2015 Boating Industry Movers & Shakers Finalists

Now in its fifth year, the Movers & Shakers awards recognize innovative leaders, people unafraid to take chances to improve the industry.

Since 2011, we’ve recognized dozens of those Movers & Shakers, yet this year we had the most nominees ever for the program – and arguably the strongest as the debates over this year’s selections were among the most contentious in the history of the program.

In just five short years, we’ve seen great changes in the industry and that’s reflected in this year’s honorees.

When the program started, we were still suffering the effects of the recession and its tremendous impact on boating. Now, we’re in what appears to be our fourth straight year of industry growth.

From writing about survival, we’ve gone to writing about robust growth in our Movers & Shakers. The 11 individuals (and one family) profiled here are leading their teams and the entire industry to growth through product innovations, creative outreach and ambitious expansion. 

Movers & Shakers Finalists

Carl Blackwell

Carl Blackwell

Carl Blackwell
President, Grow Boating/Discover Boating
Chicago

The boating industry of today looks very different than it did when Discover Boating launched a decade ago.

It’s a smaller industry, but also one that presents a number of new opportunities in reaching a younger, more diverse consumer group. So it’s only fitting that marketing efforts have drastically changed from 2006.

Most notable has been the impact of social media, something that wasn’t even on the radar in the early days of Discover Boating, said Grow Boating president Carl Blackwell.

Discover Boating has embraced social media like few others in the boating industry. The group has more than 750,000 followers on Facebook and large audiences on Twitter, Instagram and other outlets.

“Today, it’s a big part of what we do, but even social media has changed,” Blackwell said. “You have to pay for your distribution on Facebook versus years past when you could put a post out and it would reach a half million people. However, it’s worth it to us because we know the fans we reach are boating enthusiasts or they wouldn’t like our page.”

Blackwell is quick to point out that the campaign’s success is a team effort, with a number of people working to promote boating through videos, social media outreach and creative partnerships.

It’s an effort that has paid off with continually increased traffic to DiscoverBoating.com and, consequently, more traffic to manufacturer sites as well. That comes after the team changed its focus from lead generation on the site to referrals for manufacturers.

“On our site what people really wanted to do was get that instant gratification and we would be serving consumers, as well as manufacturers, better just by offering a chance to shop directly on manufacturers’ websites,” Blackwell said. “This year we’re going to move close to 2.5 million consumers off our sites and on to manufacturer sites.”

For most manufacturers, Discover Boating is now one of the top three or four sources of traffic to their websites, he added.

Another change this year is the addition of Instagram advertising – something that wasn’t even possible a year ago. Now, Discover Boating can pay to have its message put in the feeds of its target audience. That will help the message reach a younger audience.

“To be effective on Instagram you have to have good photography and good video and that’s one of the industry’s strengths,” Blackwell said. “Look at what we’re selling. It’s a heck of a lot more interesting than a lot of consumer package goods. The platform lends itself well to our lifestyle.”

That focus on content carries across multiple platforms, as video content marketing has become one of the biggest successes of the Discover Boating efforts.

From the “Good Run” video of a few years back to the more recent “Stories of Discovery,” telling that story of boating is a key part of the marketing message.

The Stories of Discovery launched with four videos last year, with two more stories added in 2015, featuring families on the water, water sports enthusiasts and anglers telling how boating has impacted their lives.

“We’re telling stories and that’s more interesting than somebody talking about something that may or may not interest folks,” Blackwell said. “That’s three minutes of time spent talking about boating versus what used to be a 15-second ad.”

That’s important because 70 percent of people trust that word-of-mouth advertising versus the 14 percent who trust advertising, Blackwell said.

The videos also easily outperform the average online video on the networks Discover Boating uses, with viewers much more likely to watch the videos to completion.

Another benefit of the Stories of Discovery has been the partnership with country music star Jake Owen. He was featured in one of the 2014 videos and the relationship has continued this year.

“Younger adults are not buying boats at the same rate their predecessors were,” Blackwell said. “Jake helps us attract a younger demographic and he has a very significant social media presence himself.”

Discover Boating signage and videos were featured in Owen’s concert tour this summer across the U.S. and Canada. He also made numerous television appearances where he talked about his love of boating.

“He’s a true ambassador, he’s very genuine,” Blackwell said.

 

Austin Singleton

Austin Singleton

Austin Singleton
CEO, OneWater Marine Holdings
Buford, Ga.

If the first year of OneWater Marine Holdings is any indication, the marine dealership landscape could look drastically different in the next few years.

Formed in September 2014 by the merger of Singleton Marine Group and Legendary Marine, OneWater Marine Holdings has ambitious plans and has already acquired three additional dealerships this year: American Boat Brokers, Captain’s Choice Marine and Rambo Marine.

The company has built a model that is designed to give dealership principals an exit strategy, said CEO Austin Singleton.

“We see a maturing dealer network across the board, no new blood coming in, no succession planning for the majority of dealers,” he said. “Some of them might say that they have it, but they don’t and it’s very evident.”

Combine that with the barriers to entry – floorplan capital requirements, territory restrictions, the expense of property, the cyclical nature of the industry – and it’s difficult to find buyers for those looking to sell.

“The timing might not be right today, but the thought behind it is that every day from today going forward increases the chance that the time is right,” Singleton said. “We feel that we can offer a very attractive way for somebody to exit on their timing.”

The OneWater model is built on the idea that the principal can stay with the dealership if he or she wants to, continuing to work, but eliminating the risk and headaches of ownership.

“We lift the burden of the majority of the things in the business that they don’t like today,” Singleton said. “Most of your entrepreneurial boat dealers love the customer interaction, the excitement of being a dealer, seeing people enjoy the water. They don’t like dealing with floorplan companies, co-op, HR, receivables and payables -- all the stuff that’s come over time that makes doing business harder.”

If someone starts talking about building a large network of dealers, it’s natural to think of MarineMax. OneWater has watched and learned from its successes and challenges.

The most significant differences between the two models are branding and product.

OneWater plans to continue to operate dealerships under their existing names rather than rebrand to one corporate name.

“Nobody in Dallas knows who the heck Singleton Marine Group is, but they know Phil Dill Boats,” Singleton said. “There is an enormous amount of brand loyalty for dealerships that have been in local markets for a long time so we’re leaving that branding in place.”

On the product side, OneWater will not be focused on a single brand, but rather wants  to align itself with the best two, three or four brands in four pedestals: saltwater, runabout, aluminum pontoon and competitive ski boats.

Although the company’s acquisitions have thus far been focused in the Southeast, OneWater plans to continue to grow to other regions, with an emphasis on the Midwest, Canada, Southeast and Florida.

“The first thing we’re looking for is peak-performing dealers,” Singleton said. “We’re not looking to go and buy somebody that needs a lot of work and a turnaround.”

While there is a “target list” of dealerships that OneWater has talked to about partnering, the company is also being contacted by an average of two dealerships a week looking to sell.

OneWater has a list of about 35 dealerships the company is in discussion with, but Singleton said the company is going to take its time adding to its holdings.

“We’re going to be very strategic on the speed that we go at,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with the quality of back office of the dealerships that we’re looking at. The stronger the dealership is, the easier it is to fold in.”

That means a pace of about four a year. Integrating more than that could be challenging as the company is still growing north of 20 percent a year organically.

The biggest challenge has been getting the dealerships running on one DMS, in this case Lightspeed, plus the company’s own system. That process is just getting wrapped up for the recent acquisitions.

The reaction of the industry to OneWater has been “reserved optimism” as manufacturers and dealers are unsure exactly what to make of the effort. Companies are naturally concerned about protecting brands and territories as OneWater grows.

“They don’t understand and when you don’t understand stuff it makes people fearful,” Singleton said. “Once they sit back and look at it … it gives them a little better feeling.”

 

Bill Yeargin

Bill Yeargin

Bill Yeargin
President & CEO, Correct Craft
Orlando, Fla.

There’s probably been no industry leader who has overseen more change in the last year than Correct Craft CEO Bill Yeargin.

Since last October, the company has added three engine brands and four boat brands through a series of acquisitions, joining its other holdings, Nautique Boats and Aktion Parks.

It’s part of a long-term plan to grow and diversify the business that started when Yeargin joined the company as CEO in 2006 following a 20-year career at Rybovich, a service provider for yacht owners.

“We thought we’d like to get into some other parts of the industry, then we got into the downturn and that sidetracked us for a couple of years,” Yeargin said. “Coming out of the downturn, we refocused on this.”

Even then, Correct Craft found challenges as the uncertainty in the industry left many companies either unable to sell or unattractive options.

“The companies that we really wanted to purchase didn’t want to sell because the valuations were so low at the time,” Yeargin said. “Then we had another bunch of companies that said, ‘Here’s the keys, I’m begging you, please take it,’ and most of those companies are gone today.”

So instead Correct Craft focused on growing Nautique, although they were able to bring one additional company on board, purchasing the Orlando Watersports Complex in 2012. It was a move that raised some eyebrows at the time, as many see cable parks as competition to boating.

“I got a lot of calls from some peers of mine and the comments were basically ‘What are you doing?’” Yeargin said. “I saw just the opposite. If we bring people into water sports, that will have a huge impact on the boating industry and we’re seeing that already.”

The cable parks can whet the appetite for the better experience of actually being out on the water behind the boat. Yeargin relates the story of a buyer who purchased two Nautiques after enjoying the park with his son as just one example.

“I jokingly tell people, if 1 percent of the people who use the cable parks buy a new Nautique, we’re going to have to build a new factory,” he said. “I believe the cable park experience leads to people wanting to buy boats. We’d never buy or open a cable park exclusively for that reason – they’ve got to stand on their own financially – but we believe there are a lot of connections.”

As the market improved additional acquisition opportunities presented themselves.

The first was Pleasurecraft Marine, manufacturer of PCM, Crusader and Levitator engines in October 2014. The brand, company culture and integration opportunities all made it an attractive partnership for Correct Craft.

Although Nautique was PCM’s largest customer, the company sold – and will continue to sell – engines to other boat builders.

“There were some people that were concerned about that,” Yeargin said. “One of the things that was confusing to the marketplace was that Nautique did not buy Pleasurecraft Marine. Correct Craft bought Pleasurecraft Marine. Pleasurecraft Marine and Nautique are sister companies.”

In March, Correct Craft expanded outside the water sports market with the acquisition of fishing boat brands Bass Cat and Yar-Craft.

In this case, the Pierce family – owners of the brands – was looking for someone that would support and invest in the brands.

“They didn’t want to sell to a private equity firm that was going to come in and try to figure out every way to squeeze the employees and squeeze the vendors,” Yeargin said. “They wanted someone who would be good stewards of the brand and the employees.”

Bass Cat’s long history of quality – it frequently led the industry in J.D. Power ratings over the years – and the opportunity to enter into a new market made the brand especially attractive.

“At some point we start running out of ways to grow just in the water sports market,” Yeargin added.

Finally, in June, Correct Craft added a majority stake in both Centurion Boats and Supreme Boats.

“One of the things we’ve heard from Nautique dealers [is that] they wanted to look for opportunities to sell more value product,” Yeargin said.

While Correct Craft could have started another brand, in Centurion and Supreme, “we saw two brands that both had brand equity and existing dealer bases that would fit well into our Correct Craft family.”

In all cases, the new brands will continue to be manufactured at their existing facilities and Correct Craft aims to keep the existing management.

“We want to continue with the current teams, we want to share our culture and the way that we operate and at the same time preserve the things that are unique about their cultures and made them successful,” Yeargin said.

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