For decades, the marine industry’s dealer base, as a whole, has lacked professionalism. Year after year, industrywide stories of a declining market, canceled dealers and worse, unhappy boaters, have surfaced often enough to make some wonder if there will ever be a day when the decline in boating sales will end.
In the meantime, manufacturers threatened to terminate dealers in favor of someone more professional — or just someone who could sell more boats. Dealers, just point at the manufacturers and blame them for all their troubles. And, sadly, those are about the only times we ever hear from the dealers.
Until now. Welcome to Boating Industry’s inaugural Top 100, a listing of dealers who are a substantial cut above the rest. Many of them you may have never heard of before. That’s because they do things the right way. And in doing so, they focus their efforts quietly and intently on the target that matters most: their customers.
In fact, these dealers make up nearly half of the 20 percent in the old 80/20 rule. Collectively, our Top 100 dealers were responsible for $2.6 billion of the $30 billion marine market. This ranking, however, is much more about best practices and the ways in which these dealers earned that revenue and profitability than it is about dollar volume. It’s about their professionalism, their overall approach to conducting business, including everything from employee development to CSI strategies and marketing efforts.
The Top 100 run their businesses as they should — as though their results depend solely on their own strategies, ideas and leadership. These dealers apply the Golden Rule to their customer relation’s policies instead of blaming their suppliers for their shortcomings. They market the boating lifestyle, as opposed to a shell of fiberglass or a sheet of riveted aluminum with an engine strapped to the back. Oh, and did we mention that they make a decent profit, too?
The common bond, however, that joins the Top 100 dealers is that each and every one of them truly delivers on the dream that is boating. Perhaps Rob Youker of The Sportsman (ranked 40) sums it up best: “Our customers aren’t sold boats. They buy a lifestyle.”
Delivering the lifestyle
While no one said it as directly as Youker does, each of the Top 100 dealers understands that it needs to deliver on that lifestyle. The benefits of doing so are recognized in the bottom line, annual revenue increases and in returning customers and customer referrals.
The Sportsman knows that. Youker admits that through its high levels of customer service — 95 CSI score — the company has, in essence, developed an “army of advocates who generate one-third of our sales and plant seeds with many future boaters.”
If there’s a publicized benchmark by which to grade dealers, it’s the Customer Satisfaction Index scores. There are many legitimate arguments against using CSI as a tape measure of a dealer’s success, the most appropriate of which is that a negative report here or there can greatly affect any dealer. This elite group, however, remains so consistent in its approach to ensuring customer satisfaction that it averages a CSI score of 95.
How they achieve the high scores is dependent on their customers, their markets, their employees and the strategies they employ to deliver satisfaction. Hampton Watercraft and Marine (ranked 27), Hampton Bays, N.Y., for example, pushes itself every day to focus on customer service. Like many other business owners, president Tony Villareale has a mission statement to define his company’s philosophy and objectives. He even showcases a set of core values that reflect how he’d like his employees to conduct business. But at the end of the day, it’s his employees’ “simple pledge” — backed by a reminder hanging in every office, tool box and locker — to offer “100% Customer Satisfaction” that serves as a starting and ending point for every business interaction.
But every company has a mission statement. Villareale’s company delivers on the promise with a 97 CSI score garnered through such strategies as valet dockage at his marina and a “Lady of the Yacht” event that was designed to help women boaters feel more comfortable on their boats. In other words, it’s more than just a sign hanging on the wall: It’s a belief in and the execution of the philosophy that makes it work.
All of the Top 100, and their 342 locations, have instilled the philosophy in their employees. Whether it’s the receptionist at the front counter or the tractor driver or rigger who hooks up the customer’s boat after a sale, their attitude reflects the entire dealership’s philosophy. That’s the example that Lakeside Marine (ranked 57), Harrisburg, Pa., uses in ensuring its employees are highly trained in customer service. The company emphasizes customer service by empowering each team member to do what it takes to be sure the customer is completely satisfied.
“We could do everything else perfect,” says Lakeside President Barbara Nuss, “but the two most impressionable moments are truly made by lower-paid employees, and their attitude is key.”
Above and beyond having the right attitude, the Top 100 dealers have myriad systems and processes in place to ensure happy customers. That begins with boat delivery and carries through boat use, boat storage and repeat buyers. Glenn Marine Family Boating Centers (ranked 86), for example, provides potential customers with a DVD titled “Buying Your New Boat” and a new boat delivery day manual to give the customer an idea of what to expect during the process.
Buckeye Marine (ranked 18) takes the manual idea one step further. Its eight-page customer handbook provides not only a schedule of the events of delivery day — and beyond — but it also includes information on warranty, the break-in period, safety and boater proficiency courses, storage, maintenance and a host of frequently asked questions. The handy resource also puts hours of operation and contact information, including a snapshot of who to call with questions regarding specific topics, at the customer’s fingertips.
Once new boat buyers become boaters, however, the best thing to put at their fingertips is an opportunity to share their passion with other boaters or a reason to use their boats. And this is an area where every Top 100 dealer excels. Each offers its customers, at minimum, a customer appreciation event of some sort. From cocktail parties to rendezvous, open houses and demo events, offering a little something special is a top priority.
Parks Marina (ranked 14) and Gordy’s Lakefront Marine (ranked 15, see Editor’s Pick, page 76) make that clear up front. At Parks, Okoboji, Iowa, the goal is to create an environment where people “absolutely, positively cannot resist making a purchase,” according to the company. Parks spends most of its energy creating and advertising itself as a destination, focusing on getting customers to the store and letting the package sell them. The facilities represent a “club everyone wants to be a part of,” the dealer says, and it includes the Barefoot Bar, an on-water restaurant complete with temporary dock spaces in the marina and a playground for the kids. Not to mention the shiny new boats behind glass walls.
Lake Geneva, Wis.-based Gordy’s operates in much the same way, creating an environment where customers can enjoy the boating atmosphere at the Cobalt Lounge or sneak downstairs to see the latest and greatest products.
Far and away the most popular tactic for getting customers back to the store is the array of events. The best among these are those that offer the consumers more than just another chance to get in their boat. All of them, of course, give customers an opportunity to meet and mingle with others boaters, but when there’s an opportunity to learn something, the value to the customer is exponentially increased. The value for those dealers, who put themselves into the role of an expert, someone who the customer can turn to for advice, follows.
Take for instance, the Fear Buster event held by Strong’s Marine (ranked 23), Mattituck, N.Y. This event gives customers the opportunity to travel through locks en route to the Atlantic Ocean, but they do so in the dealers’ boats to learn the proper method. Marine USA (ranked 41) hosts an annual fishing expo with lectures from national and local bass pros, a casting contest for kids, vendor displays, tackle shops and more.
Still other dealers just enjoy sharing their expertise through the array of classes they offer. Russo Marine (ranked 8) offers its customers — and its competitors’ customers — free training and boater education classes, including basic boat handling, basic navigation, advanced navigation with a plotter and radar training in its dedicated 1,600-square-foot classroom.
In the end, as Marine Specialties (ranked 58) points out, customer satisfaction should be the top priority. Not just at the sales process, but rather all the way through the store. “We understand the importance of our customers’ time on the water with family and friends,” says Jim Canepa, owner, “and do everything to make your boating experience the best it can be.”
Train the trainers
The best experience demands the best people. That’s why the Top 100 focus so intently on employee training. In many ways, that’s what sets apart the best from the rest.
And we’re not talking about the typical technician training that’s mandated by the manufacturers. We’re talking a fundamental desire for and belief in the value of training. Many of the Top 100 have dedicated training budgets, others’ are unlimited and still others have a dedicated training person, like Olympic Boat Centers’ (ranked 92) manager of personnel development.
Training isn’t something the Top 100 can define as a single process. Collectively employing more than 6,651 full-time people, the Top 100 dealers are firmly committed to enhancing the personal and professional development of each of those individuals. At Dan’s Boats (ranked 72), an informal yet practical way to approach training included a chapter-by-chapter review of the book Customer Satisfaction Is Worthless, Customer Loyalty Is Priceless: How to Make Customers Love You, Keep Them Coming Back and Tell Everyone They Know, by Jeffrey Gitomer.
Many dealers find some sort of 20 Group training, whether through Spader, David Parker’s or their respective manufacturers’ programs. A select few reach out even further to additional opportunities, such as Dale Carnegie (Boatland, ranked 46); Joe Verde (Legendary Marine, ranked 71). Then there’s Shipyard Marine (ranked 81) who sends employees to Carnegie and Verde in addition to Fred Pryor Seminars … all on top of the typical training regimen.
At West Palm Beach, Fla.-based Marine Connection (ranked 49) employees are encouraged to attend a minimum of five training days per year. And at Lynnhaven Marine (ranked 43), Virginia Beach, Va., training is “never-ending,” as more than 200 classes were taken by its 80 employees in 2004. Each of Lynnhaven’s departments has its own training and education budget.
With the advent of online training, many dealers are taking advantage of in-house opportunities. While e-learning is not necessarily a new concept, it’s growing in value in the marine market, and the Top 100 represent the early adopters.
MarineMax (ranked 1, see Top 5 Profile, page 58), for example, has hosted its own university since 1988. With more than 130 online modules offered in a variety of learning styles, employees can learn everything from safety and environmental compliance to service management to leadership and managment. The modules for this program are tracked and tied to individual development plans that are further mapped to career paths.
While its version takes place in the classroom rather than online, JOA, LLC, (ranked 31) offers its own university, as well. A sales course manual for a 2005 boat show included more than 70 pages of ideas to help employees learn and reinforce sales skills and product knowledge. JOA, like MarineMax, has built its foundation on personal development.
JOA, Marietta, Ga., typically holds weekly training courses and encourages all employees to strive for self-improvement. This begins with the JOA Orientation Program and continues through training and instruction from two of its long-time employees (one is a former professional sales trainer).
Clearwater, Fla.-based MarineMax’s entire philosophy is built around training. The company employs an in-house recruiter and a VP of team development and trains management on recruiting practices. The dealer has many phenomenal programs, including a management intern program. Beginning with the CEO and moving all the way down to the dealership level, each manager is mandated to identify and train a specific individual capable of assuming his or her own duties on a full-time basis. This, too, is part of their annual performance review and development plan.
Skipper Bud’s (ranked 2, see Top 5 Profile, page 60) operates the same way. Training may be a difficult financial and time allocation for the average dealer who will sometimes modestly invest in it during good times, but quickly cuts what little — if anything — is there during bad times. But the best of the best, like Skipper Bud’s, know that of utmost importance to the long-term viability of any organization is the effective and seamless transfer of management over time. Enter succession planning.
Skipper Bud’s, Winthrop Harbor, Ill., “prides itself in selecting the best person for any position and then spending the money and time to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to grow in responsibility and remuneration,” according to President Dennis Ellerbrock. The list of managers that Skipper Bud’s has in leadership positions is impressive; much more impressive, however, are the qualifications that each brings to the table — developed through years of experience at varying levels and rotating departments of the business.
“Our legal, financial and above all else, our ongoing operations all have active and ongoing succession plans in place,” Ellerbrock says. “While I have profiled only our corporate officers and directors, rest assured that each of them have back ups who are well into their training. This depth chart planning is prevalent throughout the company at all levels.”
As The Sportsman or Action Water Sports (ranked 25) can attest, you don’t need to be the size of MarineMax or Skipper Bud’s to engrain the training mentality in your people. Action Water Sports lives and thrives by the philosophy of “You don’t go into business to make money. You go into business to sell a product, which, in turn, makes you money.”
“None of us are here to make money,” says Jerry Brouwer, GM of Action Water Sports, Hudsonville, Mich. “We’re here to accomplish a goal and make sure our customers’ needs are being met. If we maintain that attitude, we will continue to make money.”
To that end, Action uses its service techs to cross-train the sales people. And the service department is “just as involved in sales,” only they’re selling their services.
Youker, at The Sportsman, knows that employees drive the success of his dealership, and he invests heavily in training them. “Knowledge breeds confidence,” he says. “Employee confidence then extends to customer confidence, resulting in exceeding customer expectations. We train the mind — however, the heart drives how the knowledge will be communicated to customers. Capture the heart and the mind will follow and the customer, employee and the company win.”
Straight from the heart
When the will to succeed penetrates the heart and evokes passion, any obstacle can be overcome, any goal possible. And within those goals, the desire to continually improve performance — that of individuals and the organization — is a defining characteristic of the Top 100 dealer.
Perhaps no Top 100 dealer embodies that trait in quite the way Crystal-Pierz Marine (ranked 4, see Top 5 Profile, page 64) does. The Brainerd, Minn.-based company’s managers’ meetings often turn into a push for further improvements. Far and away the largest dealer in the Upper Midwest, Crystal-Pierz could easily rest on its laurels. Instead, management continuously pushes for new ideas and better ways to find success. For example, the dealer has taken on the services of GE’s Six Sigma black belts to map every process in the company. This allows Crystal-Pierz to create a detailed, step-by-step instruction for every action within a specific process. When finalized, the company will create a comprehensive electronic training program that will offer continuing education for every position in the company.
Likewise, Link Recreational (ranked 51) has worked with GE and its “At The Customer For the Customer” program to map its processes, in an attempt to improve its CSI scores and eliminate waste from its systems. Link focused specifically on the boat delivery process, where it believes that it can discover ways to improve its CSI scores.
Another large volume dealer, Olympic Boat Centers, Bellevue, Wash., says it has set the goal to become a model dealership that represents the marine industry with the highest standards of integrity and customer service. The 50-year-old company, which comprises two unique businesses (Olympic in the Northwest and Marine Centers in California), is in the process of transforming into “one professionally managed, entrepreneurial-spirited, integrated organization that earns Customers For Life,” according to President and CEO Rik Tokuno.
Seattle Boat Co., (ranked 16) has used a training budget of more than $50,000 to foster a CSI score of 99. Still, it’s not satisfied. Its five-year plan outline, which includes lofty sales goals, a focus on net profits, new revenue centers, expanded facilities and new strategic relationships, is one of the most impressive we’ve seen.
Then there’s Rambo Marine (ranked 54). Owner Karl Rambo is adding a pontoon line to his offerings this year with the goal of adding a second location. He has been putting the systems in place to be able to effectively do that for the last six years.
“I started Rambo Marine in 1987 for the same reason most boat dealers got in this business — I loved boating and thought it would be a great way to make a living,” he said. “That passion for boating will only take you so far, and then you better become a good businessperson and you had better surround yourself with good people who always want to learn and improve.”
The Strongest Link
If customer service strategies and improvement through training defined many of the Top 100 dealers, then service department initiatives seem to be the most prevalent area where the two join forces. This revenue center boasts both the most dedicated training rituals — who doesn’t send techs to factory training? — and the most direct route to ensuring customer satisfaction.
It’s every consumer’s goal to keep his boat on the water and out of the dealer’s service bay. Reality tells us, however, that every boat needs, at the minimum, its regular check-ups, whether that means a 20-hour service, winterization, oil change or so forth.
But Top 100 dealers know that the service department is much more than just an area within the facility that services boats. It represents the most direct link to the customer, an opportunity to interact with them and keep them happy.
More importantly to the Top 100 dealers, however, the service department creates a steady flow of revenue that, when it is operated efficiently and managed professionally, can put a good portion of that revenue directly toward the bottom line. It has proven, for dealers like Reed’s Marine, Delavan, Wis., (ranked 63) and Action Water Sports, Hudsonville, Mich., (ranked 25) to be a saving grace when inclement weather adversely affects boat sales. Action, for example relied on its service department for 9.5-percent of its earnings last year.
Professional service begins and ends on the front lines, though. It begins with a service department structure that is managed professionally. Prince William Marina (ranked 5, see Top 5 Profile, page 66), who has one of the highest service department efficiency ratings in the Top 100, doesn’t achieve its 115-percent rating by accident. The Woodbridge, Va.-based dealer has a detailed organizational map of its entire company, from seasonal boat detailing help up through a shop foreman, a hull maintenance manager, a fork lift operator, and managers for the service, boatel, marina and parts divisions of its service department. All told, the company employs 64 people, and every one of them is represented on the org chart.
Some dealers, such as Port Harbor Marine, South Portland, Maine, (ranked 13), utilize their employees, the technicians in this case, to personalize the service experience for customers. For nine years, Port Harbor has matched its technicians with customers for compatibility and has encouraged them to develop a relationship of trust and loyalty. This way, customers can communicate directly with the person in charge of repairing their boat.
There’s additional training required for coaching the technician in the proper methods and language used to communicate with the customer, according to Robert Soucy, president, but in the end, it helps Port Harbor’s service department accomplish its mission: to achieve a satisfying service experience for both the customer and technician.”
Putting a premium on a technician’s role these days is of utmost importance, but there are a variety of ways to encourage technicians to excel at their jobs. One of the most common among Top 100 dealers is the regular posting of department and individual technician efficiency.
At Woodard Marine Inc. of Hydeville, Vt., (ranked 21) efficiency is tracked — and posted in the lunch room — weekly. Through its dealer management system provider, each technician operates a laptop, clocks in and out of the system with each repair order. Efficiency is measured quarterly and yearly, at which time each technician is paid a bonus based on their efficiency.
Bonuses and rewards for technicians achieving a certain level of efficiency or quality (or both) are commonplace throughout the Top 100. D&R Boat World (ranked 61) owner and president Robert Barone, for example puts $25 into a pot for every post-service boat delivery that goes smoothly — that is without something missing or a problem of any sort. But, the Green Brook, N.J.-based dealer also takes $25 out if there is a problem. And the final sum of that pot is distributed to the company’s technicians at the end of the year.
At San Diego Sundance Marine (ranked 36) technicians get a salary plus a percentage of total revenue. And at Lakeside Marine (Pa.) techs are on a bonus program for having “no returns.”
Happy technicians typically translates to happy customers, and if there’s one way that the Top 100 demonstrates its priority on making customers happy, it’s through removing the hassle from servicing boats.
A number of dealers such as Sportsman’s Outfitter and Marine (ranked 87) of Lee’s Summit, Mo., and Spicer’s Boat City (ranked 90) of Houghton Lake, Mich., have opened quick-turnaround service facilities. No such service appears as structured as Crystal-Pierz Marine’s Urgent Care Repair program. When a customer pulls a boat into a service bay, if it can be fixed on the spot, it is. The program has been so successful for Crystal-Pierz that the company is building new facilities around its dedicated drive-thru service departments.
And all dealers know that it’s not always possible to get customers in and out in a day. At Ivancic Marine, Cleveland, Ohio, (ranked 34), you are guaranteed service within 24 hours if your boat is unuseable. At Schock Boats of Newport Beach, Calif., (ranked 29), the service department has 85 percent of its customers’ boats that arrive on Monday returned to them by the weekend. And at Action Water Sports, if a customer must bring his boat in for service while it’s under warranty, the dealer loans them another boat until theirs is repaired.
One of the most common trends among the Top 100 dealers is their propensity to bring their customers into some sort of club or community where outstanding service is not only promised but delivered. It starts with mentalities like that at Slalom Shop Boats and Yachts, Lewisville, Texas, (ranked 7) where the boat buyers receive their first year of service for free, and that service is oftentimes conducted by the company’s senior technicians who make on-water calls. And at Boats, Inc. Niantic, Conn., (ranked 22), customers receive free space at the company’s marina to ensure that any problems that may arise or handled immediately.
Village Marina & Yacht Club of Eldon, Mo., offers customers an appropriately named Hassle Free program, where they can choose from escalating levels of service packages. These packages allow customers to sign on up front and not have to bother to call in for service when regular maintenance is needed. It also allows the dealer to schedule his service work well in advance.
At Westport Marina (ranked 62) of Denver, N.C., the Admiral Care Program offers customers two years of maintenance free boating, including two engine services, two drive services, two winterizations, one detail, one prop change and up to three lake calls.
Those lake calls, or mobile service as the Top 100 dealers like to refer to them, are common among this group.
Bassett Boat Co. (ranked 19) of Springfield, Mass., and Shipyard Marine of Green Bay, Wis., (ranked 81) offer perfect examples of that, offering road- or dock-side service and after-hours parts deliveries, respectively.
But perhaps the most impressive such service found in the Top 100 is that found at Lakeside Marine, Lakeside, Ohio, (ranked 17). This dealer’s 24-hour hotline guarantees to put boaters in touch with a live voice within 10 minutes — even when the dealership is closed.
The many preceeding examples demonstrate how the Top 100 work diligently to remove the otherwise prevalent hassle factor from boating. The concept begins with employee development, then stretches to encompass everything that the Top 100 stand for, from customer service strategies to the service department.
But it doesn’t end there. The 2005 Top 100 dealers track many additional business metrics, from repeat business to boat show performance and from profitability to marketing strategies. There are simply far too many examples to list.
Take a lesson from the professionalism exhibited at these Top 100 companies. Their business practices and overall strategies make servicing the customer an inherent part of their culture.
Sidebar: About the Top 100
The work to begin compiling Boating Industry’s inaugural Top 100 began in earnest this spring with the creation of a four-page application form that would serve as the starting point for everyone involved.
The application — which explained the Top 100, its purpose and methodology — consisted of 56 questions divided into five sections. The questions were of both a qualitative and quantitative nature.
Each of the five parts of the questionnaire focused on a specific aspect of a dealership’s business: Company Data; Sales and Profits; Service and Customer Satisfaction; Training and Education; and Marketing. Dealerships supplying answers containing sensitive information could mark those answers NFP (Not for Publication), meaning we could evaluate their information but could not reproduce it.
More than 5,000 applications were e-mailed to dealerships across North America, 3,500 more were sent by standard mail and 75,000 were bound into issues of the magazine for dealers to complete and return. In addition, more than 700 dealers that were nominated by manufacturers and suppliers were called by Boating Industry’s editorial staff, notified of the program and urged to submit applications. In all, more than 310 usable applications were received.
Once the applications were received, the editors fully evaluated each one, conducted further research beyond the information provided — and many follow-up interviews as well — then sequestered themselves to discuss the merits of each application and supplemental materials.
A point-based system was applied to each individual question for an initial tally. However, qualitative information was given a much greater weight than quantitative information, and numbers were far less important to the final rankings than attributes such as professionalism, customer service strategies, business planning processes, operational systems and procedures, marketing initiatives and a steadfast commitment to personal and professional development.
Sidebar: Marketing is a must
Why “word-of-mouth” doesn’t cut it anymore.
By Liz Walz
Attractive facilities, highly trained employees, industry-leading CSI scores and technician efficiency are great.
But without marketing, they’re a waste of time and money.
If potential customers don’t know the name of your dealership, where to find it and what makes it stand out from competitors, it isn’t likely to last very long. And it sure isn’t going to grow. Sure, several of the industry’s oldest dealerships have based their past success on word-of-mouth. But relying on that alone doesn’t cut it anymore.
As the most profitable and fastest growing dealerships, the Boating Industry Top 100 dealers invest in highly effective forms of marketing. They aren’t always necessarily on the cutting edge or even spending the most money. In fact, what makes them successful is that they track their marketing dollars’ effectiveness and continually readjust their strategy based on those results.
Surfside 3 Marina (ranked 3, see Top 5 Profile, page 62) does just that. At each event it participates in, the dealer keeps track of its costs, from advertising and exhibit space to the balloon animal man hired to entertain the kids. Then, it calculates the profit made on each boat sold as a result of the event. This allows the dealer to determine its return on investment, an essential tool in deciding what events to attend in the future. After all, looks can be deceiving. The boat show with all that traffic might not have the right traffic.
Effective marketers don’t necessarily follow advertising trends, but sometimes what’s trendy makes sense in business. Or sometimes, like George’s Marine & Sports (ranked 39, see Editor’s Pick, page 75), these dealers try something new, starting a trend of their own. In addition to the typical radio, print and direct mail advertising, the Ottawa, Ontario, Canada-based dealer advertises in airport baggage claims, grocery stores, bank lobbies and at golf tournaments. A 2004 study by Arbitron backs up this strategy, calling the airport “an exceptional opportunity for luxury goods and entertainment services to reach upscale targets” and airport advertising an “undiscovered upscale medium.”
Strong’s Marine (ranked 23) is also a savvy marketer. The three-location dealership based in Mattituck, N.Y., invests in movie screen advertising, a growing trend in the United States. Not only do movie goers tend to be more active than the typical consumer, studies suggest they have higher-than-average household incomes. In addition, consumers are more likely to remember a cinema ad than a television ad. And the average consumer finds them more acceptable than other forms of advertising, such as Internet ads.
With that said, having an Internet presence is essential today. And just having a presence isn’t enough. No one knows that better than Staten Island Boat Sales (ranked 35), one of the largest mid-size yacht dealers in the world. It reports that its two largest sources of leads are the Internet and boat shows, and the dealer’s Web site, www.siboats.com, reflects tha