Local Owner to Keep Kettenburg Course Steady

San Diego County Business Editor

It’s not as if La Jollan Thompson Fetter--who last month purchased San Diego-based Kettenburg Marine from giant Whittaker Corp.--doesn’t already have an all-American resume.

Fetter, 51 and a native San Diegan, boasts an undergraduate degree in biological science and a master’s in business administration--both from Stanford University. He’s a lawyer, actively works in a handful of civic affairs, is a successful businessman and has raised a typically athletic Southern Californian family that spends its weekends tacking and trimming sails off San Diego’s coastline.

His purchase of Kettenburg--for an undisclosed sum--seems in keeping with his Norman Rockwell-esque image.

Thanks to Fetter’s acquisition, Kettenburg, which built its first boat in 1918, will remain San Diego-based, as will the 130 employees who repair ships at the firm’s Shelter Island yard.


The firm and at least some of its work force might have faced a different fate had Whittaker, a Los Angeles-based high-technology and chemical company, peddled its marine division to another entity.

Whittaker, with $1.1 billion in sales last year, has been seeking a buyer for its West Coast marine operations for some time; last year, the company sold its East Coast and European boat manufacturing operations to a foreign group.

Whittaker entered the marine business in 1967, setting up an operations base in San Diego to apply its fiberglass composite manufacturing and technology to the boating industry.

Fetter joined Whittaker in 1959, after the company acquired San Diego-based Narmco Industries, where Fetter worked as a junior accountant. He worked his way through the ranks and was in charge of Whittaker’s operations here when the company bought Kettenburg in 1968.


He remained there until 1971.

Today, he owns five San Diego car washes--four of them called the Bubble Machine--and a Chevron-brand gasoline sales business.

His plans for Kettenburg call for a steady-as-she-goes strategy, maintaining the course that annually generates more than $20 million in revenue. For the first quarter ended Jan. 31, Kettenburg--which also operates marine repair facilities in Santa Ana, Newport Beach and Dana Point, and conducts on-board Navy ship repairs--reported revenue of $4.9 million. The first quarter is considered the weakest revenue period of the year, said Fetter, implying that this year’s revenue should top last year’s.

“This is the kind of service business that benefits from local ownership,” Fetter said.


Bill Kettenburg, the son of founder George Kettenburg, will remain with the firm as a vice president. Paul Kettenburg, brother of the founder and former president of the company, will serve as chairman of the firm’s advisory board, now being created.

Fred Neumeister, the firm’s chief financial officer for 40 years, will come out of retirement and return as executive vice president, according to Fetter.

Fetter spent the week after his acquisition talking to Kettenburg employees about the transition.

“They’re enthusiastic,” he said. “I know a large number of them, and it’s no big shock.”