wo oversized photographs grace the walls of Aabad Melwani’s office at Rickenbacker Marina. The first is a black-and-white aerial view showing the Marina in the early ‘80s. The second is as it is today, completely transformed to a thriving marine community.
“This is the Genesis,” said Melwani, referring to the first photo.
The area was a vacant water basin until 1977, when a developer obtained a long-term ground lease from the City of Miami. A few docks and a couple buildings went up on the property before the Melwani family took over in 1983.
The transition was not without challenges, and for a time, could have been an episode of the then-popular TV show Miami Vice.
Rom Melwani, Aabad’s father and an Indian born in Hong Kong, wanted to raise his son in the United States. Rom was what his son calls “a serial entrepreneur,” with ventures in real estate and other solid businesses. “My Dad was this naïve, kind, decent and honest-to-a-fault businessman from the Far East who did business by shaking hands with people and by looking them in the eyes, and if you crossed somebody or were caught doing something remotely shady, you would by ex-communicated,” explained Melwani. “Coming to Miami, he kind of landed at the wrong place, at least initially.”
In the 1980s, Miami was, among other vices, a haven for drug trafficking.
When the elder Melwani took over the marina, he was at first a passive investor with a partner, but soon caught wind of shady deals going down on his property. He fired his partner and took over actively managing the place.
“This was the Cocaine Cowboys era,” explained Aabad. “And my dad didn’t know what to do. I mean, shootouts on the docks, unsavory people everywhere, vessels unaccounted for, trying to track down accounts receivable, cash everywhere – it was a nightmare.”
Melwani tells his father’s story: “Dad called the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency], the Coast Guard and United States Customs and said, ‘Look. I am an honest, somewhat naïve businessman, and I wanted this to be another valuable property management deal because we live on Key Biscayne. I like this environment, but I don’t understand what’s going on here.’
“They all looked at one another like my dad was from another planet.
“An officer from one of the agencies took my dad aside and told him, ‘Mr. Melwani, you seem like a decent guy. If you really want us to come in here and clean house, you’re not going to have any boats left, because every single person here is into something shady. If it’s not drugs, it is money laundering or something tangentially related to some illicit trade.’ My dad said, ‘I don’t care. We’ll make do.’ By the time they were through, there were like 10 boats left.”
For years, the marina reported a loss, according to Melwani. Then one day the accountant called the elder Melwani and said, “Rom, I’ve got good news and bad news. The bad news is you have to pay taxes. The good news is you have to pay taxes.’”
It meant that the marina had had its first profitable year.
Rom, age 80, retired soon after his only son graduated from law school. He still comes to the office every day. “This is a family business. He is still the patriarch. I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Aabad.
Blue collar work ethic, white glove service
Aabad walked away from a successful law career to manage Rickenbacker Marina, “but I don’t feel like I’m giving anything up,” he said.
The marina has strong management in place: “It’s like working with family members toward success.”
The business has consistently offered “great” service to the marine community. “I think you need two things in a service business – you need a sense of urgency and a sense of humility. Without those things, you’re never going to be effective. That’s how I was brought up in this business.”
The marina reflects and continues to perfect its own unique brand of service. “A lot of marinas say they are full service, but that just means that they sell gas and will store your boat for you. We offer what I like to call a blue collar work ethic with white glove service. And we’re available to our clients – all 600 of them – 24/7,” Aabad said.
Melwani also freely gives his cell phone number to most everybody, and he’s gotten calls in the middle of the night. “Most times it’s nothing major, but people just want peace of mind. We can give them that. We’re there to help them,” he said. “That’s how I think we’ve been able to distinguish ourselves. We are not the shiniest, newest marina in Florida, but I will say without hesitation that we offer the best service, bar none.”
And as if to evidence that, the marina is completely full, has a lengthy waiting list; and has rate increases each year without complaint.
Full service means full service
Rickenbacker stores 300 boats in dry storage in elevated structures, moors 200 more at the docks and has 120 slots for jet skis. The marina sells fuel, offers detailing and has several commercial tenants, including Whiskey Joe’s, a specialty restaurant and bar, a marine electronics dealer and Freedom Boat Club, a national franchise.
Rickenbacker also offers a parts and service concierge service, serving east Coconut Grove, Brickell and Key Biscayne. “If you keep your boat behind your house, we will go to your home,” said Melwani. “We just saw there was an unmet demand for that service. While there are a lot of service providers, that attention to detail, that sense of urgency that we talked about earlier, in what sets us apart.”
After taking the blame for shoddy or late work courtesy of tenant mechanics who didn’t measure up to the high Rickenbacker Marina standards, the business now employs its own mechanical team. “We would get the blame for stuff we didn’t touch or even refer,” said Melwani. “After a while I realized we do everything but turn the wrench. We received none of the benefit and all of the detriment. Let’s just pick up the wrench.”
So they did, and now their customers benefit from their 100 percent accountability. “Now we can stand behind our work and remedy problems,” he said. “That’s been the latest step within Rickenbacker Marina.”
“I like to think we’ve created a little marina community ecosystem,” said Melwani.
A few people live on their boats in the marina, though it used to be more. Melwani suspects it’s the increase in powerboat traffic, especially on Biscayne Bay, that caused boat dwellers to move on. Aside from long-term tenants and third party vendors and providers, Rickenbacker employs 35 people.
In the late 2000s, the original 30-year lease with the City of Miami was up for termination. The only way to renew was to obtain a City charter provision which allows for an extension for 25 percent of the original years – in the case of Rickenbacker, 7.5 years.
“We need this extension because we’re going to invest X-number of dollars into capital improvements,” said Melwani. “What should have been something that was handled easily, wasn’t, and became highly politicized and costly and wore my sanity, but we actually got it done. I’m actually glad I went through that experience, because it gave me a glimpse of City government and land use laws and all these regulatory agencies. It was a great experience, better than any court room or any law firm could have given me.”
Focus on the future
Melwani hopes to renegotiate a development deal that makes sense to the City of Miami by the time the extension is up. “I think what should be here is a state-of-the-art marina with high-quality amenities,” he said.
His focus remains on sustainability, both ecologically and economically. “Everything [in Miami] gets so out of scale and trumped up. That’s not the real world,” he said. “You’re not adding any value; you’re not adding quality of life to the people who live here or work here.
“At the end of the day, I am a laissez faire capitalist, but at the same time, I care about the quality of life and I care about the legacy I’m going to leave behind for my kids and for other kids,” noted Melwani. “This is a very ecologically sensitive area. People easily forget that.”
Dredging at Rickenbacker has always been done responsibly, and recently, Melwani took measures to reintroduce mangroves to parts of the marina’s shoreline. “We’ve been here for 30 years and have an unblemished history with the City of Miami,” he emphasized. “We can have a first-class, marquee facility here that is ecofriendly, LEAD certified and energy efficient. If we had a longer lease term, we’d move completely toward solar. That is definitely our goal.”
Melwani also owns Atlas Marine Partners, a marina development and management company [Rickenbacker Marina is an Atlas-managed facility]. The company will soon open a 150-slip marina and boat yard and repair facility in Hurricane Cove on the Miami River.
They have a number of other projects in the works.
While Melwani acknowledges the presence of few other “really good” similar facilities, he sees an upward swing in the market. “I think we can enter there and not compete and still have a profitable business,” he said.
Rickenbacker Marina is located at 3301 Rickenbacker Causeway. For information on rates and availability, call 305-361-1900.