“If someone would cut off Helmut’s arm, his blood would come out Volvo Blue.” This is a family joke, his ex-wife Liselotte tells us. They are divorced, but she is still a part of the business Helmut‘s Marine, together with their daughter and son-in-law.
The store in San Rafael smells like the Stockholm archipelago and summer boat vacations. Shelf after shelf is filled with engines and drive parts, and a separate warehouse is full of complete Volvo Penta engine packages. We are there to meet Liselotte Reichel and Helmut Ahollinger, the founders of the first and largest Volvo Penta Power Centers (distributor) in the United States.
“Welcome to Helmut’s Marine,” says Lieselotte with a friendly smile while her ex-husband Helmut tries to stop a Golden Retriever from running outside.
The couple moved from Germany and opened the marina in 1988, and the first years were tough.
“We were in another location then, and it was only the two of us. Helmut did mechanical work and I took care of the rest, like shipping, selling and watching out for our little daughter who grew up in the midst of the engines,” Lieselotte says.
“The business has changed dramatically, but we are still family-owned and operated and work exclusively with Volvo Penta.”
Today 17 people work at Helmut’s Marine. Lieselotte’s and Helmut’s daughter Nadine Urciuoli is now general manager, and their son in law Nate Urciuoli is the director of sales and applications. The family also includes two dogs that are with them at work, and the next generation, Nadine’s and Nates’ son Emmitt, was born earlier this year.
Lieselotte shows a picture of her grandson posing together with boat parts.
“Isn’t he cute?”
On the back of the building, there are docks with boats anchored and a lift. It is a sunny day, and almost no wind, so the Swedish flag, that’s is parading alongside the American and several Volvo Penta flags, is looking a bit tired.
Helmut began working with Swedish Volvo Penta engines at his parent’s marina in Germany by the time he was 13 years old. His love for boating grew every day, and Volvo Penta engines became his passion. He first took over his parent’s marina in Germany but then decided to return to the US.
In the early years, fishermen were important customers for Helmut’s Marine. From November to February they even came all the way from Alaska for herring season in the Bay.
“That stopped after the fish was exploited due to the Japanese demand for herring roe,” Helmut says.
Today those small, glittering fishes are back, but the prices are too low to make it worth coming here from out of state.
Leisure boats are popular in the Bay Area, but Helmut’s’s Marin is in transition, according to Helmut.
“We are again focusing more on commercial boats, like the tour boats from Fishermen’s Wharf in San Francisco, pilot- and government boats, their business is less seasonal”, says Helmut.
The business is growing, but recruiting is a bottleneck. That is also part of the reason while Helmut’s Marine recently joined the Swedish-American Chamber.
“We also think it is nice to be part of the Swedish Community, while we are working with a well-known Swedish brand,” Liselotte says.
Their daughter Nadine has taken some minutes off her busy schedule to join us.
“Right now, we are looking for one senior and one junior sales representative”, she tells us.
They do, however, not have any plans to move from San Rafael. Finding a new venue like this is not easy, according to Helmut.
“We need access to water, a possibility is to move the warehouse somewhere else,” he says.
And the place is, indeed, a small oasis and, only 20 minutes by car from San Francisco.
Fact about Helmut‘s Marine
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Text & photo: Margaretha Levander