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With new owners, a new era begins for Boston Harbor Cruises

Hornblower Holdings hired Bob Lawler away from Boston Duck Tours to run the ferry operator

Bob Lawler is taking over as the head of Boston Harbor Cruises from Alison Nolan, the last of the Nolan family to run the ferry company.
Bob Lawler is taking over as the head of Boston Harbor Cruises from Alison Nolan, the last of the Nolan family to run the ferry company.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

It’s the end of an era for Boston Harbor Cruises — an era that has lasted for nearly a century.

Alison Nolan stepped down as general manager last week, marking the first time since her great-grandfather Matty Hughes started the company 94 years ago as a river-cruise operator on the Charles that someone from the Nolan and Hughes families won’t be steering this ship.

Nolan’s resignation took effect one year after the sale of BHC, Boston Harbor’s dominant ferry company, to Hornblower Holdings, a Chicago company owned by the private equity firm Crestview Partners.

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Meanwhile, a familiar face on the Boston waterfront has taken the helm as GM: Bob Lawler, a former executive with Entertainment Cruises, now also part of Hornblower. Most recently, Lawler was general manager at Boston Duck Tours, working with president Cindy Brown for more than three years before leaving last month to join BHC.

Nolan, 45, said her family wasn’t looking to sell the business but Hornblower, with Crestview’s backing, was looking to grow through acquisitions. The Nolans more than doubled the size of BHC, which now has 44 boats in Boston Harbor, since 2006. That year, they bought out business partner Modern Continental, a now-defunct construction company best known for its work on the Big Dig. But Nolan said they realized BHC couldn’t get much bigger on its own, without another strategic partner.

“We sat down as a family and [said], if we ever want to do this, this is our window,” Nolan said.

Nolan said she is going to take some time off to consider her next steps, though she has no plans to leave Boston.

“Leaving Boston Harbor Cruises was certainly a difficult decision,” Nolan said. “It will mean I’m changing industries and careers. [But] I’m very fortunate to be 45 and to have the opportunity to have a life change like this.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on the vibrancy of Boston’s waterfront. Passenger traffic on BHC boats is roughly one-third of what it was before the coronavirus arrived on these shores. Employment at BHC is roughly half of year-ago levels: about 125 year-round employees and just over 300 summer workers, compared to nearly 280 and 700, respectively, pre-pandemic. (About 75 of those people worked for separate business lines, a marine industrial division and a catering operation, that did not get purchased by Hornblower.) The Hornblower-owned Spirit and Odyssey cruise ships, meanwhile, remain docked and dormant.

Before the pandemic, Nolan regularly participated in discussions about expanding ferry service in the harbor, in part because BHC operates the MBTA ferries to Charlestown, Hingham, and Hull. But now, with the MBTA facing an extreme financial crisis, the survival of subsidized South Shore ferries is an open question.

Lawler, 49, said he is already thinking about how to position the company for life beyond the pandemic, in part by taking advantage of the shared technology and other amenities that come with being part of a bigger operation. He pointed to a water-taxi hailing app that Hornblower developed as one example.

“I looked at this as a once-in-a-lifetime position that I couldn’t pass up,” Lawler said. “My goal is to be ready to deliver the great experiences that BHC has always done. Once COVID starts to recede and restrictions on travel and restrictions on the number of people we can carry on our vessels releases a bit, we want to be ready to meet that demand.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.