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Max Werkman with a steelhead. Werkman and his father, Tom, own Grand Haven-based Werkman Outfitters, which recently acquired fly fishing outfitter RiverQuest Charters. Max Werkman with a steelhead. Werkman and his father, Tom, own Grand Haven-based Werkman Outfitters, which recently acquired fly fishing outfitter RiverQuest Charters. COURTESY PHOTO

MINNOW SWALLOWS WHALE: Werkman Outfitters acquires longtime Muskegon River fly fishing guide service

BY Friday, February 03, 2023 11:27am

GRAND HAVEN — A growing family-owned fishing guide service on the Grand River is expanding its focus to the north with a deal to acquire RiverQuest Charters, a longtime fly fishing outfitter on the Muskegon River. 

In a proverbial case of the minnow swallowing a whale, the deal has the five-year-old Werkman Outfitters biting off the acquisition of a much larger operation that’s been in business for 27 years. 

Owned by the father-and-son team of Tom and Max Werkman, Grand Haven-based Werkman Outfitters has established a niche by guiding anglers on the Grand River’s relatively underappreciated urban fishery downstream of Grand Rapids. The Orvis-endorsed guide service specializes in all-tackle trips for warm water species such as smallmouth bass and northern pike in the summer and migratory trout and salmon in the fall and spring. 

As Werkman Outfitters looked to fill out its capacity over the last couple of years, the company had picked up overflow guide trips for RiverQuest for salmon and steelhead on the Muskegon River. 

When RiverQuest owner Steve Kuieck initially approached the Werkmans to gauge their interest in buying his book of business, they initially passed. But as the two companies worked together more often, Tom Werkman said he began to realize the growth potential in doing a deal.

“Max and I met with (Steve) over a beer and we hashed out a deal,” Tom Werkman told MiBiz. “It really made sense to buy it.”

Werkman leveraged his 30 years of experience as a commercial banker at the likes of The Bank of Holland and West Michigan Community Bank in performing due diligence on the RiverQuest transaction. 

Terms of the all-cash deal were not disclosed. Neither party used outside advisers on the transaction. 

“The biggest risk in the transaction is not executing after the acquisition, and that’s essentially on me,” said Werkman, who formerly served on the boards of the Macatawa Greenway, Outdoor Discovery Center and the Ottawa County Parks and Recreation Commission. Werkman also is a partner in Pere Marquette River Lodge, an Orvis-endorsed fly shop in the Baldwin area. 

The move into the Muskegon River watershed gives the new owners access to a prized fishery for migratory steelhead, in particular. The river is routinely one of the state’s most popular steelhead fisheries, which generates more than $3.3 million in economic activity tied to angler effort downstream of Croton Dam, according to data supplied to MiBiz by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

In selling RiverQuest, Kuieck plans to focus on growing a real estate business he started in 2018. He noted a “desire for a change after 27 years guiding” and the challenges of running two full-time businesses as factors that led him to sell RiverQuest. 

“Both Tom and Max had helped out as subcontractors for RiverQuest Charters and an eventual conversation led to their purchase of RiverQuest Charters,” Kuieck said in an email. “The timing of this was perfect for all of us. I look forward to their continued success and my years of ‘just fishing’ with family and friends.”

The RiverQuest brand will continue on and focus solely on fly fishing on the Muskegon River, said Werkman, noting his plans for outreach to the extensive client list that was included in the deal. That includes introductions to the new ownership as well as offers for destination fishing trips to Belize for bonefish, permit and tarpon in partnership with Orvis Adventures, and to Alaska for trout and salmon, where Max Werkman currently guides in the summer months. 

“We’re a guide service, not a destination travel company, but we’ll play on the fringes of that a little bit,” Tom Werkman said. 

While Max Werkman specializes in steelhead fishing and will pick up much of the Muskegon River capacity, RiverQuest plans to maintain relationships with the company’s existing  subcontractor guides and play to each of their specialties. For example, one guide specializes in dry fly fishing for trout. 

“I don’t have that skill set, I don’t want to know that skill set, but he has that,” Tom Werkman said. “We can start to build the company around guides’ skill sets.”

Werkman credits that focus on people and company culture to lessons he learned over the years working under Bank of Holland founder Rich Lievense, whom he considers a mentor and an “incredible leader.” 

“Rich is really the one who taught me how important culture is, how important people are, and that you always, to a fault, work with your people,” he said. “Once you identify talent, you continue to work with them. Once you have culture and you have people, the rest just follows. That’s the same model we’re building out with Werkman Outfitters.”

For Werkman Outfitters, the deal capped off a year of investment in which the company purchased four new river boats from Baldwin-based manufacturer Stealthcraft Boats LLC and upgraded to all high-end fishing equipment. 

The investments will be key over the next couple of years as the new owners seek to close a pricing differential between Werkman Outfitters and RiverQuest, which charges higher fees per trip, Werkman said. 

Looking to the future, the Werkmans currently have no plans to pursue a lodging business or retail shop along either the Grand River or Muskegon River watersheds, choosing instead to focus on “building our community” via marketing and social media, as well as just absorbing the deal for RiverQuest. 

“We were the smaller guy who acquired the larger guy,” Werkman said. “That’s going to take us some time to work through and build the relationships with the clients Steve had over the years and to really stay in front of them.” 

The move from a career in commercial banking to full-time fishing guide was made possible because of the “incredible relationship and partnership with my son,” Werkman added, noting that he’s helping his son develop his business skills to be able to take over more ownership in the operations. 

“We were texting back and forth about how things are good right now, but I said, ‘Trust me, bad times are coming. They just will.’ His response back to me was: ‘We’re in this together and we have each other’s back.’ And we do,” Werkman said. “We mutually respect each other, even given our age differences. That allows the business to work and it allows us to face any challenges that come.”

Read 4637 times Last modified on Friday, 03 February 2023 11:38