30 In Their Thirties: Chris Chamberlain, CEO, CJC Cruises, Grand Ledge

If you’re ever a passenger on the Detroit Princess riverboat, cruising the Detroit River and listening to the Motown sound, you might be surprised to discover the CEO and owner of the craft, Chris Chamberlain, is often at the helm.
15
Chris Chamberlain // Photo by Trever Long

If you’re ever a passenger on the Detroit Princess riverboat, cruising the Detroit River and listening to the Motown sound, you might be surprised to discover the CEO and owner of the craft, Chris Chamberlain, is often at the helm.

“I still drive (the boats) pretty regularly,” Chamberlain says. “It’s nice to get out and interact with your customers.”

Chamberlain grew up in the Grand Ledge-based CJC Cruises business, which was started by his parents in 1970 as a canoe rental company. Over the years, the enterprise grew to include boats that held 49 people, then 110, then 300. The Detroit Princess holds 1,900 passengers.

“We just kind of kept growing over the years,” Chamberlain says. “I guess I always knew I’d be doing this as a career.”

His father passed away when Chamberlain was in his mid-20s, and he took over the business. At that point, the enterprise consisted of three large boats — the Detroit Princess along the Detroit River, the Michigan Princess in Lansing, and the Grand Princess Riverboat in Grand Ledge.

He has since added two boats in Petoskey, one of which is a 70-year-old vessel that began its life as a Mackinac Island ferry. The Petoskey fleet shuttles customers between Harbor Springs, Petoskey, and Bay Harbor.

Chamberlain continues to think about expanding the business.

“There are definitely some places along Lake Michigan where I don’t currently have boats that I’d like to bring boats,” he says. “A lot of people get into the dinner cruise business as a retirement job. After 20 years they get tired of it, and I’m sure there are some of those we can add to the fleet.”

Chamberlain says there are three elements to his business: the boat ride, entertainment, and food service. The boat part concerns him most.

“I can easily hire people to provide entertainment, and cook and serve food,” he says. “The boat stuff is the hardest part. It’s tough, especially in the smaller markets, to find qualified people.”

Prior to taking over the CEO role in 2021, Chamberlain was president of CJC’s food service division, J&K Catering, for 10 years. During that time, he earned a U.S. Coast Guard 100 Masters license, which certifies him to pilot most any large vessel. He also is a USCG Merchant Marine captain.

“If we went to war, I could be called up,” says Chamberlain, who spends his free time with his family, as a sailing member of the Bayview Yacht Club, and as a downhill skier in winter.