By Adam Quandt
Each year, Boating Industry’s Movers & Shakers program brings a stack of quality nominations to the editors’ desks. While we’ve already highlighted this year’s Mover & Shaker of the Year and finalists, there are certainly more industry leaders worthy of recognition for 2021.
The six following industry members exemplify what it means to be a leader — not just for their individual organizations, but the industry as a whole — by making bold moves to advance the boating industry.
One challenge to the next
Executive VP, Sales & Service, Suzuki Marine USA
Gus Blakely has been at the helm of Suzuki Marine for 30 years, beginning in the company’s Boat Builder Group. In one way or another, Blakely’s fingerprints can be found on much of what the company has achieved over the past three decades — including eight NMMA Innovation Awards for outboard motors ranging from 40hp up to the manufacturer’s flagship 350hp.
“With the help of great products and good people, being a part of growing Suzuki Marine from a rather small player to a top-three engine company has been incredible to be a part of,” Blakely said.
One of Blakely’s most recent moves involved moving quite literally across the country from California to Florida. Blakely successfully orchestrated Suzuki Marine’s separation from its motorcycle division and the establishment of a new entity — Suzuki Marine USA, LLC — headquartered in Tampa, Fla. Prior to the move, Blakely was instrumental in locating and acquiring the ideal 20-acre waterfront property in Panama City, Florida on which to develop the Suzuki Marine USA Technical Center. Under Blakely’s leadership, Suzuki Marine has invested heavily to create a facility where it can test and refine outboard technology in real-world conditions, while better supporting the needs of boat manufacturers and dealers.
“It’s so important to be where the industry is and for boating, that’s definitely Florida,” Blakely said. “We’re now within a four hour drive of about 100 of our dealers going north or south. We’re accessible now and ready to push our innovation even further.”
Suzuki has offered Blakely the ability to take on challenge after challenge, from building a strong team from top to bottom, to leading that team to tackle environmental issues and everything in between.
“It’s all about bringing together a team full of people that each bring something different to the table, rather than hiring someone exactly like you,” Blakely said. “From there you have to look at challenges as something not keeping you locked in one place. It’s always something new and that’s definitely a way to keep things positive.”
“For me, getting our team to accomplish the things we set out to do and at the same time have some fun while doing it, that’s the highlight of serving as a leader,” Blakely added. “We enjoy going to work each day, which makes facing every challenge that much easier.”
Dare to be different
President, Lake Erie Marine Trades Association
Despite not growing up a boater, Michelle Burke has quickly embraced both the industry and the lifestyle. What began as a first boat purchase with her husband quickly turned into a passion and with that a new career path as the president of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association (LEMTA).
“When my husband said, 'let’s get a boat' back in 2015, my response was ‘you are nuts, we do not need a boat! Who needs a boat?’” Burke said. “We proceeded to buy an old wooden Lyman, known for their classic lines and lapstrake construction. I instantly fell in love with boating and the lifestyle. Starting the Lyman Life Company took me to exhibiting at boat shows, where I immediately thought of so many ways the shows could be improved. Little did I know what my future held.”
“It was all about embracing something new and I’ve carried that mindset into just about everything of my professional life now,” Burke added. “Because of my non-boating background, I feel like I often bring a fresh perspective to things.”
From creating new display and experience areas at the Cleveland Boat Show to embracing a new hybrid style of show, Burke’s ultimate goal has been to get the industry, and more specifically boat dealers, to try new ways of doing things.
“It’s all about thinking outside of the box in order to provide solutions to challenges or push the industry and customer experience to be better,” Burke said. “There’s no such thing as an impossible wall, there’s always a way over, under or through it to a solution.”
Burke is a huge proponent of sharing ideas for the betterment of the industry as a whole, from collaborating with other marine trade associations and other boat show organizers to other industry members.
“I’ve been so grateful for the willingness from other associations and shows to share ideas and suggestions. There have been many things I’ve help implement at LEMTA with others’ help and vice versa,” Burke said. “I don’t see myself as a competitor with other shows. If I can do anything that helps make other shows better, it’s awesome. It’s all what’s good for the industry as a whole.”
A shared experience
Midwest District President, MarineMax
Despite spending some of his career in the automotive industry, MarineMax’s Erik Forsberg was destined to be in the marine industry. Growing up in a town on the Mississippi and spending plenty of time on the water, along with being a boat owner in his early adult years, Forsberg quickly fostered a love for the water and the boating lifestyle.
“Those of us in the industry, we have a lot of memories that involve being on the water in some way. That’s the main message we have when we’re talking to customers about either getting into boating or upgrading their boat,” Forsberg said. “It’s all about a shared experience in making memories with those we love out on the water.”
Forsberg explained that the shared experience is especially important across the entire MarineMax organization, not just when working with customers or potential customers.
“Even with MarineMax’s huge size as a company, it feels like everyone knows everyone and we all share in a great passion for the boating lifestyle,” Forsberg said. “It really feels like we’re just one big family and we’re all here to look out for each other and make sure we all succeed together.”
As a leader, Forsberg consistently aims to lead his team by putting each individual team member in the best place he can, so that they can succeed at their jobs. Forsberg said that no matter what his team needs, from coaching and development to just a support system, he wants to be able to set them up for success.
“I’ve been extremely fortunate to have very strong mentors throughout my career with MarineMax, whom I’ve created very strong and beneficial relationships with,” Forsberg said. “I want to be able to provide that same sense of confidence and drive for success to my team members that my mentors have provided me with.”
Find a passion and run with it
President, Structural Composites, Inc.
When speaking with Structural Composites, Inc. president Scott Lewit, it doesn’t take long to hear his passion for what he does and the industry he’s in. And it makes sense learning that Lewit has always had a love for the water.
That’s the key component to Lewit and his strategy for building a strong team not just for his organization, but for the industry as a whole.
“It’s so important to find peoples’ passions and let them run with them,” Lewit said. “That’s the nature of this company and the marine industry. We’re really focused on ultimately providing the best experience and product we can through using our passions and love for the water. It’s how this industry was initially formed. All based on passions.”
For quite some time Lewit and the team at Structural Composites have been focused on instilling and support a passion for the marine industry in the next generation of workforce through a large mentorship program.
Lewit said that the program is focused on refilling a pipeline of younger professionals ready to join the marine workforce, with many of the program’s interns being hired on at Structural Composites.
“Over the last few years, we’ve really seen a big change in skill sets and attitudes for the better in regards to the marine industry,” Lewit said. “It’s more about joining a company with a great culture within and setting people up for success, rather than just finding the biggest paycheck. And that’s what’s really important to us, a collaborative culture to drive us forward into the future.”
Lewit explained his experience as an intern prior to joining the team at Structural Composites and what a large impact it had on him personally and professionally.
“Everyone comes in with different strengths and weaknesses,” Lewit said. “It’s our job as industry leaders to buttress individuals’ strengths and help build upon weaknesses.”
“We’ve done a great job as an industry moving people up the pipeline, but we’ve forgotten to focus on refilling the pipeline along the way. It’s time to focus on that now and help find and nurture the passions of the next generation,” Lewit concluded.
Always be learning
Division Manager, Yamaha Marine Services
Marine service isn’t always a fun topic for dealers or customers, but it’s an important one, especially with so many new customers entering the marine industry right now with their first boat.
The challenge is to help these new boaters — as well as long-time boaters — have a great experience with their boat and their dealership. A great ownership experience doesn’t just include what happens on the water, but also off the water when boats need service. And with a continued struggle to find and retain marine technicians across the marine industry, things need to be kicked into overdrive.
That’s where Yamaha’s Joe Maniscalco comes in.
“Having been a mentee in my early years in the marine industry helped me understand how big of a role a mentor can play in nurturing a passion within the marine industry,” Maniscalco said. “It’s not only important to teach people the technical side of things, but also how to interact with and take care of customers.”
Both personally and professionally, Maniscalco continuous to stress the importance of continual learning; learning about your colleagues, learning how to be a leader, learning new ways of doing things, etc.
“It’s always been important to me to focus on my own personal development as a leader and how I can grow to be a better person and leader all around,” Maniscalco said.
In that pursuit to better himself, Maniscalco started reading more, which eventually led to the creation of the Leadership Learning Collaboration with his fellow leaders at Yamaha. The group meets regularly to discuss particular books and various leadership ideas.
“Bringing together this group to discuss various books and topics has generated great insight on how to be a better leader,” Maniscalco said. “It’s a gathering of mentors who in a way are mentoring each other.”
Maniscalco said that growing teams this way help create trusted partnerships across the industry, which in turn will help the industry create more relationships with a future workforce through shared experiences.
“Right now it’s all about finding and retaining people, and that means fostering trusted relationships,” Maniscalco said. “It’s answering the question of how do I help people find similar paths that I took, so that they can share in the passion I have for this great industry.”
Lead by example
CEO Emeritus, William F. Miller & Associates
From a very young age, Joe Miller was instilled with a hard working attitude and a drive to be the best at what he does. Watching his parents build William F. Miller & Associates from the ground up to the powerhouse it is today, Miller proudly continues tradition at the organization, while never shying away from adapting to new ways of doing things at the same time, all while leading by example.
“You can never succeed by beating something into somebody,” Miller said. “You have to be willing to do any job yourself and lead by example 100% of the time.”
In an effort to continue leading by example, Miller and the team at William F. Miller & Associates strive to mentor a new generation to continue instilling the same hard work mentality and passion for the marine industry that Miller got from his parents early on.
“I hope that I can give mentees the incentive and grit to continuously understand what the mission is and how to accomplish it,” Miller said. “I love to share the knowledge I’ve gained with anyone who will listen and by working one-on-one with mentees, I’m confident in the up-and-coming generation in the industry.”
In addition to sharing his leadership with colleagues at the organization, Miller played a crucial role in helping to create the Marine Leadership Alliance — a forum for top marine executives and key suppliers to come together in a non-business aspect.
Miller said that his organization alone has taken some steps that they normally wouldn’t have with the help of the collaboration within the forum.
“It’s such a great intermingling of good people in strong positions across the industry, all with the idea of focusing on making the industry and business better, without any business pressure,” Miller said. “It’s something out of the normal routine, which I believe helps people be more receptive to new ways of doing things or new ways of thinking.”
“As a businessman you can’t stay static and remain relevant,” Miller added. “You must always be ready for a change.”