Rod Johnstone ‘54 had the design knowledge. Bob Johnstone ‘52 had the marketing magic.
Together the brothers built a sailboat company, J/Boats, in 1977 that would eventually land them in the International Sailing Hall of Fame.
Rod started construction of “Ragtime” in his Stonington garage in 1974. The finished boat, launched in 1976, was the model for a 24-foot sailboat, the J/24, an offshore keelboat.
Bob knew there was a market for this type of sailboat. At the time he was vice president of marketing for AMF Alcort, which produced the Sunfish, at less than 14 feet much smaller than what he and his brother envisioned.
Bob said he conducted a consumer survey “trying to convince AMF Alcort to leverage their Sunfish brand franchise by introducing a fast, planing 23-foot sailboat that the Boomer generation could sail for a day beyond the local harbor with their family in street clothes after having gotten excited about the sport when learning on Sunfish, Hobie Cats, Lasers and Snarks. That market was limited geographically and seasonally by having to sail in bathing suits, when more than 50 percent of the U.S. population was near cold water.”
AMF Alcort didn’t buy in, so J/Boats was started, and the J/24 took off with major sales. Bob and Rod expected the company to sell 250 in the first year, but they sold 750. Since the company’s inception, close to 116,000 J/Boats in assorted sizes have been built. Some sailboats are up to 45 feet long. The J/24 model accounts for more than one-third of the total.
“I did not envision having this success in sailboats with my brother until February 1977 when Bob called and asked if I wanted him as a partner in J/Boats to sell the J/24, the first of which were coming off the production line,” Rod said by email. “I did not hesitate to say yes. Bob’s incredible talent as a salesman and marketing genius gave me the incentive to stay glued to designing and monitoring the building of new boats for many years.”
In 2016 Bob and Rod were inducted into the National Sailing Hall of Fame in Annapolis, Md. That year the Princeton graduates also received the America and the Sea Award, which “recognizes an individual or organization whose contributions to the sea best exemplify the American spirit and character” and is given by Mystic (Conn.) Seaport Museum.
The current management at J/Boats includes Rod’s sons Jeffrey Johnstone ‘77, president since 1988; and Alan Johnstone ‘81, vice president since 1988 and Chief Designer since 2012.
Rod said the idea for “Ragtime” had been germinating for years, but he started building it in 1974. His wife, Lucia loved sailing, but they had seven children between the ages of 15 and 8 and they needed a boat that could accommodate the whole family.
“Not having the financial resources to have my design built professionally, I built the boat myself with help and encouragement from Lucia and our children. Sailing became a family thing. It still is. Our team at the 2023 Block Island Race Week included Jeffrey, Alan, daughter Pam, granddaughter Katie, and Lucia. We won our 14-boat division for the week in our 32-foot J/99 sloop named ‘Upbeat.’”
Bob’s book, Maverick Marketer, tells his story, which goes beyond the creation of J/Boats in 1977 and MJM Yachts in 2002. Bob has sailed virtually all his life, but he was 40 by the time he went to work for AMF Alcort. By then he was a marketing guru, having worked many years for Quaker Oats and was named the company’s Marketing Man of the Year in the late 1960s.
“The act of sailing, of being one with the wind, the wave, and the boat is a joy that doesn’t exist on a powerboat, which is more like an automobile … a conveyance to get from one place to the next,” Bob said when asked the feeling a sailboat gives that a motorboat does not.
When Bob was working at AMF Alcort, he wrote about the joy of sailing in a brochure when trying to increase sales of Sunfish.
“There’s a timelessness and total involvement about sailing, which takes you away from city streets, exhaust, concrete modular structures, world affairs, and business conflicts. Today’s pressures and sense of urgency seem to evaporate when mixed by a sail in the wind,” is a small segment of what Bob wrote.
His ending: “The mystique of sailing, that sense of freedom, its world of dreams, is somehow built into every sailboat. Maybe that’s why owning a sailboat is like owning 75 percent of the earth — the part covered by water is yours.”
In 2002 Bob founded MJM Yachts. As he says on the company’s website, “We got older, so our boats had to reverse roles. I can enjoy a day sail on the latest J/, but quality cruising time is on a motorboat.” The company is named after his wife; MJM stands for Mary Johnstone’s Motorboat.
“Listen to Yourself”
Bob still remembers choosing Loomis and how that had an impact on his life.
“My choice was very personal and that surprised my mother,” Bob says. “We visited Choate on a nice day. It was very impressive and offered a wide variety of programs, being larger than Loomis. We followed with a visit to Loomis on a rainy, miserable day. I remember walking down Founders Hall past the mailboxes, and even the smell of the place. It was that moment when I declared, ‘I want to go here.’ The lesson there was, ‘Listen to yourself, your thoughts.’ That applies to entrepreneurial thinking.”
Bob listened to himself, and he and his brother the sailboat world was changed forever.
Sailing Magazine, in 2010 on its 40th anniversary, named the top 40 most influential people in sailing history. Bob and Rod Johnstone are on the list. The magazine said the “J/24 in particular is widely credited with sparking the rebirth of one-design keelboat racing.”
Also on the list is Dennis Conner, a four-time winner of the America’s Cup. His endorsement on Johnstone’s book, Maverick Marketer, reads: “Bob Johnstone is one of the best marketing guys to ever live. Certainly, number one in sailing — by far.”
When Bob was asked about the success of J/Boats, he said he had come up with 24 factors, detailed further in the book, “other than just a good fast boat.”
“When you are trying to build a business, you are looking into every possible angle on how to move forward,” Bob said. “That path to success is different in every business.”
For J/Boats, high on the list was an "in-house venture capitalist.” That was his wife, Mary, who was managing Naturescapes, which created large photomurals of nature scenes.
Naturescapes was Bob’s first entrepreneurial venture after leaving Quaker Oats in 1973. Two years later in 1975, Mary left her job at Crate & Barrel to take over running Naturescapes so that Bob could accept the job at AMF Alcort.
“Mary managed Naturescapes so well that by February 1977, I could afford to leave my job at AMF Alcort to start up J/Boats, Inc., and underwrite the first nine months of marketing and operations, until Rod and I could pay ourselves a salary,” Bob says.
No. 1 on the list of what made J/Boats so successful, Bob writes in the book, was “our personal passion and immersion in the sport.”
Sailing was in the family blood.
“When I was a kid I had great success racing sailboats, as did Bob, although we never sailed together back then,” Rod said. “The three-year age difference put us in different orbits in most of our teen and pre-teen activities, including sailing. Our first time racing together was at the Soling World Championship at Oyster Bay, Long Island, in 1971, when I crewed for Bob along with his wife, Mary. Very strenuous but great fun.”
As a senior in the spring of 1954, Rod remembers skippering the Loomis entry to victory in the New England Prep School Sailing Championships at Brown University.
“Loomis taught me how to think critically, teamwork, and care for people around me,” Rod said. “True success has many fathers and mothers. Only failure is an orphan. Loomis gets high marks for helping me understand that.”