Boating Industry Report Card

Eleanor Roosevelt was very flattered to have a rose named after her until she looked it up in a plant catalog: “No good in a bed, but fine against a wall.”

The marine industry has some need of thoughtful evaluation, also. Cleverly disguised as a responsible journalist, I think I can be more thoughtful than the hapless horticulturist who picked the rose to name for Eleanor. You may not agree with the grades I award, because views are likely different in each locale and industry segment. I will try to take industry issues in order of their importance today.

1. Water Access, Grade: C (Up from an F and rising)
To me, and I think to most of you, this is the biggest issue facing us as an industry. For boats, the marketing truism, “Nothing happens until somebody sells something” is becoming eclipsed by its less quoted corollary, “Nobody sells something until the buyer can find a place to keep and use it!” The Grow Boating folks were most wise in setting up a task force to find ways to assure access.

So far, most of the progress has been in defining the problem – no easy job in this case. Perhaps the biggest hurdle was to limit the problem description to the worst areas that also are “do-able”. Focus areas have been outlined as follows:

a. Influence local decision makers to preserve and grow boating access. Water access for the non-property owner of waterfront is currently not much of a consideration in development.

b. Improve the policy, permitting and regulatory environment. This area is an administrative nightmare of little understood and ill conceived regulation. It is a different nightmare in virtually every jurisdiction.

c. Create new partnering opportunities with governments to access un- or under-utilized public lands. Lots of defunct military bases, remediable brownfields, etc. would make excellent access points for boaters.

d. Use technology to better employ waterfront space.

e. Build a data collection facility, funding mechanism and communication network for the efforts. The launch is good. Time and a tremendous effort are needed to make it bear fruit.

2. Product Quality and Reliability, Grade: B (And rising)
There are already plenty of “A” manufacturers around. Slowpokes that are having internal QC problems are all that is holding back a top grade. If a dealer picks his lines carefully, he can realize an “A” grade on product quality. Hopefully those builders nearing the promised land will kick the camel harder and get there soon.

3. Dealer Operations Quality, Grade: C+ (And rising)
Like the manufacturers, dealers are getting a Marine Industry Certification and getting their acts together. They started later. They are more loosely knit (in spite of MRAA), and there are many more of them. They have the advantage of quick reaction and flexibility once energized. “A” dealers are already numerous and certified or on the way, but there are hordes still working their way up the hill. I have little doubt that most will eventually get there. Industry-wide CSI measurement will allow dealer and industry evaluation of progress. Promotion in Discover Boating of the advantages of dealing with a Marine Industry Certified Dealership will help motivation tremendously. In this case, pushing the elevator button over and over will make it happen faster.

4. Industry Training, Grade: B (And rising)
Thanks to efforts by COMITT, ABYC, NMMA, MRAA, ABBRA, AMI, NMEA, AMTECH, and some more that I apologize for forgetting, this area looks much better than it did a decade ago. The dedicated people behind the training programs bode well for industry skill. Now, if we can just figure out how to pay the average technician and earn the average dealership a bit more, we should reach “A” level. Maybe I’ve just nailed the problem. We need every technician and every dealership to be above average.

5. Dealer Manufacturer Relations, Grade: C (And static — only temporarily, I hope)
I would have given this a D- a few years ago. The congeniality and cooperation between NMMA and MRAA and joint initiation of the Grow Boating program cured a lot of ailments. The improvement in product is a great help and becoming more so. The Dealer and Manufacturer Agreement Task Force set up by NMMA and ably chaired by David Slikkers gave great hope for a final breakthrough. Though over a year has passed, application of their efforts in actual manufacturer contracts has been minimalvery widespread. My optimist side says it will come soon, but I’m getting nervous. Those in both camps trying to make this relationship work sometimes feel they are trying to baptize cats. We are better off than we were, but we badly need another leap of progress.

An old rule of navigational “thumb” for sailing from England to the Caribbean was to sail south until the butter melted, then sail west. I think we are on a much more precise course than those guys were.

John Underwood is CEO of Lockwood Marine on the Georgia coast. He has served as chairman of the Marine Retailers Association of America (2001 and 2002) and on boards for the American Boatbuilders and Repairers Association and American Boat & Yacht Council. He can be reached at

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