The Next Generation: Jeff Haradine

This interview is part of the article The Next Generation.

Jeff Haradine – President
Wakeside Marine, Elkhart, Ind.

What do you see as the industry's biggest challenge?

I’m optimistic that we are continuing to put a major recession in our rearview mirror and that experience alone keeps many challenges at the front of mind.  Access to good financing and appropriate products for the retail demand is among the many topics worthy of continued focus.

But when I look forward at the big picture, there is one issue that I think will have a major impact on our ability to thrive and each of us can address it within our businesses. That issue is our ability to keep up with the unique demands of the retail customer. I know it sounds obvious, but I think the target is moving faster than we are right now. People, especially the affluent customers that make up our target market, are moving at a high rate of speed in life. Their expectations for products and services to fit into that fast-paced lifestyle are incredibly high.

More specifically, customers are expecting us to cater to their specific needs on their specific schedule. It’s not good enough to have a one-size-fits-all boat, or process in the shop, or whatever we are delivering. People are more apt to spend their money on goods and services that are unique to their own needs or desires.


I see a few companies outside of our industry that are doing this well and setting the bar pretty high. Stand at the counter of Starbucks and listen to the orders people make. I couldn’t tell you what most of them even mean. But the customer loves their specific drink each day, and they’re obviously willing to pay for it.

I’m not a boat builder, and I can understand why a manufacturer would cringe at this level of customization. From a stocking perspective, it sounds challenging too. Nonetheless, I think strong retailers are catering to their customer’s unique needs at that level and I think we need to understand it and learn from it.

I would suggest that dealers have a great opportunity for a customized experience in the service arena and parts departments. Take a small example of a process that we all do everyday in our businesses such as letting a service customer know that we have completed a work order. A busy exec may want a text message to her personal number cc’d to her assistant with a copy of a work order sent to the email address of her spouse who pays the bill.

On the other hand, a detailed engineer may want to speak directly with a service tech on his drive to work in the morning between 7:00 and 7:30 and ask a few questions since that is the only time of the day that they can focus on personal items.

That’s a big difference for a small dealership like ours that is trying to manage our own people and schedules efficiently. But, like I said, the bar was set for customers when they ordered their coffee that morning and the expectation of the unique personal touch extends far beyond just communication to each and every way you interact with them.

What makes you optimistic about the industry?

Boating appeals deeply to many different emotions that people value greatly, and that connection will maintain a need in our society for boating and the joy it brings people.

I think most people find it to be an escape in their lives from the grind of work and other responsibilities. People find that escape in many different ways and we cater to those diverse outlets very well. Whether it is finding quiet solitude fishing alone, or sharing an active wake boarding session with friends or swimming and tubing with a family, boating attracts people from all walks of life and interests and gives them an opportunity to unwind on their terms in a way that is hard to repeat elsewhere.

There is just something about the water that allows people to connect with the things they enjoy and boating is an access point to that connection.

How can we attract more young people to the industry as boaters? 

This is a very difficult question with no easy answers. It appears that the Millennials are bucking many trends, including buying cars and houses at much slower pace than previous generations. It only makes sense that this carries over to boats as well. Obviously a major recession has had an impact on this. I believe it runs a bit deeper though. If we look to the auto industry that has the resources to take a lead and test a market on issues like this, there is a trend toward car sharing that jumps out at me.

Zipcar, for example, is not only expanding by double-digit increases, but their market is getting the attention of Hertz and Daimler (Cars2Go). Sheryl Connelly, head of global consumer trends at Ford, was recently quoted in a publication explaining that young people prize “access over ownership.” I’m sure Ford would rather be selling to individuals instead of sharing companies, but they also recognize that current sharers will be future buyers.

The correlation to boating is to give them access to taste boating on some level. I don’t have any experience with boat clubs, but I have watched a colleague do well with one and he says his closing rate on new units was great out of the club. Further, Nautique’s purchase of the Orlando Watersport Complex is a good example of a company looking at new ways to reach out and give access to the Millennials in the hopes of getting them into the fold of future sales.

Maybe, at the dealership level, we need to continue to work at and retool our “demo days” to be more accessible and simply encourage the next generation to get involved by making the access point to a taste of boating as easy as possible.

What do you think the younger generation brings to the industry?

The young generation brings ingenuity, speed and improved communication to the boat industry. They have basically grown up with and remain on the front side of technology and constantly seek and find ways to implement it into their lives to make tasks easier and faster. I expect that will breed efficiencies and process improvements in our industry.

Further, they are used to immediate answers and instant communication. I think most dealerships and manufacturers could use some improvement in the methods and timeframes that we communicate with our retail customers, and the younger generation is ripe with answers from experience.

How did you get involved in boating?

I was raised in a family around the water. My grandparents operated a lakeside summer resort in Michigan and the next generations of our family spent our summers as the support staff. Cleaning the rental boats was generally reserved for the youngest boys in the family, so we learned to keep after the boats a young age. Of course, there would always be opportunities to enjoy them a bit ourselves, so a passion for boats and the water was instilled in me at a young age by my family. Like most kids who learned to love boats from their parents, you never really lose that connection.

Why did you join the YLAC?

I joined the YLAC because it was a chance to get involved outside of my dealership with a group from my generation that could have a positive impact on our industry.

I love what I do to make a living and hope to be able to stay with it for a long time. It only made sense to give a little bit of my time to the general good of our industry. As it turns out, I have gotten much more out of that involvement than I will ever be able to put in. The YLAC has afforded me an opportunity to work with some very bright and talented people who just want to make our collective business a little bit better.

What can boat builders and other manufacturers do to help dealers be more successful?

I would preface any comment with my opinion that the greatest opportunity to be more successful as a dealer body will come from ourselves rather than the manufacturers.  Meaningful change comes from within. Ultimately, we are the ones who are most able to connect with the boaters of the world and be the cornerstone of delivering an experience that the consumer will continue to return to and spend their hard earned money on.

With that said, manufacturers need to listen – with and through the dealers – to the voice of the customer. I would propose that it’s easy, one step removed from the end user, to lose sight of that. I speak from experience because it’s easy as the dealer to lose sight of a customer’s wants when we aren’t being careful. But when we earn a little trust, customers love to tell us what they want.

If the manufacturers can make a point to listen to that conversation and do their best to answer what they hear with exciting product and reliable, engaging boats and accessories, we will all have plenty of opportunity to do well.

How has your perspective as a young leader helped you improve your company?

I hope I promote a culture within our company that helps us seek and implement new ways to deliver a great retail experience. Sometimes we find those outside of our business, and sometimes they come from within.  But wherever they come to us, I hope my perspective encourages us to try them on and see what fits.

Sometimes we come across our own internal ideas in staff meetings or strategy sessions. Other times we see the big retailers implementing ideas that make sense to us too. We know that other segments of retail have a major advantage over us with an ability to spend on big strategies such as state of the art communication infrastructure or marketing campaigns such as the recent Super Bowl ads.

We work at mimicking their successful strategies at a scale that we can actually execute on. Fortunately, I believe that if we can keep up just enough with the “big guys” we have a major trump card of a personal touch. Many of us know our customers personally, and I think that has more power now than it ever has if we capitalize on it.

So, I hope I can be successful at helping us continue to leverage new ideas at WakeSide that allows us to excel in today’s retail market.


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