Howard Boats Purchased by Customer Hamlet Tarbinian
Howard Custom Boats—the Valencia, CA-based builder of go-fast catamarans, vee bottoms and deckboats—has been purchased by Howard customer Hamlet Tarbinian, a sergeant with the Los Angeles School Police Department.
The sale comes almost a year after company owner Gene Willen, 78, passed away following an accident in Marina Del Rey, CA. His son Mike Willen, who has been a driving force in the tooling and design of Howard's line for many years, will continue on as general manager.
While searching for a deckboat in 2019, Hamlet struck up a friendship with Gene Willen, who offered to give him a deal on a 28 Sport Deck that was being built for another customer who had cancelled his order. "It's just a shell," Gene had told him, "but come by and look at it. If you like it, you can have it." Eager to get started on a build, Hamlet put down a deposit and took delivery in November 2020.
"The first thing I did was head out to Havasu to take it out for a spin...and then I had to put it away for the winter," he chuckles. "Then I started going over to the shop and hanging out with Gene and talking to him about boats. Eventually, he said, 'If you like the boats so much, why don't you buy the place?'" The two men periodically discussed the idea of Hamlet purchasing the company—right up until Willen died unexpectedly on Oct. 16, 2021.
"Gene and I been going back and forth about buying the business for about almost a year," Hamlet recalls. "Then, just before he passed away, he told me to come over so we could talk numbers. And then, suddenly, he was gone."
For several months before Willen's passing—and for months afterwards—Hamlet had become a familiar fixture at Howard. "I wasn't working there per se—I'd just been going in there, helping Mike out around the shop for almost the last year, handling all their sales calls." Finally, he and Mike Willen began to discuss Howard's future.
"After my dad passed, Hamlet was basically volunteering his time here," Mike says, "and he had been coming here quite a bit prior to that, every single day."
The two men eventually realized that working together would be a good fit, because Hamlet is passionate about the business and sales side of the company, while Mike likes to stay focused on designing boats and running the shop. He loves building things, even outside of the marine industry ("I did the swimming pool in my backyard," he says). Ultimately, Hamlet and Mike decided to make a go of it together because the pieces simply fit.
"Mike doesn't want to handle the business end," Hamlet says. "I don't mind doing that, and he's got the boat end down pat, so I think we're going to make a great team."
Mike concurs. "At one point, Hamlet told me that if he were going to buy the company, he'd be interested in expanding the lineup," he says. "That was a big turning point for me, because one of the models that he thought would be a great addition to the company was exactly what I was thinking. I smiled when he told me, and replied, 'We're thinking along the exact same lines.'"
This weekend, Mike and Hamlet have been hosting a Howard Owners' Group meet-up at Pirate Cove, the secluded California oasis located at Moabi Regional Park on the banks of the Colorado River; on Saturday night, there was a group dinner at Howard Custom Detail in Lake Havasu, AZ (not affiliated with the company).
Mike says he'll continue running the back part of the shop, so the daily operations of the company aren't likely to change. Currently, Howard offers the 255 Sport Deck, 288 Sportdeck, 28 SDS Sportdeck, 28 SCS Sportcat (in open and closed bow configurations), 25 Bullet (also in open and closed bow versions), 28 Bullet (available in closed and midcabin cuddy versions) and 36 Bullet.