With about six months under his belt as the vice president and general manager of the outboard engine division of BRP, Alain Villemure sees several challenges and opportunities for Evinrude and the industry. Villemure has worked for BRP for 17 years, previously leading the Vehicle Development and Manufacturing Operations division overseeing Ski-Doo snowmobiles and personal watercraft and other vehicles. Boating Industry talked to Villemure about the issues facing the marine industry, his outlook for 2013 and more.
What is BRP focusing on this year?
Villemure: We’ve had some interesting launches recently: the 135 H.O. engine model. Optimus technology has been launched also. Those are the main elements that we have. We also celebrate the first year of our E-Nation [social media] community, which is very important for us.
We are working actively to ensure that we maintain and increase the edge we have on the product side.[We want to] focus on the consumer experience. This is something that we can bring to an industry that lacks focus on the consumer.
Take the Optimus system – why is it that the power steering and those types of controls are not more widely used? The technology existed for a long time. There is, in my opinion, a lack of focus that restricts our industry. I made the analogy that just the docking experience is a major source of anxiety for first-time buyers. How many women are docking boats the size of 20-foot and up? If they could, what could be the market size?
I see something there, not only in the product but also in the service aspect. How do we treat the customer? Do we focus on that? If my boat breaks, how many weekends will I lose in a season that, depending where you live, you have eight quality weekends? If I miss two because my boat is not repaired on time, that is a big deal. I see the marine industry lagging behind powersports and for sure automotive.
Those are elements that BRP is working. We have a clear focus on the consumer, on innovation, bringing meaningful benefits to consumers, but also on the total consumer experience.
You touched on this, talking about bringing women into boating. How concerned are you about the diversity in our industry and what is BRP doing to try to address that?
Villemure: That’s an important thing and a concern. Do we really understand the customer moments of truth and the usage pattern that makes a difference?
I think we have to make the technology more affordable for the consumers to use it, then I think it could have a very positive impact on the market. Not only on the market size, but also on the usage of the product.
Again, we have a boat at our place and my wife didn’t use the boat when I wasn’t there. The kids would love to go on the boat more often, she loves boating, but she didn’t drive the boat because she doesn’t want to dock it. How many more hours of boating are we missing because of that?
I think there is something to really go after there.
What is BRP doing on E15?
Villemure: If I look at the BRP mindset, we tend to be leaders in those elements within our industry because we feel it’s very important to meet requirements and follow the directions the government wants to take. We are quite active with our technical resources and we’re a quite active part of NMMA. We share the same position as the industry: E15 is not a good thing for outboards.
E10 is something we can live with, but we have to do some more work. We’re not ready for E15, and it would be detrimental to engine performance and reliability. We are involved with other research on alternative fuels. (Editor’s note: BRP and other engine makers are researching the use of isobutanol in marine engines under a Department of Energy grant. For more information, read our coverage on BoatingIndustry.com.)
Where is ethanol going? We have all the issues of competing with food at some point. What’s going to be the direction? I don’t think it’s done for the environment at this point [what people wanted]. From our side, I look at it and say, “Let’s take a step back and figure out what we want to do.” I think now people realize this may not really be the solution.
We saw good growth in outboards in 2012. Do you feel confident about continued growth in 2013?
Villemure: We see a very good, steady increase. We’re encouraged. A good factor is that during the downturn, the registration levels were very steady. People were at least using their boats. There was not a user problem. If the boats were used and not replaced during that period, it’s going to turn into a market eventually. We see it coming back as soon as the economy is reasonably OK.
We’re enjoying this growth, as are the boat builders. It’s nowhere near pre-crisis levels, and I don’t think we’re going to get there very quickly. It’s relatively slow growth, but it’s there. I think the market potential is there if we can just maintain the proper economic mindset in the U.S.
The issue is also international. The situation in Europe is concerning. They’re not out of that yet and it’s going to affect our market in Europe, which is a very significant market. But in the U.S., we see encouraging growth, unless we have a major slowdown of the economy that would be caused if we cannot find a solution for the debt crisis.
What makes you optimistic about the industry right now?
Villemure: The growth that we see right now, the prospect it will continue, the unmet needs in the industry, the relative low performance in satisfying customers. These are all opportunities.