In December of 2008, interest in boating was perhaps at an all-time low on Lake Lanier’s famed Holiday Road. Not only was the area — and the whole country for that matter — just a couple months removed from the collapse of the credit market, but this well-known row of boat dealerships had been devastated by a horrific drought that saw the Georgia lake’s levels also plummet to an all-time low.
The combination of the crises put a number of dealers in the area out of business and all but put the surviving dealers up against the ropes. Many of the dealerships that line Holiday Road testified to the tough times, noting the difficulty in attracting floor traffic, let alone getting anyone to pull the trigger on a new boat purchase.
But on a chilly December day in an office at the Singleton Marine Group’s Cobalt Boats of Atlanta facility, which sits smack dab in the middle of this boat-dealer mecca, there was nothing but promise emanating from Anthony Aisquith, the newest member of the Singleton team.
There was little physical, verbal or emotional evidence to support Aisquith’s optimistic outlook. Very few cars were passing by the storefront. His store wasn’t even open that day. His competitors were about as down on the future as they possibly could be. And, if anyone in the Atlanta area was thinking about boating that day, the only thoughts they were having were probably related to the amount of rock, mud and debris that had been revealed by the receding water levels.
Aisquith, however, was looking past all that. What he saw at the time would have been difficult, if not impossible, for anyone else to notice. It took fresh eyes and a new perspective. It took a willingness to enact change. With only a week under his belt as managing partner at Singleton Marine Group, Aisquith brought all of that to his position. And what he saw was opportunity.
“From the time I met [SMG majority owner] Austin Singleton, I knew our visions were very similar,” Aisquith explains, “and there was no limit to how far we could grow his business with new strategies.”
“The main thing,” Singleton adds, “was that after meeting with Anthony a couple times, we connected really well. His strengths were my weaknesses. And if I could see that he had any weaknesses, they were my strengths, the things that I really enjoy doing. It just seemed liked a really good marriage.”
Over the course of the next 18 months, Aisquith and Scott Cunningham, another managing partner who would come aboard later, orchestrated a series of moves that have transformed Singleton Marine Group into one of the most prominent boat dealers in the Southeast. In the face of devastating boating conditions and perhaps the worst economy the marine industry has ever seen, Singleton Marine Group achieved extraordinary results
The opportunity Aisquith envisioned is the No. 1 reason Austin Singleton began assembling this network of dealerships and the team that makes it go. And from where Singleton sits, even as the economy continues to sputter with no clear indication of where it’s headed, he can see much more opportunity on the horizon.
He and his management team keep their focus locked intently on change, not for its own sake, but as a way to continually try to create additional profit centers.
When Aisquith first began at Singleton Marine Group, for example, the company’s bills were paid, for the most part, by the revenue generated from new unit sales. With fluctuations in the market, that strategy can and has left dealers at the mercy of the economy, especially when things come crashing down, as they did in late 2008.
Today, by way of simultaneously trimming expenses and increasing revenue streams, 85 percent of Singleton Marine Group’s bills are paid by the service and parts departments. Singleton and Aisquith envision a day when 100 percent of the bills will be paid by revenue generated anywhere but new unit sales.
“Our revenue streams are coming from every different direction,” Aisquith says. “Every quarter we’re adding new ones. We’re paying attention to our core business: parts, service and storage. Most dealers look at those things as a byproduct of sales. We’ve flipped that viewpoint. We’re full of ideas, and we’re constantly changing.”
The strategy is proving itself. In a year when many dealers were fighting for their very survival, 2009 became one of the most profitable on record for the Singleton Marine Group. The company’s Cobalt Boats market share increased at every location, and nearly doubled in its Atlanta territory. And all the while, the company has kept its CSI scores at an impressive 98.97 percent for Cobalt.
Even before some of these new initiatives get fully underway, Singleton Marine Group says it’s already 37-percent ahead of where it was last year at this time. The only difficulty it’s finding, as Singleton’s Malibu Boats Brand Champion Bryan Potzner points out, is that the company can’t get enough product to move through its inventory.
To be sure, the viewpoint of Aisquith and Singleton hasn’t changed much from that day they saw so much opportunity back in late 2008. The ideas the company has in store could, in some ways, revolutionize the way dealers care for their customers. The Boat Mates program, for example, has much greater potential than simply a concierge service (see “What’s Next?” on page 30). That, however, is opportunity that Singleton is just not ready to talk about.
The boating market has yet to make the turn the industry has been hoping for, but Singleton Marine Group and its team of top performers aren’t waiting around. The change the company has embraced and implemented has helped it turn the corner far ahead of many others in the industry. And, much like that cold December day back in 2008, the most exciting opportunities for Singleton Marine Group appear to be just over the horizon.
“I think that if you’re a dealer right now that has been a good dealer in the past and you have strong financials and you think things are just going to continue as they have in the past, you’re nuts,” Singleton says. “It’s never going to be like it was. If you don’t start thinking outside of the box and looking for those other revenue streams, I think you’re going to be backed into a corner again someday.
“I have to wonder where our growth will ever stop. If we catch a couple breaks … if the economy comes back … if we can get our inventory up … if the manufacturers can get us the support we need … there’s no telling where this thing could go.”
Here, chronologically, is how the company has achieved such great success, even amidst the downturn:
Anthony Aisquith joined Singleton Marine Group as a managing partner, buying into the ownership of the company after spending 14 years with MarineMax, Inc., most recently as a vice president of the company. “I was looking for an opportunity with a company with multi-locations in multi-states because of my background.”
Aisquith set his sights on the finance and insurance business, which was the crux of his optimism during that visit to his office. Since then, the company has increased its F&I business by four times what it was that December, through a more intense focus on retail financing, insurance sales, extended warranty sales, vessel documentation and, most importantly, the solid processes to ensure success.
Singleton Marine Group signed a deal with Manheim Specialty Auctions to become the company’s service inspector. Singleton’s technicians inspect every boat going through the auction, taking a per-boat fee in addition to the fee for any service work the boat may need. “It gives us an inside view of what’s going on with those boats,” Aisquith says. “They run thousands of boats through those auctions, and at the end of the week I have technicians who can say, ‘Hey, here’s the one we should go after.’”
After approaching Singleton about available opportunities and the level of expertise he could add to the team, Scott Cunningham joined Singleton Marine Group, reuniting with Aisquith. Cunninham had worked with Aisquith at MarineMax for nine years as a district president for both Texas and Georgia. “When it comes to selling boats in any environment, I knew Scott would be a no-brainer to help us get to that next level and beyond,” Singleton says.
Singleton Marine Group hired Darren Matthews, who had been president of now-defunct JOA Marine. As a former employee of Staten Island Yacht Sales, as well, Matthews brought a specialty in big boat sales to Singleton Marine Group. “We agreed that my only responsibility was selling boats over 30 feet,” Matthews explains, “and we have had unbelievable success based on my ability to just be focused on that segment of the business. I had forgotten that giving people what they want is the only way of getting what I want. I remember now that selling boats is what I loved from the start … watching families set out on that first trip … and genuinely caring that all is right is what matters most in this line of work.”
Singleton Marine Group re-opened its Boat Liquidation Center on Holiday Road. The facility had been used as a storage location for a few years and had intermittently been used to sell boats out of. This reopening made it a full-time sales location for used, brokeraged and repossessed boats, and this segment of the business quickly grew to make up 40 percent of the company’s total revenue. “It still amazes me, the amount of Web and drive-in traffic you receive by just using the word ‘liquidation’ as a sign on the business,” Aisquith says. “Additionally, I did a lot of work with Channel Blade on our website through the services they offer. We spent a great deal of money on it, and our website now attracts about 200,000 impressions a month. And of course we’re on all the other sites as well, so we’ve really fine-tuned our site to help drive that traffic.”
Unable to come to terms, Singleton Marine Group and its floor plan lender severed ties, leaving the dealership chain without any floor plan financing for nearly one year. With Aisquith and Cunningham at the helm of dealership operations, Austin Singleton became “the money guy,” strategically moving money to where the company needed it most. He sold family stock when the company needed cash, and he invested money when it ran a surplus. At times, the checking account balance was “zero” because incoming cash from a boat sale was immediately funneled to purchase a new product. The ability to do this was made possible by having the right people running the ship, but also required a keen sense of financial management. “We took all the available money we had, which wasn’t a lot, and had to get really aggressive and manage it almost on an hourly basis,” Singleton explains. “We really had to work at putting our money to work for us, but it’s been a good learning experience and good discipline. It’s making us better managers, and we will do more business with less capital than we’ve ever done in the past.”
Singleton Marine Group acquired Boats with Gusto on Lake Oconee. “They started out as a Sea-Doo and jet boat dealer, and they were struggling with the boat lines they added,” Singleton explains. “We took it over, and we’ve moved all of our boat lines in. We know our boat sales are going up there; we’ve seen that immediately. The sheer number of people coming into the store because it’s such a great location has gone up by more than four times what it used to be.”
Singleton Marine Group inked a deal with a large, national retail lender to handle all of the lender’s repossessed boats 30 feet and longer for all of Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. If a boat is repossessed by the lender, Singleton Marine Group picks it up, reconditions it and sells it, taking a percentage of the sale price and recouping all net expenses accumulated during the reconditioning. To date, the company is selling about eight to 10 repossessed boats a month, all having been completely reconditioned.
Singleton Marine Group took on the Regal Marine line of boats after much consideration. For years, the company didn’t want to make such a move because it viewed the Regal line as such a close competitor to its long-time partner, Cobalt. When Aisquith pointed out that SMG didn’t have anything to offer in the pocket cruiser category — 25- to 30-foot overnighter-type boats — it decided to take a closer look. The Regal line has filled that hole, and also allowed the company to offer any size boat from 19 feet all the way up to more than 50 feet.
Singleton Marine Group launched an initiative to boost its alternative profit centers, working with the Cliff’s Marina on Lake Keowee. Through this marina alone, Singleton pays a $5,000 licensing fee per month to offer a fuel dock, sandwich shop and boat rentals to the members-only club, and the company grossed $300,000 in revenue the first year. “They were very inefficient in managing their marina, the way they were doing it,” Singleton explains. “We approached them, they opened their books up to us, and we were able to guarantee them a better revenue stream than they were able to get themselves. And we make a tremendous amount of profit off of the deal.”
Singleton Marine Group recorded the company’s best Atlanta Boat Show sales results ever. Sales were up more than 20 percent compared to its previous best year, which was 2005. “We used tactics that Scott and I have learned and taught about boat show selling,” Aisquith explains. “There’s a formula to the success, and it begins with teaching our team that it’s not a boat show; it’s a boat sale.”
Singleton Marine group took on the Carver and Marquis Yacht lines in a deal with J&D Acquisitions. “Anthony was convinced it would be an incredible opportunity on Lake Lanier,” Singleton explains. “When we started talking to Darren, with his experience selling Carver, and then with Scott’s big boat expertise, it was a
no-brainer for us.”
Identifying a demand for detail work on Lake Lanier, Singleton Marine Group inked a deal with a local detailing company. Together, the two companies increased the detailer’s prices by 20 percent and began selling the service in a cooperative effort. Singleton Marine Group takes 20 percent of all sales, and in the first two months alone, its net profit from the initiative totaled $12,000.
Singleton Marine Group took over Holiday Marina on Lake Lanier and custom-built a Yacht Sales Center in a deal it negotiated with Westrec Marinas. To give some context to what the deal will mean to the company, in the period from Nov. 1 through the end of March 2010, the company sold 36 boats that were over 30 feet in length (before this facility was built). In the same period the prior year, the company sold two. Aisquith attributes the success to the addition of Cunningham and Matthews, and their big-boat-sales expertise to the team, and believes there is vast opportunity for growth in this sector of Singleton Marine Group’s business. The Holiday Marina includes the new Yacht Center building; a sales dock; a mechanical shop; a fiberglass repair, bottom painting and detail shop; and a parts and service building totaling more than 35,000 square feet.
Singleton Marine Group acquired and merged with Atlanta Inboard, a Malibu Boats dealer at the entrance to Holiday Road’s Boat Row. The location gives the company a facility at both ends of the row of dealerships, along with the liquidation center in the middle.
Singleton Marine Group is named one of four Marquis Factory Yacht Centers worldwide (Yacht Blue of Ft. Lauderdale; Legendary Marine of Destin, Fla., and an international location are the other three). As such, Singleton Marine Group will have Marquis Yachts (and Carver Yachts) on display in the water for other dealers to send their customers to for sea trials and sales events. Singleton Marine Group will be the first to receive the product, already displaying one new yacht in May with three more products expected by the end of June. As Erik Nelson, director of sales at Carver and Marquis, explains, the builder is working closely with Singleton Marine to “establish a new level, in our eyes, of what our customers are going to demand.” Nelson references the newly built Yacht Center sales office, which features the same hardwood floors and furniture as the customers will find in Marquis product. “It’s an entirely new level of execution and a new level of presentation,” Nelson says.
Finally settled in its new facility, which once had been occupied by Atlanta Inboard, Singleton Marine of Atlanta (formerly Cobalt Boats of Atlanta) launched Wet Wednesdays, an on-water party in a cove of Lake Lanier islands. Boaters can tie up or arrive by car, and then enjoy pro wakeboarding entertainment. The company will be serving food and beverages from the Tiki Hut, will offer sand volleyball entertainment, and a large flat screen TV that will be showing live wakeboarding for those without a front-row (read: on-water) seat.
Singleton Marine Group launched its first Bahamas cruise trip, with nine customers pre-registered for the two-week event. “It’s an amazing feat to have people lift their boats out of Lake Lanier, transport them to Florida, re-assemble them and then go on a two-week trip,” Aisquith says. “You can’t really quantify what it brings back in revenue, but inevitably after such a trip, everyone always seems to want a bigger boat.”
Singleton Marine Group is close to inking another deal to take responsibility for all under-30-foot boats repossessed by a lender. Details were not available at the time this story went to print, but Austin Singleton suggests that there remains an enormous opportunity in this area of the business.
Singleton Marine Group is launching Boat Mates, a concierge service for the thousands of boats moored in the slips within minutes of its Lake Lanier location. There are 6,000 boat slips within five minutes of the company’s Yacht Center, 10,000 total commercial slips on Lake Lanier and 10,000 private docks on the lake. With just 10 percent conversion rate, the opportunity is grand, and you should stay tuned to Boating Industry for further developments on this innovative program.