Top 100 Profile: Skipper Bud’s, No. 2

In its Top 100 application, Skipper Bud’s President Dennis Ellerbrock candidly admitted: “We do not like the term chain. We are a group of 22 locations joined together by common goals, common management and common ownership. A chain sells hamburgers and paper diapers. We are 323 teammates striving to serve the recreational marine industry.”

Indeed, Skipper Bud’s, based in Winthrop Harbor, Ill., is far more than a retail chain that sells a high volume of merchandise. Under the umbrella organization called Skipper Marine Corporation and Affiliates — which is the parent company to Skipper Bud’s, Chicago Sea Ray and Skipper Marine Development — the company not only consists of boat dealerships, but also service and storage operations and multiple marinas. Skipper Bud’s also designs and develops marinas, along with condominiums, restaurants and a variety of other waterfront property.

Founded in 1964 by Bud Pretasky, Skipper Bud’s now has eight locations in Wisconsin, seven in Michigan, four in Illinois, and one in Ohio, Mississippi and Florida. It owns or manages more than 4,100 marina slips, stores more than 3,000 boats each winter, operates several dry stacks with a capacity of 480 boats and assists nearly 65 percent of its customers with financing.

But while an outside observer might have a hard time pigeonholing the company with a single, retail-oriented definition, Skipper Bud’s has a crystal clear vision of its priorities.

“First and foremost, we are a service company that sells boats,” according to Ellerbrock.
And selling is something the company does very well.

Skipper Bud’s is a Sea Ray Master Dealer, one of the first six ever, and has won numerous other awards from the eight boat brands it sells, including service CSI awards from Carver.

Unwilling to rely solely on the data gleaned from its boat makers’ CSI programs, the company invests in its own program using Customer Service Intelligence, an independent tele-inquiry firm, to call customers after each transaction. The scores there are high as well. The tele-service provider asks five questions of customers who have bought a used boat, had warranty work done, boats winterized, etc. The most important of these, according to Ellerbrock, is, “Would you do business with this company again?”

And an incredible 95 percent of its customers answer yes to that question.

Equally impressive is Skipper Bud’s service department efficiency average of 78 percent, with some locations in the upper 80th percentile. Fueling those stats is an incredible perk that Skipper Bud’s offers its monthly top-performing service techs and sales people: two tickets for an all-expense paid cruise, including airfare and $500 spending money.

Clearly, Skipper Bud’s believes in motivating employees, but not just monetarily. The company has a strong, six-figure training program, not including the lost earnings potential when employees are away from the job taking part in that training.

“In the end, the only way to build a good, solid team in my mind, is to build it from the grassroots up, from within,” says Ellerbrock. “And that’s where training comes in. Our industry should not be one that kind of looks like we came in from the hayfield yesterday.”

The commitment to building from within is evident in several of the company’s key leadership positions.

Michelle English, Skipper Bud’s vice president of sales, has been with the company for 15 years, having overseen both the service and parts departments prior to taking her current position. Likewise Mike Ellerbrock, the corporate service director, has 16 years with the company, and worked as a sales person, service writer and service manager before assuming his current job. And these are just two examples from a long list of executives who have made their way up through the ranks. The ongoing strategy is prevalent at every level of the company.

Another key component to the company’s success has been its expansion into other areas of the marine business, both as a means of diversifying, but also to create further opportunities for boat sales.

In the mid-80s when Skipper Bud’s was trying to sell boats in Milwaukee, it was almost a contingency of the sale to offer the buyer a slip on Lake Michigan as well. So the company built what Ellerbrock believes may have been the first dry stack on Lake Michigan, possibly even the Great Lakes, and the idea for Skipper Marine Development was born.

“If you’re selling cookies, you would love to control the shelves that those cookies are sold off of,” he explains. “Well we want to control the distribution, as well, and for us, distribution is access to the water. Skipper Marine Development develops access to the water. So as a result, we’ve been able to invest in and manage marinas where our boat selling and service operations have an opportunity to earn their way in as well.”

Other initiatives, such as a well-organized succession plan; diligence in training new boat owners and offering more experienced boaters hands-on training classes; and its Business Development Unit, which matches leads with salespeople; qualify Skipper Bud’s as an industry leader worthy of a spot near the top of any list saluting marine excellence.

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