Mills couple

Kevin and Vonnette Mills are the new owners of Northernaire Houseboats. (Photo courtesy of the International Falls Journal)

RAINY LAKE — In less than 12 months, a southeastern Minnesota couple went from admirers of Borderland to owners of a 61-year-old Rainy Lake business.

Kevin and Vonnette Mills moved in May to International Falls from Faribault, after purchasing Northernaire Houseboats from the Garbe family, who owned it for 21 years.

“We fell in love with the lake and the area,” Vonnette said of the decision to purchase the business. “It just felt right.”

Now, about seven weeks into owning Northernaire, the business is in full swing with houseboats coming in and going out, bringing a whole new learning curve along the way.

“We learn something new everyday,” Vonnette said, looking out over a calm Rainy Lake last week. “This gets to be my office. It doesn’t get any better than that.”

Dreams come true

Kevin was out running houseboat-related errands when Vonnette sat with The Journal last week to discuss what motivated the couple to take a leap of faith and purchase the business, as well as what plans they have for the future.

The idea to be business owners came last summer when the couple were vacationing on a Northernaire Houseboat. It was the second year in a row they had spent their summer vacation on Rainy Lake, and during that trip, they learned the business was for sale.

“It was casually mentioned,” Vonnette said, adding with a laugh that the information about the sale consumed their vacation as it was all that was on Kevin’s mind.

“He just kept saying what a dream it would be to own,” she said.

This is the first time they’ve owned their own business, but Vonnette said her siblings are business owners and knew it was something she always had on her mind. So, when they returned home after the 2018 vacation, they started exploring options to purchase Northernaire.

“This opportunity just carried everything we loved,” she said. “We loved the lake, love boats and just knew this would be one of those things we couldn’t pass up … We just put our minds to it.”

Highs and lows

There were roadblocks along the way to business ownership.

News of another buyer interrupted the process last winter, and Vonnette kept the mindset of trusting what is meant to be.

“I just kept saying, things will happen how they are meant to,” she said. “The other potential buyer didn’t work out and we kept going forward... We closed on it May 24... It’s cool because we’re only the fourth people to own it since it was built in 1958.”

The purchase came with 15 houseboats ranging in size, seven to eight employees and a lot to learn.

“Robin (Garbe) is very helpful,” Vonnette said. “There were times I was overwhelmed, but I think I got it... If I get stressed, I just look out at the water.”

Future plans

The Mills plan to construct a new shop toward the end of the summer and have plans to update other features of Northernaire from there.

“Slowly through the years, we plan to remodel two or three houseboats a year,” Vonnette said. “We need to get new motors, too, so we will be replacing those... There’s a lot we want to do.”

As they settle into their new community, Vonnette said she and her husband have received valuable tips and advice from other houseboat companies.

“Everyone has been very welcoming and very helpful,” she said. “We’re really happy here. Things just fell into place... It was a lot of work, but things really just happened how they were meant to be.”

Reach Regional Managing Editor Suzanne Rook at 507-333-3134. Follow her on Twitter @rooksuzy.

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