AL LARSON BOAT SHOP IS 112 YEARS OLD AND OPTIMISTICALLY COUNTING
PICTURE YOURSELF AS A SUCCESSFUL business owner of one of Southern California’s premier commercial boat-repair shops. Imagine your eight-acre boatyard — more than two acres of land and five acres of water — is marking 112 years of business on the waterfront. Indeed, it is the remaining marine repair facility within Port of Los Angeles, which it predates by four years.
Not too shabby.
Yet, before you raise your hand to pat yourself on the back, consider you’re operating your bustling boat shop and adjacent marina on a 30-day revocable lease. And have been for nearly 40 years.
That scenario is exactly how the Terminal Island-based Al Larson Boat Shop (larsonboat.com) has continued to do business.
And the busier it gets after other boat shops shutter, the more difficult it becomes to grow the business — such as a proposed $15 million expansion that had its Environmental Impact Report approved in 2012, yet remains in stasis.
“We need a long-term lease,” said Jack Wall, who, with younger brother George — both third-generation SoCal natives — owns and operates Al Larson Boat Shop. “We’ve been waiting 38 years and still haven’t received that lease. Its more than a bit frustrating, but we keep on growing.”
In fact, a third generation of Walls has joined their fathers, both of whom work in the yard daily. Jack’s son Jeff, 37, works a variety of tasks, including purchasing agent and project manager, while George’s daughter, Kelly Wall, is in accounting.
PORT EXPRESSES SURPRISE
Port of Los Angeles spokesperson Rachel Campbell expressed surprise upon learning of Al Larson Boat Shop’s 30-day revocable lease, saying she was not aware of the handicap but did know they were laudable, long-term tenants.
After researching, Campbell replied via email: “In regard to the 30-day revocable permit, the Port of Los Angeles is currently in the midst of negotiations with Al Larson Boat Shop for a new long-term lease, so I don’t have any specifics to provide about the agreement. However, they have been a tenant of the Port of Los Angeles for more than a century now, and we look forward to maintaining that relationship and history.”
She also attached the 2003 Board resolution commemorating the 100th anniversary of Al Larson Boat Shop in which they are lauded — among many such accomplishments in the two-page ‘whereas’ resolution body — for having “sustained the Great Depression, four major wars and an ever-evolving maritime industry” and for being “well-renowned among fishers, boaters, merchant marines, sailors and local San Pedrans, and the family names have ties to the Father of the Harbor, Phineas Banning, and his lineage.”
The July 23, 2003, resolution ends, “Resolved, That the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners wishes to extend its sincere appreciation to Al Larson Boat Shop for its dedicated service to the Port and the City of Los Angeles and its heartfelt best wishes for continued success throughout the next hundred years.”
Sounds good, said Jack Wall, but a dozen years later, the game remains the same.
“It’s still a daily realization that in 30 days I may be out of business,” Wall said.
As acknowledged by the L.A. Harbor board of commissioners, the history of Al Larson Boat Shop is a rich one, and one that began when Sweden-born Peter Al Larson moved to San Francisco and learned his craft from renowned shipwright George Washington Kneass. (Following his death, Kneass’ sons continued his work, garnering praise for their superb workmanship. The yard closed in 1970.)
One year after emigrating to San Pedro, Larson opened his own boatyard on the Wilmington waterfront. In 1924, Larson moved to its current location at Berth 258 in Fish Harbor. At that time, boat building was a main focus for the then-thriving Southern California fishing industry.
Like many other businesses, that focus changed during World War II, with the boatyard concentrating energies on building sub-chasers and minesweepers for the U.S. Navy and converting fishing boats for military use. Post-war, boat repair rather than boat building kept the yard going.
When Al Larson died in 1963, former Los Angeles policeman and Southwestern Law School graduate Andrew ‘Andy’ Wall Sr. bought the business from the Larson family. He opted to keep the name. Andy Wall grew the business in many ways, including the building of a 1,000-ton dry dock, the 1964 purchase and modernization of the Al Larson Marina across Vincent Thomas Bridge, the addition of the Al Larson Boat Pier C in Long Beach, and opening the Oyster Wharf Restaurant in San Pedro’s Ports O’ Call Village.
His sudden death in 1986 shook the family business, but shortly thereafter his widow, Gloria, took the helm. As the daughter of John Rados, owner of Harbor Boat Building Co., where Andy Wall once worked, Gloria was no newcomer to the boating industry and continued therein until her retirement in 1996, when Jack Wall was named CEO and George Wall became vice president.
These days, the Al Larson Boat Shop continues to bristle with activity. Two shifts run daily and it employs nearly 100 people. Commercial contracts are diverse and include the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard boats, Crowley tugs, fireboats, ferries, research vessels and commercial ships.
“We’re truly a commercial boat repair facility,” Jack Wall said. “Occasionally, we have a few yachts, but they have to beg to get in here. We stay really busy.”
The machine shop, carpenter shop, welding shop and paint shop provide a panoply of sights and sounds, and it is not uncommon to see local filmmakers casting the boatyard as background for movies and television dramas.
Yard superintendent Larry Castagnola, a 15-year employee who was once a customer, says the integrity of the Wall family has not only kept business bustling but attracts and keeps employees, some of whom have been with the company more than 25 years.
“Working for a family-owned company, you get your information quicker, the decision making is faster and you don’t have to go through layers of red tape like you would with a corporation,” said Castagnola, another SoCal native who lives in Long Beach. “And they treat their employees very well. In fact, our matching 401(k) and full medical benefits are unheard of in these times.”
Castagnola is not one to be reticent when speaking about the Al Larson lease situation.
“Unfortunately, much of what the harbor does is not just short-sighted but based around revenue-generating rather than what makes a viable port. They don’t realize the necessary infrastructure has to be in place to keep to keep it all running efficiently.”
Keeping Al Larson running is the continued goal of Jack and George Wall as well as their many employees.