From Waiter to Watercraft King

TRAVERSE CITY-A chance meeting 11 years ago at Mardi Gras in New Orleans between an energetic Aussie and an Elk Rapids tourist sparked the founding of Michigan's largest boat and watercraft rental business.

"He made it sound so good, I came to the area to check it out and never left," said Brett Campbell, a Melbourne native who had just lost his job working in the automotive industry.

After bouncing around in a few jobs, Campbell started working at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa. He was a doorman, waiter and bartender before he saw an opportunity to launch his own business.

"Along with a partner, I had a chance to purchase the contract for the Resort's jet ski rental," said Campbell, a mechanic by trade. "I put two jet skis on my credit card, he put two on his credit card, and we were in business."

Management changes in 1995 drove the loss of the Resort contract, but also inspired him to begin his own company, Sunset Watersports. It has grown steadily since, he said.

"I just kept putting all our money back into the business," said Campbell, who gives a lot of credit for the company's success to manager Jim Robertson.

Sunset's inventory of 90 watercraft includes jet skis, pontoon boats, ski boats, fishing boats, kayaks, water trampolines and more. The rentals come with the accessories, safety equipment and life jackets needed. Sunset Watersports also offers ATVs and campers, though that's a small part of the business for now.

"We pride ourselves on on-time scheduling and good, clean, reliable equipment, from kayaks up to our Monterey Cabin Cruiser," said Campbell. "We will go to any reasonable length to make our customers' boating time an experience to remember."

Sunset Watersports offers hourly, daily and weekly rates through a network of agents who handle the rentals to tourists and visitors on all major lakes in the region. His boats can be leased at sites on Elk, Torch and Crystal lakes, and in Traverse City, Empire, Glen Arbor, Suttons Bay and Charlevoix.

Sunset Watersports serves about 500 customers a year, many of which reserve their boat online. It's six weeks of hectic work, but can be lucrative for his staff of 30, which works on commission and can make up to $14,000 during those weeks.

So what's next for Campbell? He's branched out into dryland opportunities, buying up 20 rental homes in the Traverse City area.