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Pacifica's President, Like the Yachts She Builds, Is 1 of a Kind

February 11, 1989|SHEARLEAN DUKE | Shearlean Duke is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

Wanda Kipper, fashion-model thin and casually stylish, looks like she stepped out of the pages of a yachting magazine. Her hair, makeup and manner suggest someone who would be more at home sailing a fancy yacht than building one.

But appearances are deceiving.

As owner and president of Pacifica by Kipper Yachts in Costa Mesa, Wanda Kipper is the country's only woman to head a major boat-building company.

Pacifica, which builds 36- to 77-foot sportfishing yachts that sell anywhere from $250,000 to $2.5 million each, caters to what Kipper calls "macho fishermen" who want big, fast powerboats that will take them all the way from Orange County to Cabo San Lucas and back without any problems.

Kipper, who prefers not to reveal her age but says "I'm younger than President Reagan," has been running the business since 1982 when her husband, Stuart, died of cancer. There was never any question about whether she would keep the boat-building business, which the Kippers had purchased in 1970 and had run jointly.

"I did not consider selling it," says Kipper, who managed the office, ordered parts, kept track of inventory and designed the interiors of the yachts. Her husband designed the boats and supervised construction.

Today, Wanda Kipper still runs the office, orders parts, keeps track of inventory and designs the yachts' interiors. In addition, she sells boats, works boat shows and produces the company's ads. General Manager Bob Gunderson, Wanda Kipper's son by an earlier marriage, supervises production of the limited-edition yachts, which are built in Costa Mesa and Panama City, Fla.

"Stu and I started the business together . . . and always ran it together," says the diminutive and soft-spoken Kipper. He was in his late 40s and had taken an early retirement as a problem solver/inventor for a company in Los Angeles. She was a former artist with Walt Disney Studios and ran her own commercial art business in Glendale.

Both were boaters, so after they both retired, they moved to Hawaii, where they started a charter boat business. "We were back here looking for a better boat for charter when we came to Pacifica Marine and Stu asked them to build him a boat--the way he wanted it built. The owners of the company said they couldn't build it that way and said to Stu, 'Why don't you buy the company and build it yourself?' Stu said, 'OK.' So, we bought the business and moved back to California," Kipper recalls.

Since the Kippers took over, Pacifica has produced 135 yachts, and Wanda Kipper can tell you exactly where each one is. Many of the owners are among the country's wealthiest individuals, she says. "And I felt flattered when they chose a Pacifica. They could afford any boat they want, and they chose ours."

The walls of her unpretentious Costa Mesa office are lined with photos of Pacifica and their happy owners, most of whom--like Wanda Kipper herself--are ardent fishermen.

Kipper, daughter of a commercial fisherman, has been an angler most of her life and has been boating as long as she can remember. "I have two brothers who are commercial fishermen in Alaska," she says proudly. "And two nieces who are commercial fishermen. One does it part time and the other does it full time. They've been fishing since they were 8 or 9."

In 1984, Kipper, who fishes frequently in the waters between Orange County and Catalina, single-handedly staged a benefit marlin fishing tournament that attracted 34 boats and raised $17,000 for the American Cancer Society.

Kipper, who had watched her husband die of cancer, wanted to do her part in helping find a cure for the disease. "I felt that if everyone in the U.S. did something to help find a cure, then we would succeed," she says.

Since then, the West Coast Marlin Shoot-Out, as the tournament has come to be known, has become an annual benefit for the Orange County unit of the American Cancer Society. For the first 3 years Kipper ran the tournament alone. "Then each year we began to get more and more sponsors," she says.

Today, Kipper serves on the tournament committee and is still a driving force behind the event. Committee meetings are already under way for the 1989 tournament, planned for August.

"Right now I am doing push-ups to build up my arm muscles for fishing," Kipper says. "In the next tournament I want to go out with an all-woman team."

Kipper is proud of the fact that, in the interest of conservation, the tournament has become a "tag-and-release" competition in which all fish are released unharmed after a hook-up has been officially recorded.

Talking about the tournament as she walks through the cluttered boatyard, past the machine and electrical shops, Kipper, meticulous as ever, looks out of place--like the proud mother who has stopped by to visit her son at work.

But as she reaches the gigantic hull of the 44-foot Pacifica currently under construction, she does not hesitate to climb the rickety ladder 10 feet up so that she can inspect the interior of the vessel.

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