Betty Gripentog is a great-grandmother. She wears colorful clothing, has carefully applied eye makup, lipstick and nail polish, and at 79, is sharp mentally, laughs easily and is President or Director of five companies familiar to Las Vegas boating enthusiasts.
Gripentog is the matriarch of a family business that includes Las Vegas Boat Harbor, Lake Mead Marina, Las Vegas Bay Dry Storage, Dry Dock Boat Sales and Marine Center of Las Vegas. She recently traveled to Orlando, FL to pick up an award. Marina Dock Age magazine named Las Vegas Boat Harbor as 2009 Large Marina of the Year.
Looking back, Gripentog would never have predicted such an award. In fact, early on, she begged her husband to get rid of the marina business. She and the late Bob Gripentog had previously been in business with Gripentog’s parents at the Bonanza Food Market. The young couple had also done well purchasing local real estate so had a comfortable life with a regular schedule. “Bob was originally from Minnesota and had always dreamed of owning a resort,” Gripentog explained, “so in 1957, when he was 27 and I was 26 (and I was pregnant with our third child) we traded some real estate for the Las Vegas Wash Marina.”
Bob Gripentog loved the challenge offered by the new business, but initially his wife hated it. “Our life turned upside down,” she explained. “The business was open seven days a week 12 hours a day. Even on Thanksgiving and Christmas while all the other employees had a day off, Bob was at the Marina. So on those holidays, being a wife and mother first, I brought our dinner, the children and all the china down to the Marina so we could celebrate together.”
Because her husband and children loved the excitement surrounding a marina. Gripentog knew she would need an attitude adjustment or chance losing them all. So she joined in, taking on challenges including bookkeeping, collection agent (“people tended to forget about mooring fees in the winter”) and boat salesperson.
“I was the first female boat salesperson in Nevada,” she says. “Boating then was exclusively a man’s world. The young men would come in and ask me questions to see if I knew what I was talking about and the old men thought I was a doll and brought me lunch,” she says with a grin, “but I sold boats.” Success in business also depends on the personal touch. Gripentog says, “My husband was a quiet man who was best when given a challenge; a storm on the lake and a boat rescue made his day. I am a person who never met a stranger, and I shared a talent with his mother for remembering names which comes in very handy in our business.”
In 1965, Gripentog’s husband was in a serious truck accident and initially wasn’t expected to survive, much less ever be able to work again. “But Bob was nothing if not determined,” said Gipentog. “After one month in the hospital, an iron will and six months at home, he was back at work.”
As Las Vegas grew, the marina and boat sales business grew and the family involvement grew as well. Today, all four of the Gripentog children, Bob Jr., Gail, Linda and Gary, and their spouses as well as 10 other relatives are among the companies’ 100 employees. “The best thing is, I know our family is here because they want to be, not because they have to be,” says Gripentog.
In 1992, Bob Gripentog died in a plane crash while landing an ultralight airplane. “There was no question the businesses would continue,” said his widow. “Our family was already involved in our companies, and they were willing to take over the day-to-day leadership roles.”
Though Gripentog defers to her family management team, she still comes in to work three or four days a week. “I do the financials and the insurance so I keep a small hand in most parts of the business. Our monthly management meetings are all family, but the discussions are strictly business,” she explains.
Gripentog shares a home in Boulder City with daughter Gail and her husband, John. “We have a big house which gives us all space and also gives us plenty of room for big family parties,” she says, “Every Sunday, we are visited by Gail and John’s grandchildren, so I get to share in that as well.”
Has the business been affected by the recession? Says the lady who does the financials, “Oh yes, in boat sales particularly, but also at the marina; even some of the customers’ largest boats have been repossessed.”
The falling value of the dollar and plummeting boat prices do have an upside, says Gripentog. “We’ve gone global, selling a number of boats to owners who told us the ultimate destinations would be outside the U.S., even as far away as China.” In terms of domestic sales,” she notes, “used boats are a tremendous value these days, and even new boats are being offered with huge rebates …just to clear out the pipeline.”
But good times or bad, Gripentog notes, “Something’s always going on at the business. That’s why I love being part of it.”