Shepler's Ferry on Mackinac Island sells to billionaire after 77 years

·10 min read

Shepler's Ferry, which has shuttled millions of visitors to storied Mackinac Island since the 1940s, has sold.

Chris Shepler, whose parents raised their children in a blue and white rusted trailer near the end of a dock in Mackinaw City, informed employees, including some who have worked at the 77-year-old company for decades, at 8 a.m. Friday. The deal was scheduled to close immediately after the staff meeting for an undisclosed amount.

"They're keeping everything the same, including the name. Nothing really is going to change from the guest perspective," Shepler told the Free Press. "I'm guaranteed three years to work for the company in my current role as president. There are options to stay on, but when I do walk out the door, it's my job to make it like I was never there. Seamless."

Shepler, 59, of Harbor Springs, said he looks forward to one day seeing his current employees eventually run the company. It's all part of the sale, keeping the team in place because the new buyer is so impressed with how operations are run.

"I don't have any kids. My brother has two boys but they're 12 and 10. It would have been a shame for us to not discuss it and just keep working. Then, all of a sudden, wake up one morning and say, 'I'm ready to retire and what are we going to do?' I think that's a recipe for failure," he said.

Left to right, Chris Shepler, his father William "Bill" Shepler, sister Patty Fuhrman and brother Billy Shepler. Shepler's Ferry was started by William Shepler's father in the 1940s.
Left to right, Chris Shepler, his father William "Bill" Shepler, sister Patty Fuhrman and brother Billy Shepler. Shepler's Ferry was started by William Shepler's father in the 1940s.

Chris Shepler, his brother Billy Shepler, vice president of vessel operations, and their sister Patty Fuhrman made the decision unanimously. Their parents, William and Suzanne, both in their late 80s now, supported the decision to sell their family business after building it over three generations.

77 years later

William Henry "Cap" Shepler started the ferry service 77 years ago with a six-passenger wood runabout boat. His grandson, Chris, has run the business for a decade.

Chris Shepler's father, William "Bill" Richard Shepler, still visits the docks every year.

"This wasn't about money for the Shepler family but about the right fit," Chris Shepler said. "Our family left money on the table to get the right fit."

Last spring, the family members started talking about their legacy. They decided to hire a mergers and acquisitions company, Greenwich Capital Group in Birmingham.

Shepler's Ferry leaving Mackinac island in Lake Huron on July 15, 2011.
Shepler's Ferry leaving Mackinac island in Lake Huron on July 15, 2011.

Initially, there were 40 buyers interested in Shepler's Ferry. The whole experience involved nondisclosure agreements to keep everything confidential. A first review narrowed the list down to 20 and they were invited to submit their offers.

The next round slashed the number of finalists to four.

'Off-the-charts busy'

Shepler's has seen steady growth over the past five years, except for 2020.

Its seven ferries shuttle about 650,000 passengers between April and November to Mackinac Island — from Mackinaw City and St. Ignace through the Straits of Mackinac.

The newest ferry, launched in 2020, cost $5 million. It carries 210 passengers.

Annual income is in the tens of millions, growing steadily over the past five years, said Chris Shepler.

A boat for the Shepler's Ferry line, seen here in 2021, transports visitors from Mackinac Island to St. Ignace and Mackinaw City.
A boat for the Shepler's Ferry line, seen here in 2021, transports visitors from Mackinac Island to St. Ignace and Mackinaw City.

Business surged in 2021 despite COVID-19 restrictions.

"It was a complete record year for us, just off-the-charts busy," Chris Shepler said.

Miss Margy was an early Shepler's Ferry built in the winter of 1950. It was a 30-foot cabin cruiser that carried 24 passengers to and from Mackinac Island and it was named after Capt. William H. Shepler's wife, Margaret.
Miss Margy was an early Shepler's Ferry built in the winter of 1950. It was a 30-foot cabin cruiser that carried 24 passengers to and from Mackinac Island and it was named after Capt. William H. Shepler's wife, Margaret.

Hotels, restaurants and shop owners on Mackinac saw record sales in 2021 as a respite from the pandemic. The iconic island is known worldwide for its horse-and-buggy carriages, bicycles, hiking — and no vehicles.

The other passenger ferry service to Mackinac Island is Star Line.

But Shepler's Ferry is the one most familiar to old Michigan families.

The ferry service started with just one boat and big dreams.

It's a multimillion-dollar operation with 190 employees today.

Chris Shepler, left, a third generation owner of Shepler's Ferry that carries tourists to Mackinac Island, is standing with Moshell Nelson, the dock lead on the Mackinac Island dock, on Oct. 14, 2021.
Chris Shepler, left, a third generation owner of Shepler's Ferry that carries tourists to Mackinac Island, is standing with Moshell Nelson, the dock lead on the Mackinac Island dock, on Oct. 14, 2021.

Shepler's is known as a sponsor of the Bayview Mackinac Race, which attracts more than 1,000 sailors from around the world every July. And that support will continue with the new owners, Chris Shepler said.

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The buyer

The buyer is David Hoffmann, 69, of Naples, Florida, who confirmed to the Free Press that he is, indeed, a "self-made" billionaire. He told of making early morning deliveries door-to-door with his milkman father in tiny Washington, Missouri.

Hoffmann didn't make the highest offer for Shepler's but he runs the Hoffmann Family of Companies with his wife, Jerri, and sons Geoff and Greg, and that appealed to the Shepler family.

The Hoffmann family runs a multibillion-dollar operation with a presence in 27 different countries, including Europe, China, Latin America and South America, Hoffmann told the Free Press. He is the biggest real estate owner in Naples, Florida, Hoffmann confirmed. His family has renovated downtown Naples, Winnetka, Illinois, on the north shore of Chicago, and Avon, Colorado, the base of Beaver Creek Ski Mountain, Hoffmann said. And their vineyard investments in Augusta, Missouri, has generated attention.

Chris Shepler described Hoffmann as warm, friendly and kind.

"He's just so nice. He's like a grandpa," Chris Shepler said. "And he just bought a company that makes all the face masks for all the football helmets, from pee wee to the NFL. He owns an oil company in Los Angeles. He owns the Princess of Naples Cruises and wineries in Augusta, Missouri. I could go on and on."

Boats and more boats

The family also runs tour boat companies around the U.S. that offer daily public cruises and private events, including weddings. So they see a natural fit with Shepler's, plus Mackinac is beautiful, Hoffmann said.

"Chris said it best, 'It's business as usual,' " Hoffmann said.

"We're a family business so we don't have shareholders or quarterly reports or quarterly financials to report to Wall Street," he said. "We're very much about maintaining the culture of Mackinac Island and that's what we bought into. We don't want to see that change."

Shepler's customers from Naples even talk about their loyalty, Hoffmann said.

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"The first thing we look at when we buy a company is the people," he said. "Chris is going to stay on. I’m going to talk him into staying on for a long time. We’re thrilled with the management of the company and all the employees. We really don’t want anything to change. It'll be a great company for many years to come, hopefully for another 75 years."

The cost of the purchase? "It wasn't cheap, I can tell you that," Hoffmann said laughing.

Jerri and David Hoffmann have purchased Shepler's Ferry service to Mackinac Island, the Shepler family announced Friday, March 18, 2022. The couple is seen here in September 2019 at The French, a restaurant in Naples, Fla., where they live.
Jerri and David Hoffmann have purchased Shepler's Ferry service to Mackinac Island, the Shepler family announced Friday, March 18, 2022. The couple is seen here in September 2019 at The French, a restaurant in Naples, Fla., where they live.

Hoffmann, who grew up working the delivery route with his father, still begins his days at 3:30 or 4 a.m. They had no hot running water until his sophomore year in high school. Hoffmann married his high school sweetheart. And they've been married 50 years now and have 12 grandchildren.

He described himself as a self-made man who founded DHR International based in Chicago, one of the world's largest independently-owned executive search firms that specializes in C-suite placements and athletic matches.

For example, Michigan State University paid DHR to recruit football coach Mel Tucker. .

The company has had a presence in Birmingham, Michigan, for years.

So this isn't Hoffmann's first big investment in Michigan.

Nobody knew

When Hoffmann and his executive team flew their private jet into Pellston Regional Airport of Emmet County, Chris Shepler met them in a rented Lincoln Navigator and drove to the ferry dock in Mackinaw City. He parked and lagged behind, unseen by his staff on the dock as Hoffmann and his team toured on their own with no advance warning.

Nobody knew who the billionaire was, or why they were there, Chris Shepler said. But the ferry service team immediately greeted them, offered to help them and just acted like, well, the Shepler crew that any passenger would recognize.

Shepler's Ferry entrance in Mackinaw City for visitors headed to Mackinac Island.
Shepler's Ferry entrance in Mackinaw City for visitors headed to Mackinac Island.

Hoffmann told Chris Shepler right then he wanted to buy the company, and it would be the first company that wouldn't require a huge investment — because it was run well, Chris Shepler told the Free Press.

Hoffmann said he has zero interest in replacing current employees at any level and micromanagement is out of the question.

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"I promise you we want to win the hearts and minds of all the people who have been using Shepler's, and keep it intact," he said. "We want to maintain the status quo. We like to take things that are really good and make them a little better."

In recent years, Mackinac Island has seen continued interest from outside investors.

The Musser family, which owned the Grand Hotel, a Victorian-era hotel since the 1930s, sold it in 2019 to a private equity firm called KSL Capital Partners. That company purchased three island hotels and a restaurant in January.

A private equity firm brings a different feel, visitors have told the Free Press.

That is precisely what Hoffmann wants to avoid. He bought the charm.

"We’re pretty hands off," Hoffmann said. "It was very important that Chris and team came along in the transaction. When they agreed to do it, we were all in. If he needs me there, we’re there. We won’t be breathing down his neck."

Sheer relief

When Tim Hygh, executive director of Mackinac Island Tourism, heard of the sale, he first gasped. Then he expressed gratitude for the buyer's philosophy.

"That is such a relief to hear," he said. "I cannot say enough from my heart about the Shepler family. I’ve only been around 13 years but the way they go about their operations — what they had to go through during COVID and made sure people had to mask themselves, they handled it with grace."

Hygh paused.

"Aw, man. I can't say enough about them," he said. "They were not in it just for the short term but in it to win for the long term. ... It's just a great relief to know the family will be involved and the operation will continue as is."

Gone fishing

One day down the road, Chris Shepler plans to spend his days on the ocean.

"Deep sea fishing, mahi-mahi and swordfish," he said, talking about what retirement might look like years from now. "I've never fished a day in my life."

Chris Shepler aboard the motor vessel Wyandot on Mackinac Island, May 12, 2018.
Chris Shepler aboard the motor vessel Wyandot on Mackinac Island, May 12, 2018.

His wife, Mikie, won't change her routine. She jumps her Dutch Warmblood horse named Bling at the Wellington Equestrian Center in Florida in the winter and the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival Traverse City in the summer.

"We have a 1-ton truck and trailer, a big GMC diesel Denali," Shepler said. "We'll continue going back and forth."

And Mikie might even get another horse.

"I always said I would work until I was 70 because I love what I do," Chris Shepler said. "This is the right time, the right company and the right guy to carry on our legacy for future generations of guests and our cast."

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Contact Phoebe Wall Howard: at 313-618-1034 or phoward@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @phoebesaid.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Shepler's Ferry on Mackinac Island sold to Hoffman Family of Companies