For more than 30 years, Gene Willen was the driving force and the unmistakably charismatic face behind the highly regarded West Coast custom boat company, Howard Custom Boats in Valencia, Calif. Fatefully, as of last Saturday, that is no longer the case. At 78 years old, Willen, who is survived by his wife, Pam (below), son, Mike, daughter, Lisa, and four grandchildren, died following an accident while cleaning his boat at Marina del Rey Marina in Southern California.
Thanks to his humor, his joy and his passion—for boats and people—Gene Willen, who has owned Howard Custom Boats since 1991, is going to be remembered for a very long time. Photo by Tom Leigh copyright Tommy Gun Images
“It is with a heavy heart that we inform you of Gene’s passing,” Pam and Mike Willen wrote in a statement from the company yesterday announcing the news as well as funeral arrangements that have been scheduled for Friday, Nov. 12 at 9 a.m. at Forest Lawn in Hollywood Hills. “We are heartbroken. We will miss Gene’s sense of humor and his uncanny ability to walk into a room and become immediate friends with whomever he came in contact with. Gene truly was one of a kind.”
“While this news is anguishing to us, we will persevere,” they continued. “Our team will continue to lead with precision and excellence as we have always done in the past. We are steadfast in our resolve to continue to be a leader in building high-quality performance boats.”
The “one of a kind” sentiment echoed largely throughout the powerboat community when it came to Gene Willen, who bought the company from Howard Brown in 1988. Repeat Howard customers Greg Bahr and Brad Macaulay ultimately became great friends with Pam and Gene Willen and were saddened to receive the news.
“Gene’s character, passion and fury will be missed,” said Bahr, who lives in Valencia and has owned three Howards, the most recent being the 2006 28 Bullet powered by a Mercury Racing 525EFI engine that he still uses regularly. “I’ve known him for more than 30 years and I learned a lot from him. I also learned that his strong opinion had nothing to with him being gruff, it was because he was so passionate. He was passionate about life and very passionate about boats. And more than anything he was passionate about his wife. Pam was his goddess—they’d been together for almost 60 years. I kind of thought he had this lone-wolf attitude about him, but that was hardly the case—Pam was his everything.
“Gene loved building boats and being in the boat business,” he continued. “I saw it firsthand when he’d go to the boat shows and interact with people at other companies, the folks who were supposed to be competitors. He honestly didn’t care if they were trying to sell the same type of boat he was. He really liked people, especially people who wanted to talk boats. He genuinely cared about building the best boats on the water—the most comfortable, luxurious, best-quality boat for the money. I met him way back in 1991 when I had my first Howard, a 19-foot jet boat. Eventually I ended up buying a 22-foot open bow from him and then in 2009 he sold me the 28 Bullet, which is such an incredible boat. I’m so confident in it that I’ve the 28 to Catalina Island three times.”
From an early age, Gene Willen loved being on the water. Photos courtesy Mike Willen copyright Howard Custom Boats.
Macaulay, a well-known Canadian performance boater who owned a 28 SCS that he treasured for many years, might have said it best when he called Gene Willen “a character and a half.”
“Gene and Pam have always been so cordial to me and my family—I’m going to miss him so much,” Macaulay said. “I really enjoyed our visits. I haven’t seen him in person in several years, but we talked on the phone regularly, probably every six to eight weeks just to check in. The thing about Gene is that he barked hard but it’s because he was so honest. If he didn’t like the way you were doing something he wasn’t afraid to let you know.
“I traded in my SCS 28 to DCB in 2011 when I built my first M35 Widebody and I’m not going to lie, I felt bad for leaving Howard and had a hard time telling Gene,” he continued. “But do you know what Gene told me? He said, ‘Brad you’re a better friend than a customer. Don’t worry about it.’ And I believe he really meant it.”
The slideshow above includes a variety of Howard Custom Boats images from regattas, deliveries, Powerboat magazine tests and the shop wall featuring several reviews of the company’s products.
Southern California performance boater John Caparell, who owned a 28 Sportdeck that is still to this day the fastest deckboat in Lake of the Ozarks Shootout history, said Willen was like a father figure on one hand and a brother on the other hand.
“I was heartbroken to hear of Gene’s passing—I’m going to miss our conversations,” said Caparell. “He gave me a lot of advice over the years and because of his honesty and sense of humor, we developed a life-lasting friendship. His memory and laugh will always be eternal.
“Gene is going to be remembered as someone who had a significant impact on this industry,” he added. “The Howard product—from performance on the water to quality of craftsmanship—is remarkable. One of Gene’s cornerstones that he instilled in everyone at the shop was that a boat didn’t leave the factory unless it was perfect from bow to stern. He made sure everything was exactly the way the customer wanted it. And nothing in the boats were unnecessary, everything was very well thought out.”
After expressing how gratified he felt when Gene Willen told him how proud he was of him for turning a dream into reality when he unveiled the first Doug Wright 32 Poker Run Edition at the 2012 Desert Storm Poker Run in Lake Havasu City, Ariz., Caparell said that Gene Willen just knew how to sell boats, which he attributed to the passion the owner had for his brand and boats in general.
“They don’t make men like Gene Willen anymore,” Caparell said. “We all will miss his presence.”
Above is 20-something-year-old Mike Willen with his father at a boat show and below is baby Mike in the seat of his father’s raceboat.
For a brief moment earlier this week, Mike Willen said he was unsure how he could continue—he’s not a front-office guy; he’s a craftsman in pretty much every side of the build process and has never wanted to manage the company or sell boats. Although he was always trying to outsell his dad, which rarely happened, at the annual Los Angeles Boat Show.
But all it took was a few hours in his father’s upstairs office on Monday—and the reassurance from his supportive wife, Jackie, and his mother—and he knew he’d be up to the task and would continue to push forward in building the best boats possible in Gene Willen’s honor.
“I’m glad that I got to work together with my dad every day,” said Mike Willen, who admitted that he took that part of his job for granted. “We didn’t have much of a relationship outside of work and boating, but that’s because we spent so much time together at work. In the beginning and up until about 10 years ago when we both started mellowing out, we butted heads from time to time. It was well known that things could get heated between us. His stubbornness rubbed off on me and it was for that reason that neither of us liked to back down.
“I know my dad loved me and I’m pretty sure he knew I loved him, but I never realized how much we really needed one another,” he continued. “We were a good fit—him handling the sales and me handling the builds. He’d take care all of the customer relations up until the build was about to start, and I’d take it from there. We weren’t the type to say I love you, but we had mutual respect for each other and I’m sure going to miss him. Without his vision, I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
Mike Willen said his father, who was a successful liquor salesman who enjoyed racing flat-bottom boats before he got into the boat business, owned more than 30 different boats in his lifetime.
“His first boat was a 16-foot Glaspar that his sister had to sign for it because he was not old enough to buy or register it,” Mike Willen said with a laugh. “When he was 18, he took it to the Santa Monica Pier to have it launched off the end of the pier. He enjoyed buying boats, fixing them up and selling them, which is why he had so many. Some he really liked and some he later laughed about, wondering why he ever owned a piece of junk boat like that.
“My dad was honest, which is why he was a great salesman,” he added. “He wasn’t the sleazy car salesman type, he believed in what he was selling. He didn’t care who you were or what you did for a living, he was about telling it like it is. Some people were taken aback by that, and looked at other boats because of it. But for those customers who did end up buying a boat and getting to know him, they realized how big of a heart he had. He never screwed anyone over or looked to make the quick buck.”
Check out a couple of images from Gene Willen’s racing days as well as a few of his ocean boats, a hobby that led to buying and selling more than 30 boats in his lifetime.
With his mom planning to stay involved as owner of the company, Mike Willen said he addressed the team at Howard Custom Boats earlier this week and also sent emails to customers with boats on order that production will move forward as planned. And that’s a good thing considering new Howard builds are sold out through 2022 and most of 2023.
The most challenging part for Mike Willen is going to be filling the shoes of Gene Willen, the fun-loving, smooth-talking, vodka tonic-drinking, former body builder who used to work out at Muscle Beach at Venice with the likes of Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger. (That’s him showing off his bodybuilding picture to Cherilyn Noack of Teague Custom Marine at right.)
“My dad just loved talking—he loved conversation and he was definitely the voice of the company,” Mike Willen said. “He would crack me up walking around here, showing the customers around the shop and sharing stories. Then he’d walk them out to their cars and not let them leave for another 30 minutes to an hour. And not because he was trying to sell them anything—just because he loved talking to people. I’m sure going to miss those entertaining conversations around here.”
Teague Custom Marine owner Bob Teague, who shared a wall of his service, engine-building and parts sales facility in Valencia with Howard Custom Boats for almost two decades, might have known Gene Willen—and his award-winning boat line—better than anyone besides Mike Willen. Not only does Teague Custom Marine supply engines for the company’s 25-foot and 28-foot Bullet V-bottoms or its 26- and 28-foot sport cats and deckboats, Teague also tested dozens of its boats as the chief test driver for Powerboat magazine for three decades.
“Gene and I had a mutual respect for each other—he was my next-door neighbor from 1994 to I think 2010 or 2011,” Teague said. “Anyway, we butted heads at times; he could be kind of a cantankerous guy, but he was a friend and I could always shoot straight with him. He was best known for the passion for the product and being a perfectionist. Howard Custom Boats has always built an extremely nice boat and the company remains focused on doing what it does best.
“Mike’s going to have to take the reins now, I would assume, and I think it will be good for him—I’ve seen him grow up a lot over the years,” he continued. “He knows more about the boats than anyone else, and is probably more of a perfectionist than Gene, so the company is in good hands there. And, from a business standpoint, I know they have a lot of orders so it’s not a doom and gloom situation.”
DCB Performance Boats president Jeff Johnston, who got to know Gene Willen working in advertising sales for Powerboat from 2002 to 2008, was saddened to hear the news on his drive from the company’s regatta last weekend in Lake Havasu City.
“I met Gene 20 years and he was always respectful to me and I was always respectful to him,” Johnston said. “I’ve admired the Howard Custom Boats product for a long time. I got to see it firsthand as a Powerboat test team member when the company continued to win awards year after year. To be honest, he’s an icon in the industry. Not just for his boats but for his personality.”
Rest in peace Gene Willen.