Strolling along the Lake Geneva shore on a lazy Saturday evening this August, those passing by may have been confused by the sight that greeted them as they reached Gordy’s Lakefront Marine in Fontana, Wis.
A 250-person cocktail party was in full swing in front of the business, kicking off a night that would later include a pig roast and a movie premiere. Given all the red clothing being worn, some may have wondered whether a University of Wisconsin rally was being held.
But the Badgers weren’t the reason for the gathering. Gordy’s 50th anniversary celebration was underway, and the business was marking the occasion with a reunion — a family reunion.
It’s a big family.
In addition to the four generations of Whowells that have worked in the business since Gordon Whowell founded the company in 1955, Gordy’s counts every employee that has ever worked for the business (a list that runs to 425 names), and every customer that has ever walked through its doors, among “family.”
Gordy’s (ranked 15) is more than a successful business — although it was “Rookie of the Year” for Cobalt boats in 1998, and has won Customer Satisfaction Index awards from Cobalt every year it has carried the line.
Gordy’s is an institution in its area; it’s a vacation destination for residents of several metropolitan areas; it’s a place where locals gather and socialize; it’s a place where many of those same people worked when they were kids, and want their children to work as well; and it’s a business that returns that loyalty with a dedication and devotion to its extended family.
“Once we get our hands on you, you’re pretty much a Gordy’s customer for life,” says Thomas Whowell, president of Gordy’s. “People just get so taken up with Gordy’s, this sort of family affair, this special kind of feeling, that they can’t go to any other business and get that kind of feeling.”
Gordy’s is more than a boat dealership. The company also includes the Cobalt Lounge and Boat House Restaurant, a ski and wakeboard school, a charter cruise operation, a boat service/storage facility called Cobalt Farms — which Cobalt sends other dealers to look at when they are thinking about remodeling their own facilities — a boat rental service and a travel agency.
Those facilities are all located in Fontana, on the southeast corner of Geneva Lake, more popularly known as Lake Geneva. Take a map, draw a line from Milwaukee to Rockford, Ill., and another from Madison, Wis., to Chicago, and Fontana is at the center of that X. It’s located about 55 miles from Milwaukee and 65 miles from Chicago.
Whowell says the area has always been a Chicago-land destination. But Gordy’s seems to have set itself apart from the other businesses around the lake, not to mention most other boat dealerships around the country, by the atmosphere it has created using the advantages its lakefront location and proximity to those population centers conveys.
Many business owners practically have to light their hair on fire and run around the parking lot to draw attention to themselves. Many of the customers Gordy’s sells to are people who just showed up for a drink or a meal and liked the environment so much they wanted to be part of it … a lasting part of it.
“Interestingly enough, the food and beverage business is a great complement to the boat business, because so much of the boat business is social,” Whowell says. “Our restaurant is the world’s best closing booth. You take somebody over there for lunch or dinner, and you have a few cocktails, you kind of wine and dine people.”
During the summer, Gordy’s is the place to be. The company’s motto is “You haven’t been to Lake Geneva if you haven’t been to Gordy’s.”
A look at the calendar of events the company sponsored this past summer includes several concerts, a wakeboard competition and two customer appreciation events — one of which was a steak and lobster dinner that attracted 300 people.
Gordy’s lets its employees know they are appreciated as well. August’s alumni party was the latest in an ongoing series of events. The red jackets Gordy’s gives employees after one year of employment — the only item of Gordy’s Gear the company doesn’t sell — are worn with pride. And Whowell says many employees carry the time they spent at Gordy’s with them for the rest of their lives.
“Exceptional customer service is our motto,” he says. “And they’ve taken a lot of that off into their own lives and used the things they learned here, about the way we treat people and conduct our business, into their own businesses, and have found them to be very successful tools.”
Former employees traveled from as far away as Switzerland to attend the Gordy’s reunion. Families are like that.