Five years ago, Michael Helm looked around from his home on the shores of Richmond Lake and noticed a majority of his neighbors used the same style of boat and fishing docks and, for the most part, drove the same brand of pontoon.
“I was living on the lake and started looking for a different product that someone didn’t offer,” he said. “So I called the Floe International rep from Minnesota, and he said nobody was selling their docks in the area and that the nearest dealer was down east of Brookings. He then asked me if I wanted to be a dealer, and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a storage unit.'”
And that’s how Helm Marine, which is now a full-service marine dealer, got its start.
Prior to starting his marine business, Helm worked for more than two decades as a farm manager.
“I started working on the farm when I was 16, and on my 39th birthday I put in a one-year letter of resignation and told my boss that on my 40th birthday I was going into the marine business full time,” Helm said. “At the time, I knew if I didn’t do it now I was never going to do it.”
Helm’s business took off faster than he expected, so he had to expand right away.
“We went from using one storage unit to two storage units, and then we bought the whole storage facility,” he said. “We gutted it, insulated it and put the showroom windows in along with two service bays, and now it’s a beautiful 10,000-square-foot facility. We’re even looking at moving to a (U.S.) Highway 12 location.”
In addition to dock sales, Helm Marine also offered an installation and removal service with which Helm and his staff would help lakefront property owners put their docks and boat lifts into the water each spring, as well as take them out before the ice arrived each fall.
“We now have a barge service we call The Big Kanu that uses hydraulics to lift docks and boat lifts in and out of the water and keep them out of harm’s way off the ice,” he said. “That’s a valuable part of our business that really jumpstarted everything.”
According to Helm, the barge is the same width as a pontoon, but is more than 40 feet long. It has a center-pivot hydraulic bed with 20-foot extendable forks that can pick up and move dock sections and boat lifts with ease. He said the dock-installation portion of his business serves primarily Mina, Richmond and Elm lakes.
Prior to acquiring the barge two years ago, however, Helm said he spent plenty of spring and fall days in freezing-cold water.
“Before the barge we were doing everything by hand in simple wetsuits and waders,” he said. “You have no idea how many docks I’ve done where that cold water was over my waders.”
With his business growing, Helm decided to start selling pontoons.
“We started selling Premier Pontoons three years ago, and the response has been great — we’re already sold out again this year,” he said. “Then people started asking about fishing boats, so now we have those, too.”
With Helm Marine being right next to Richmond Lake, Helm said he has demo docks, boats and pontoons available for testing.
“We started all of this to give people a choice,” he said. “If people stop by the shop, we can walk to where the demos are and take them for a ride, show them different options and let them know there are different products available.”
In addition to his marine business, Helm actively seeks to help people become more involved not only in boating, but the outdoors in general.
For example, he helps provide a weekly fishing report that airs Thursday mornings at 7:45 on Hub City Radio.
“It’s new for this year, and it was one of my ideas to contact bait stores and some other marine businesses and have them call in or text their local reports on Wednesday mornings, and we then put something together and record it Wednesday afternoons,” he said. “We’re branding ourselves as fishermen who live on the lake and love to do what our customers love to do.”
Helm also promotes local fishing clubs and sponsors fishing tournaments as a way of promoting the outdoors.
“We want to make people aware there are opportunities to fish whether you have a boat or not,” he said. “There are so many different ways we can try to get somebody on the water. We want them to take part and enjoy anything that has to do with the outdoors, whether it’s fishing, skiing or hunting.”
Even though his business is expanding and he plans to someday move to location along Highway 12, Helm keeps pictures on a bulletin board of the single storage unit from which he sold his first few docks to remind him of where he started.
“Our mission statement from Day 1 was making lake life fun and easy, and to look back at pictures of when we first started, it really humbles you,” he said. “Now, I’ve got a beautiful wife, two beautiful kids and love the outdoors. You can’t ask for more than that.”
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Helm Marine details
Owners: Michael and Fallon Helm
Address: 379979 North Shore Drive, Aberdeen
Products and services: Helm Marine at Richmond Lake carries pontoons, recreational boats and fishing boats. They also offer a full line of marine products, docks, boat lifts, trailers, a dock-and-lift barge service, and boat and motor repair.