A Boatbuilder in Congress?

December 30, 2021

Trade Only Today

By Joseph Healy

Robert Healey Jr., of Viking Yacht Co., is running for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in New Jersey

Robert Healey Jr., executive co-chairman of the Viking Group, announced in November that he’s challenging U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, a Democrat, for the seat in Congress that represents New Jersey’s 3rd congressional district.

Healey’s announcement came as the state’s Republican candidate for governor, who lost the overall race, won the district over the incumbent Democrat governor in voting that was far tighter than polls predicted. One of Healey’s political consultants for the congressional race served as chief strategist for that Republican gubernatorial candidate.

Healey is the son of Bob Healey and the nephew of Bill Healey, who together founded Viking Yacht Co. The Viking Group that Healey leads today manages Viking Yachts, investment portfolios, and commercial and residential real-estate interests.

In running for Congress, Healey says he is carrying on the tradition of his father and uncle, fighting for the people of New Jersey and the marine industry.

His experiences at Viking and through his humanitarian work with the Healey International Relief Foundation give him a strong connection to the people and their day-to-day needs. He also brings a business perspective to the table.

“As someone who employs over 1,000 South Jersey residents, I am in touch with the challenges people are facing,” Healey says. “This country is headed in the wrong direction, and I intend to do something about it — for my country and the state of New Jersey, for my employees, for my family and, most importantly, for the future of my 5-month-old daughter.”

Why do you want to make this transition and serve in Congress?

I’ve spent most of my adult life being of service, whether it’s building hospitals and clinics in Sierra Leone, assisting struggling young people on my parents’ farm in Lumberton, N.J., or ensuring the 1,500 people I work with have access to a job and health care that will give them the stability to build a better future for themselves and their families. Now I want to continue on that path through public service to the community of southern New Jersey, where I grew up, run a business and am raising a family.

What issues do you hope to address in Washington, D.C.?

The Healey family has seen firsthand how bad taxes and reckless government fiscal policy can damage the boating industry. In 1990, the federal government instituted a 10 percent tax on specific items, including boats. This led to the loss of thousands of marine jobs and to hundreds of small American boatbuilding companies closing their doors. At the Viking Yacht Co., we went from 1,500 to 65 boatbuilders. That’s more than 1,400 people who struggled making a mortgage payment, buying groceries and affording health care for their families.

It took the industry almost 12 years to come back from the idea that taxing one group of people has no effect on another. When politicians pass legislation without carefully considering the people they will affect, the results can be catastrophic for years to come. Bad tax policy affects everyone from the people working in manufacturing to the customers who buy our boats. The federal government needs to rein in its spending, or it will mortgage the future of our industry.

While the country is seeing a massive shortage in the workforce, the challenge of finding employees well-trained in the marine trades is not new. The 3rd congressional district of New Jersey currently has two excellent technical schools in the Burlington County Institute of Technology and the Ocean County Vocational Technical School. The Viking Yacht Co. has had a long-standing apprenticeship program with Ocean County vo-tech students and graduates. Congress should be creating and maintaining incentives for parents and students to attend these institutions, as well as incentives for the employer to hire them and further their education while they apprentice.

Fuel costs are at an eight-year high, making it harder for the everyday person to gain access to or continue to enjoy boating. From a manufacturing point of view, when fuel prices stabilize, the cost of goods stabilizes, and many of our products like fiberglass and resin are petroleum-based and delivered by train, plane or truck. I want to make sure that boating is affordable for everyone, from the person with a center console to the 90-foot Viking customer.

It is also important to continue to be good stewards of our marine environment. Responsible conservation is in the best interest of boatbuilders. As boatbuilders, we want to support sustainable fisheries and marine habitats, but we need better science and improved data. I will make sure I converse with the chairman and members of the [House Committee on Natural Resources] to ensure that proper science and data are being used to make decisions that keep our fisheries and our marine environment healthy and sustainable.

Unreasonable and aggressive emissions regulation is also a threat to our industry. Reducing our carbon footprint should be done through processes that are in line with affordable and sensible changes in technology. Emissions regulations coming out of Europe almost forced the installation of large, cumbersome and potentially unsafe SCR (selective catalytic reduction) units in recreational fishing craft, regardless of the fact that they did not materially reduce their overall carbon footprint. The Viking Yacht Co., along with other industry leaders, worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard to push back the enforcement of these regulations, which have been adopted prematurely for our segment of the marine industry.

In the meantime, we should be exploring all options for reducing the carbon output of products we produce, including but not limited to the hybridization of propulsion systems and synthetic fuels. My office and staff will stay in close contact with the EPA to monitor new regulations as they are discussed, and work with the administration to promote research and development incentives for reducing our carbon footprint.

How does your campaign relate to the Healey International Relief Foundation?

I was raised a Catholic, and during the mid-90s, the archbishop of Sierra Leone would come to the United States and speak to our parish in Hainesport, N.J., about the horrors that were taking place in the country due to the civil war. My father started to support various projects such as orphanages and clinics, but as entrepreneurs and businesspeople, we tend to be more operators and less “check writers.” In business, without good systems and good people, it doesn’t matter how good of a product or idea you have; you will be doomed to fail.

We took that same approach when creating the HIRF, working on the ground with the Catholic Church, which had both the systems and the people already in the country. HIRF now improves the quality of life of individuals and families in the war-torn country of Sierra Leone in West Africa through medical assistance, food banks, health-care education, clean water, work programs for amputees and basic essentials for orphaned children so they can reach their full potential.

When I was young, I toured in a punk band. I was angry and tended to have a worldview that was centered around “me” without regard for anyone else. When I returned to the family business, before I touched a dime of for-profit money, I went to work in the foundation. This may have been one of the most important things that happened in my life. While working in Sierra Leone, I saw people who had undergone horrible experiences that left them with very little materially.

Yet, they had bright smiles, they had happiness, and they had hope. Learning their experiences and sharing time with them changed my perspective on life. Our true worth in life is not how much we make or how successful we are. Our worth is our contribution; it’s what we are able to give and how we are able to be of service to others. I’ve tried to keep that service mentality in everything I have done with my life. I can’t think of a better way to continue that than to be of service to the people of southern New Jersey.

How much will you be involved with Viking and the foundation if elected?

I hope to stay connected to our philanthropic organizations. All of them have had such a transformational impact on my life, teaching me the true nature of service. It means taking yourself out of the center and making decisions based on the people you serve. I want to take that attitude to Congress by putting the people of southern New Jersey first.

I come from a family of boatbuilders. The people who work day-to-day in our business are more than employees. They are part of our Viking family. As an owner, I will always work tirelessly to ensure that they have an environment that provides them the stability and peace of mind that allows us to build a better boat every day. 

This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue.