shared his love of boats with his father and saw that his dad had managed to blend work with pleasure during his career.

"I was just starting to get more involved with other aspects of the company when my dad was diagnosed with a brain tumor," Gage said. "Three days later, he had surgery. He never came back to the office again, but he put up a great fight for 18 months."

Gage said he was thankful that he had a year to work with his father.

"He was a great guy and I enjoyed his company," he said. "But I'd anticipated having more time to learn from him."

Gage said until this past summer, he made mainly incremental changes with the business.

"When you have a company that has been around as long as ours, you need to evolve," he said. "You can't stay static. We changed, but at the same time, we needed to be careful about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

"So we built on what worked, extending our winners and mitigating the losers," he said.

Though he bought another marine company during the recession, he said the biggest step was opening the Pier 290 Restaurant at Williams Bay on Geneva Lake.

The restaurant had a low-key opening this July and has been building a clientele over the summer and fall with its "upscale comfort food" created by Patrick Hurd, who runs the Rainbow Ranch Lodge on the Gallatin River in Montana.

"He had great, simple food out there like buffalo tenderloin or elk rib eye, but it wasn't complicated or fancy," Gage said. "You could wear blue jeans and have good food."

Gage also put an emphasis on fresh foods, some of which are organic and locally sourced.

The project also has been something of a labor of love for Gage, who – like his parents before him – is a history buff.

"I think people were pleased that we salvaged things around the area for the restaurant and marina complex," he said. "We wanted this place to match our excursion boats."

Gage said the floor in the bar was taken from one of the old Wrigley guest houses on the lake. And the front doors came from the first mansion built on the lake.

"I was lucky enough to be driving by as two backhoes were ripping the thing apart," explained Gage. "I think people can tell there is an authenticity to this place."

Though locals have been supportive, Gage said people from the rest of the state, Illinois and beyond seem to appreciate Pier 290 as well.

"We have one of only two commercial properties on the lake, so it's not just for people who live on the lake," he said. "It's for everyone in the area and visitors who don't have access to the water.

In addition to the restaurant, Gage has created a Wooden Boat Center where visitors can see boats being restored and repaired.

"My parents started the Lake Geneva Historical Society with the idea of creating a physical museum at one point. They'd been collecting pieces of Lake Geneva maritime history for some time."

Rather than building a million-dollar structure, Gage has started out with a loft space in the boat center, something he calls a "museum incubator."

Next on his agenda?

"Consolidation," he said. "I promised my wife I'd get a business vasectomy."

"I hope Pier 290 will become a destination for the area. But we need to pull some things together. So we will focus on our core strengths: servicing people's boats, docks, and piers and selling boats. I'm also looking forward to working on our custom Gage-Hacker boats again."

He plans to enjoy the year-round restaurant during the winter months, too.

"We have fire pits outside, and outdoor bar and heat lamps," he said. "I think it should be a great place to enjoy food and drink, watch football, broomball, ice boating and things like that with friends outdoors."

For more information on Gage Marine and Pier 290, see

-- By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com


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