Scouting a new future

The concept behind Sportsman’s Island offers a glimmer of hope in what have been troubled times for the boating industry. It represents a leap forward for marine retailing in that it upholds the individual business’ tradition of independence and yet suggests a deep faith in the power of collaboration. And it’s one man’s dream coming true.

That man is Steve Potts, president and founder of Scout Boats. Over the course of his career, he has developed an idea for what he believes is the ultimate boating retail experience. While his vision has its roots in his teenage years when he worked for a boat dealer whose shop served as the local hang-out for the town’s fishermen, it has evolved as he has observed both the triumphs of other industries and the challenges of marine retail.

With more than 30,000 square feet of purpose-built retail space, Sportsman’s Island has been designed to deliver a first-class atmosphere where boats and boating merge, and the lifestyle sells itself. It brings to life a one-stop-shopping solution for today’s busy and increasingly demanding boaters. And it draws them in by intimately packaging everything that a boater desires but has never known to be available. At least not in one location. And certainly not at the average boat dealership.

A collaborative effort
That’s the key. Potts’ dream includes much more than just a boat dealership. It’s a unique coming together of dealer and closely aligned retailers that creates an experiential buying environment whereby each independent business adds value to its partners.

Potts no longer has to dream about the potential of such a facility. With this spring’s launch of Sportsman’s Island, it is now open for business. With it, Potts seeks to prove that the experience provided by this model can attract more traffic, and ultimately more business, than any one of the individual participants could achieve on its own.

These independent companies — Hanckel Marine, Boater’s World, and eventually a small, outdoor-themed retail shop and seafood restaurant — he believes, will be best able to provide the focus, service and personal touch that are essential to customer satisfaction.

Potts, Hanckel and Boater’s World are diehard believers in the project’s potential and in the message it sends — one that echoes the efforts of the Grow Boating Initiative — that the industry’s greatest hope for success may come from reaching for it together.

“If there is a time to come up with something new and exciting to create a little more energy, to create a beginning of something,” Potts says, “it’s now. I think it’s time for a change. It is the perfect time to do what we’re doing. The bar needs to be raised.”

With that said, Potts isn’t personally funding Sportsman’s Island solely for the industry’s good. For him, it comes back to the success of his first passion, Scout Boats. It’s no surprise then, that the one other investor in this project is the Hanckel family, owners of Hanckel Marine, Scout Boats’ No. 1 dealer for the past two years.

It just so happens that Hanckel Marine is the boat dealer tenant in this Charleston, S.C.-based facility — located in Scout Boats’ backyard. But Potts’ vision goes well beyond Charleston and Hanckel Marine. He hopes to use this first facility as a model for other Scout dealers to adopt in other boating markets across the country.
As for Hanckel Marine founder Milo Hanckel, he simply believes in the idea.

“I think if you look long-term, we’re long overdue for a projec like this, especially in our market where we see these big box stores,” Hanckel explains. “I think the boating business needs this immediately. The No. 1 thing we all have to do is we have to make the boat buying experience better. This is definitely the future of the business.

“Those who don’t try to make that experience better are going to get stale or stagnant and lose ground in today’s market.”

Piecing it together
It was early 2003 when Potts bought the land on which Sportsman’s Island sits today.

It’s located on Daniel Island, a fast-growing, upscale island town just minutes from downtown Charleston, and it features more than 20 miles of rivers and creeks. At the time of the purchase, the land had a “very depressed value” because of plans to build a port terminal nearby. On a hunch that the terminal plans would fall through due to the political heat they were attracting from nearby residents, Potts put a contract on the land.

It was “a hell of a deal,” he says. And by the time he broke ground in the summer of 2006, the land had quadrupled in value.

Potts was determined from the beginning to create a facility that would be easy to enter and exit for those towing a boat and trailer. And the dream to build the perfect facility helped him overcome the many challenges he faced, such as building a bridge and road onto the property.

“It’s very typical for a boat dealership to be in a place that has become established,” he explains. “It’s a tedious thing to trailer a boat in a high-traffic area. It’s hard to get in and out. This facility is designed and built in a way that doesn’t shake your nerves.”

Those types of hurdles would have turned many property owners off to the project, but not Potts.
“If I was a commercial developer, I would have been a lot wiser to turn it around and make a lot of money,” he says. “But I’m a boat builder, and it’s everything I can do in my life to be successful at that.”

Most people who’ve seen the facility would think Potts was nuts if he told them it was to become a boat dealership, but the economic model for Sportsman’s Island involves spreading the costs across all the businesses that are participating in the project, he explains.

Potts’ original vision for Sportsman’s Island was based entirely around locally owned businesses, including a boating supplies retailer and an outfitter, but he soon realized the value of having a blend of local and nationally recognized brands. As a result, he started pitching companies like West Marine and Boater’s World on his concept.

When Boater’s World first learned of Potts’ vision three or four years ago, it didn’t see it as a good fit. But since then, the company has explored some of its own diversification ideas, including the purchase of four boat dealerships, two in Florida and two in Maryland. Though they’re still in the experimental stage, they’re based on the same basic premise, according to Jay Jolly, Boater’s World vice president.

“We had the same idea without realizing it was Steve’s idea,” explains Jolly. “We’ve been testing what Steve has built in Charleston, and while we haven’t done it to the grand scale he has, I think it’s successful.”

Because of those initial results, when Boater’s World recently took another look at Sportsman’s Island, the company decided it “fits the next stage of where we can be profitable and successful.

“Charleston is a good market for us, for our type of customer,” says Jolly. “We’ve looked for a third store in the past and this made sense geographically. The facility and the placement and the signage and the interest of boats being there, the whole concept of being a different kind of marine store was very interesting to me.”

A whole new Boater’s World
Indeed, this will be a different store for Boater’s World. At 15,000 square feet, not only is the footprint bigger than most of its stores, but the shopping experience will be unique as well.
A typical Boater’s World occupies about 7,500 square feet and has the feel of a grocery store for boaters, explains Jolly. While the company has eight larger stores, the reason they’re bigger is that they’re located in good markets where it makes sense to offer a wider product selection.

This store, which was in the “how-do-we-make-it-look” phase when we interviewed the company in mid-February, will be spread out so that consumers will have room to “play with fishing rods and mingle about,” says Jolly. In fact, the store will have more of a fishing focus all around, from the wide selection of tackle to the live bait it will sell.

“We’re going to do some things to make it more experiential,” says Jolly. “We don’t normally sell live bait in a Boater’s World store. You don’t walk in and have livewells with live shrimp. This store will probably have it. That’s a small experience, but it’s part of a real tackle center. It tells a story to the fisherman in a very subtle way. Anyone can hang fish and fancy pictures on the wall — which we obviously will do — but I hope to make it experiential using usable stuff.”

Connecting the Boater’s World store and Hanckel Marine’s 6,000-square-foot sales office is a two-story entranceway that will feature a 4,000-gallon saltwater fish tank containing all the local sport fish. Potts says he is inviting the South Carolina Aquarium and Department of Natural Resources to use it as an opportunity to educate more people.

“On this tank, we’ll have information on all the species, what their habitat is like and what they eat,” he says. “We want to put back into the fisheries and natural resources what we’re trying to sell people to go out and enjoy.”

Taking service to new heights
Milo Hanckel took over the Charleston dealership that became the first home for Hanckel Marine on Oct. 1, 2000. Since that time he has built a successful business in partnership with his father, Miles, and his mother, sister and brother who have all joined the company in one capacity or another.

Milo agrees that the Sportsman’s Island project came along at just the right time. When he first started in discussions with Potts about investing in Sportsman’s Island, he was already looking at different ways to grow his business, from adding a trailer repair shop to bringing in a metal fabricator for T-tops and creating a detailing department.

“We were trying, within our own dealership, to make the boating experience better,” he explained, “so when this came up, it expanded the effort even further than we were thinking. It tied in really well with our thought process of what we wanted to grow our business into.”

Perhaps the greatest opportunity that Sportsman’s Island presents Hanckel Marine is to expand its service business. The company’s service department, Milo explains, can be three to five days out on repairs in the off-season, and as much as three weeks out in season. As its boat sales have grown in recent years, the service department has yet to expand.

With plans for the city of Charleston and Daniel Island Co. to finalize their plans for a two-mile-long waterfront park in its neighborhood, the company’s service business has even greater potential for growth. Those plans include a large marina and dry stack, places to eat, a park, baseball fields, retail stores and a beach. The location is expected to be a destination for boaters. It could provide a natural — and significant — opportunity for further growth.

“We’re going to learn to cater to that market by adding a mobile technician or two to our arsenal,” says Milo. “The marina doesn’t want to manage a bunch of techs. They want to be able to call when their customers need service, and they want someone to come and fix the problem so that their customers will be able to use their boat the next weekend.

“I also think the other businesses at Sportsman’s Island will benefit from them, as well. They might be able to call ahead and have certain parts, accessories or bait ready for them, for example.”
To prepare for the opportunity, Milo says the new facility, including the 12,000-square-foot service building and the land it sits on, is larger than the entire dealership Hanckel Marine currently occupies. He expects that the number of bays, and the way they’re set up, will provide for greater efficiency, and having a service department on each side of town will help decrease the lead times.

But it’s simply the separation of the sales and service departments that may make the biggest statement of professionalism for the new Sportsman’s Island.

“The auto industry has figured that out,” Potts explains. “They don’t have someone with greasy hands in the middle of the showroom. But it’s common in the marine industry. Boat dealerships are not set up in a way that’s enjoyable for someone talking about spending a serious amount of money.”

The entire Sportsman’s Island design, in fact, is intended to improve the boating experience. Jolly says it’s aimed at the “boater who likes to fish, get knowledge, gain information and experience the lifestyle they enjoy.

“We’re not the spectacle, the Disney World of outdoor. It’s more of a purist type of thing. This is somewhere you go when you want to talk boating and fishing, kind of hang around.”

In fact, that’s exactly the vision Potts had when he first began dreaming up Sportsman’s Island. When he worked for that boat dealership as a teenager, everyone was friends with the people at the business, he says. And they would gather there to sit around and tell fish stories.

“If it was still that way today, it would be a different type of industry,” he says. “Sportsman’s Island could bring that back. You could stop in at Sportsman’s Island just to say, ‘hello.’ ”
The main building of the facility welcomes that kind of casual interaction. The boats, for example, will be on display outside, along the side of the building that faces the stocked pond and beyond that, the highway. They’ll be accessed through an elevated wooden dock system similar to what you see at boat shows, but more sturdy and permanent. About 30 boats can fit within this structure, which sits under a 10,000-square-foot awning area. Connecting the boat display and the building is a large porch easily accessed by any of the Sportsman’s Island businesses where customers can mingle while they view the displays.

The public will have its first chance to experience the new building during Hanckel Marine’s grand opening, scheduled to take place this month. Boater’s World’s goal is to open its new store on Memorial Day.

Making a bigger splash
The owners have been focused on getting those first two businesses up and running, but there are more tenants to come. A third 3,000- to 4,000-square-foot retail space remains open. Among those who have been in discussions to lease the space are a golf cart retailer, an ATV dealer and a high-end bicycle shop.

Yet another phase includes attracting a seafood restaurant to the property with an entertainment theme that will prove attractive to people who like to fish. Potts says he’d like to finalize that deal this fall, with intentions of breaking ground in late 2008 or early 2009.

“There are a number of related businesses to the marine industry that have synergy with what we do that should be able to co-exist for a common cause in one location,” he says. “It just makes more sense to combine resources than have it be so fragmented like it has been.”

Once it’s complete, Potts also sees Sportsman’s Island as a
perfect venue for events, from open houses to mini-boat shows.
“Sportsman’s Island, because of its location, the synergy of its businesses, its great curb appeal, and the fact that 80,000 cars go by every day, it’s hard to forget about,” he says. “And with the restaurant being there, it’ll be a place that will be excellent for bringing people together in groups to get more people interested in the boating and fishing lifestyle.”
One Sportsman’s Island event already being discussed is a cookout that will likely be held during Scout Boat’s annual dealer meeting.
“Our dealer meeting is a Scout event. It’s not to sell Sportsman’s Island or real estate,” says Potts. “But this is a model people can get ideas from, where they can see things that we know work. It behooves us to share whatever we can to make all our dealers successful.”
If Sportsman’s Island is as successful as he hopes it will be, Potts would like to see the concept exported to other markets. Because Hanckel Marine has no interest in becoming a national retailer, the idea is that Scout dealers in other markets could partner with Boater’s World or a similar company, as well as other related retailers and restaurants.
“I believe it could change the whole experience people have in buying and selling our product,” says Potts. “If I’m nothing more than the catalyst to make that happen, I’m tickled.”
It’s also another reason why the presence of Boater’s World at Sportsman’s Island is an advantage. As part of its lease agreement, the company has a right of refusal to participate in another Sportsman’s Island, Potts says.
“I think there are other markets in the country where the concept could work,” says Jolly. “Sportsman’s Island is within the normal realm of cost for a Boater’s World store. And there are lots of other locations up and down the East Coast where it wouldn’t be too expensive to do it.”

The right time?
Between the double-digit dip in new boat sales last year and gloomy forecasts for 2008, it may not seem like the right time to launch a project like Sportsman’s Island. But its owners don’t necessarily agree.

In fact, Potts has been here before. He launched Scout Boats in the summer of 1989, and he says that everybody told him he was a fool. The economy was tough then, as well, and Potts says there was even more pessimism at that time. But, now, he believes, is the perfect time to launch this concept.

While Hanckel Marine is being cautious and starting out lean, Milo has already lined up the employees to double the size of the company’s service department — which he calls its first concentration. And he expects 2008 to be comparable to last year, when revenues were up three percent. But despite his caution, Milo still believes the timing of the Sportsman’s Island launch is to his advantage.

“It’ll take us six months to a year to get settled into the business and get our game plan together for how it’s going to run,” he says. “By that time, things should start to wind up. If we start lean, we’ll grow with it as the business grows. That’s the short-term look at it.”

But the dream-come-true that is Sportsman’s Island is not just about the short term. No, this is a growing dream that seeks not just to showcase boats and accessories in a beautiful new building, but rather to attract more people into the boating lifestyle for the long-term.

“I believe that what Sportsman’s Island is going to do is raise the bar,” concludes Potts. “A number of things have to happen in order to have people invest in our industry for things such as this. The marine industry too often has a 90-day mentality. More attention has to be paid to the long-term investment.

“We’re talking about manufacturers and dealers alike, what we’re doing and how it’s going to be for the next two, three or even five years. Boat building is a relatively inexpensive manufacturing business to get into, but the things you need to do to make it successful for the long haul means you need to invest money and time.”

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