A St. Mary Parish family business with just a dozen employees is the state’s largest airboat manufacturer — and has somehow become a celebrity magnet.
By Wynce Nolley
Mark Robicheaux, owner and operator of Mark’s Airboats in Franklin, tries to tell me about his beloved airboats and the exploits he’s had in selling them over the fury of the Gulf-infused winds thrashing at our faces as we stand on the bow of a massive 40-foot, four-engine airboat of his own creation.
“Especially in South Louisiana, you have a lot of wetlands, water, the shallow water marshes and stuff like that,” says Robicheaux. “It’s amazing where you can go with them. It’s not a gimmick; they truly are necessary in this area.”
Mark’s 25-year-old small business may only employ 12 people, but it stocks the largest quantity of airboat parts in the state. And while producing on average between 25 and 30 single-engine airboats every year, his operation is without a doubt the Pelican State’s biggest airboat company.
Brent Robicheaux, 29, Mark’s son and vice president, mentions that among their major clients are survey companies that mark property lines in the marsh.
“It’s surprising to me how lucrative some of the businesses that use our airboats can be,” he bellows, trying to compete with the near-deafening roars of an airboat that has just started a few feet behind him. “But they manage to pay for them pretty quickly.”
Brent’s surprise isn’t unfounded, as a typical single-engine can go from $45,000-60,000 each, and that’s not including the maintenance, fueling and transportation costs.
While new boats are the biggest part of their business, airboat parts and repairs come in at a close second. In fact, airboat parts can generate about $100,000 in revenues for the company monthly. Just last year, the company experienced a boom from orders generated by the infamous BP Oil Spill, with the company’s best months each bringing in between $120,000-130,000 worth of parts.
But if you’re a prospective buyer, don’t expect to walk away with a shiny, new airboat after a casual stroll through Mark’s Airboats’ transparent double doors, as the general wait for new boat orders is between 10 and 16 weeks.
According to Brent, customers usually won’t wait beyond 16 weeks for a boat and will go elsewhere to find one. But despite this, his company has never needed to do any advertising whatsoever.
“We’ve never needed to. We’ve always survived by word of mouth,” says Brent. “The people who have come in here to buy our boats — I’d say about 80 percent, maybe even 90 percent — already know who we are and already know they want our boats. These are people who won’t use anything but our boats. We’ve developed a really, really solid reputation over the years, and we have a lot of very loyal clients.”
One such client is Martin Beldin, owner of Amphibious Marine, whose relationship with Robicheaux goes back to when the two worked together for Robicheaux’s father more than 30 years ago. Beldin’s company does everything from construction and general oil field work to fixing downed power lines in the treacherous swamps, marshes and wetlands of South Louisiana.
“Mark’s one of the best,” Beldin says. “He does some of the best work that I’ve ever seen; there’s no comparison to anything he builds. He builds the best boats that I’ve ever worked [with]. And [he’s] one of the most honest fellas I ever did meet.”
While Robicheaux’s skills with airboats are unmatched, it is his Southern charm that keeps friends and customers coming back. That charisma helped him to win over celebrities like Kenny Loggins, Edwin McCain and former Gov. Mike Foster, and his airboats have even been featured on the hit TV shows Mythbusters, Modern Marvels, the UK’s Scrapheap Challenge and a French documentary that aired on France 3.
The History Channel’s Modern Marvels spent time with Robicheaux at the end of last year and filmed the manufacturing and fabrication process at Mark’s Airboats and got footage of one of Mark’s Airboats being put to work by a local electrical company on power line repairs near Leeville. According to Brent, the crew had been filming all over South Louisiana for the episode, titled “Swamp Tech,” a third of which was devoted to airboating.
The Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters also visited Mark’s Airboats to borrow an airboat for an episode titled “Blow Your Own Sail,” which aired on May 11.
Robicheaux says he has also journeyed across the pond to lend his knowledge of airboats as an expert judge for yet another show called Scrapheap Challenge, England’s equivalent to Junkyard Wars.
“I was the so-called ‘expert judge.’ It was quite fun, a pretty neat experience. I met some really neat people over there,” he says.
Aside from airboats, Robicheaux has an affinity for music and built a music room in his backyard filled with an assortment of his favorite music, including his guitar collection — the crown jewel being a Kenny Loggins signature series guitar, which is how he was able to meet the “King of the Movie Soundtrack” himself.
When Robicheaux and his wife saw Loggins live at Cypress Bayou Casino in 2007, he made his way backstage to meet the legend and nab an autograph for his signature guitar. Loggins enthusiastically accepted Robicheaux’s business card and invitation for an airboat ride, and the two soon became good friends.
Robicheaux has also had the privilege of meeting and befriending musician Edwin McCain over yet another airboat ride. In fact, Robicheaux’s wife Mary surprised him on his 50th birthday by having McCain and his band play in their music room.
One of Robicheaux’s satisfied customers also happens to be former Gov. Mike Foster. Several photos of the 15-foot airboat Foster purchased can still be seen on Robicheaux’s website, marksairboats.com.
“We have some connections with some really neat people out there,” says Robicheaux.
You could say airboating runs in Robicheaux’s blood: he learned everything he knows about them while working for his father’s airboat renting company, Robicheaux Airboats, 25 years ago.
“We weren’t really building a whole lot of boats except for our own boats for the rental company,” he explains. “I was out running boats. I would repair them, build what we needed, all that type of stuff. But the second we were showing the operators, I was out on a quarter boat no telling where along the coast running airboats. And actually I just didn’t want to do it anymore. Brent and Katie were born and I was a family man, am a family man, and I wanted to be home. So, I finally just had to break away from them, not that I wanted to go into business, even though it really wasn’t in the exact same business because I’ve never really rented out. I got back to the building, manufacturing and repairing.”
Robicheaux started out small, working out of his backyard and doing everything from tearing hinges apart to applying the Teflon bottoms to the boats with his wife helping him out on the weekends. Eventually, Robicheaux realized he could no longer operate his business from his backyard after his wife became pregnant with their two twin girls, Emily and Caroline. That’s when he built a small shop in the middle of Franklin.
“And then it just grew,” he says. “Everything was hand-made at that time, the stands, the cages, everything.”
One of Robicheaux’s longtime customers who contributed to the growth is Stephen Sagrera with Vermilion Gator Farm, a Vermilion Parish commercial alligator farm that’s been in business since 1983.
“People recommended some outfits out of Florida, but we decided to run over to Franklin to see what Mark had and at that time he had kind of a small operation,” recalls Sagrera. “We liked his boats and he was a real nice guy. We basically quit searching after that one meeting we had with him and that’s when we bought our first airboat in 1991.
“He’s very personal, you can hold a 20-minute conversation with him,” Sagrera adds. “He’s not rushing you in and out if you call him or you go by — very quick service, very honest and up front. He’s kind of a family business, which my business has in common with him. We’ve never looked elsewhere.”
One time of the year that Robicheaux’s company sees a high volume of demand is hurricane season. Robicheaux says during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath he was receiving so many requests for airboats that he had no choice except to stay put and help by repairing and processing as many of the boats being requested for hurricane relief.
“The repairs were ridiculous at that time,” he says. “Getting people out where they could help over there as well as the boats that were getting torn up and coming in and needing repairs so they could go back out. So, we basically got bombarded on the service end keeping boats running.”
After Hurricane Rita, when much of Franklin was flooded after the Franklin Canal was overrun, he boarded an airboat to rescue a friend who had become trapped in his then-evacuated home trying to save his family’s personal effects.
“It was funny because, as I was riding in, there was some guy trying to ride this bike out,” recalls Robicheaux. “So, I put him and his bike in the boat and I go and get this guy and his [brick] house was in about a foot and a half to two feet of water — it was just ruined.”
Word quickly spread that Robicheaux was ferrying people back and forth, so he spent the day helping people salvage items from homes that had not been completely flooded.
But airboats are in demand for more than just their efficacy during hurricane relief. According to Robicheaux, the necessity for airboats is greater than it was around 20 years ago, and they are used for everything along the coast, not only because of their ability to access nearly unreachable areas along the coast and in the swamps, marshes and wetlands of Louisiana, but because they don’t leave an environmental footprint.
It is this demand that has fueled his newest project — the Shallow-Water Spider Airboat — which Robicheaux came up with in secret about seven years ago when he would come into his shop on Sunday nights, build the pieces and wrap them up in tarp to take home with him.
“I just thought it’d be cool to have something like that,” he reveals. “I wanted one so I started working on it.”
The Spiders are smaller airboats with a single 40-horsepower Kohler engine driven like a regular outboard. Robicheaux says the idea behind this type of airboat was to first have something simple, easy and fun to drive that is low maintenance, requires low fuel and is relatively inexpensive to obtain unlike the traditional airboats. The second reason was to reach a section of the market that his company has barely touched on, the recreational market.
Robicheaux says that while Florida has the recreational airboat market cornered along the Gulf Coast, he hopes to resurrect it here in Louisiana with these new streamlined airboats.
“A lot of the boats that we build are commercial boats,” Brent explains. “We’ve built recreational boats; we still build recreational boats. Louisiana is mostly business. I’d say probably more than 75 percent of our new boat builds are commercial. We have a wide variety of commercial builds. We do oil field, coastal restoration and monitoring, alligator farming. We’ve got a lot of industries we touch on. A lot of different government organizations use them for either wildlife management or wildlife enforcement.”
Mark’s Airboats has also been selling swamp sentries to the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, helping them patrol coastal Louisiana for several years.
Aside from the quality Mark’s Airboats is known for, one other component that keeps customers coming back to Franklin’s big boat shop is its appeal that the company has remained in the Robicheaux family.
“Yeah, I guess you could say that because my dad did it, then I did it with him a little while, then he sold out and now Brent’s in it with me and one of my daughters, Caroline, is in school but still works here the days she’s not in school,” he says. “In fact all of them, Emily and Caroline and Katie, which are my three daughters, and my wife Mary have all worked in it from time to time helping out with the business and still from time to time will come in whenever we need them.”