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“Generating” growth

By Liz Walz

Recently, at a conference, I got a rude wake-up call. After a long day of educational seminars, I was getting ready to leave my hotel room for an evening of “networking” when I took a look at the fine print in the event brochure: the Young Professionals cocktail reception was limited to those “30 and under.”

I guess I’m not “young” anymore by most standards. After all, it won’t be long before they start kicking me out of the “40 and under” club. But in today’s world, we all feel younger than we actually are. Many of us are postponing the traditional milestones of adulthood – moving out of your parents’ house; buying cars and houses (and boats); getting married; having children; and even retirement (not to mention succession planning to prepare for it).

A BusinessWeek article I read this summer called “The Rental Generation Sees No Point in Buying” argues that the slow pace of recovery, combined with a comfort with buying used items and borrowing from friends, has younger generations increasingly renting everything from apartments and cars (think ZipCar) to furniture and clothing. The author defines these “younger generations” as between 20 and 34 years old.

It’s a little frightening to think that, as the baby boomers age, the generations that follow may not be ready for boat ownership. But the bigger concern for our industry should be that we’re not doing much to stay connected to these young people once they stop boating with their parents. If they are indeed delaying home and car purchases, as well as settling down and having a family, they will likely delay boating purchases as well. By the time they decide they are comfortable with a major discretionary purchase like a boat — if indeed they seek out ownership — will they even think of boating as a place to spend their money? Or will decades of time away from the boating lifestyle leave them turning to other recreational pursuits?

That’s a strong argument why boat dealers should seriously consider the opportunities offered by boat rental, boat clubs and other revenue centers that allow them to start a relationship with those who are attracted to the water but not ready to buy. That could be a restaurant, a bar, local boat cruises, or on-water events designed to appeal to the entire community, including the younger generations.

I’m also concerned about the lack of young people moving up through our industry’s businesses. Maybe it’s because we “feel” young that we postpone hiring from the younger generations and creating a succession plan for our businesses. But just because we “feel” young doesn’t mean we are.

Just because it seems like I was 20 yesterday doesn’t mean I know what it’s like to be a 20-year-old today. And if I don’t know what it’s like, how can I be assured that I am offering products and services that will mean something to them? How can I be assured that I operate the kind of company that they will want to be associated with?

It’s human nature for us to assume that others think the same way we do about products, services and the sales process, when in fact each generation tends to have their own values, communication preferences and approach to purchasing. A good salesperson can — and should — be trained to sell to all generations. And your managers should be trained to mentor, inspire and lead all generations. However, when it comes to growing your company into one that successfully appeals to the younger generations, doing it with a team that includes the generations you need to target makes a lot of sense.

Especially when you think about your own future. No matter how young or old you feel, if you don’t have a succession plan through which the young leaders in your company can move up, you need to build one. Not only can it help you create a path to growth for your company and its employees — and an exit plan for you and your executive team — but it also can give you a significant advantage when recruiting the under-40 set.

“In order to attract younger generations to your company long-term,” explains generational expert Cam Marston in his book, “Generational Insights,” “you need to show them how they will be able to grow and have different work experiences with one organization.”

“Grow” is the operative word here. You could argue, in fact, that the younger generations are the key to our industry’s growth. Today’s marine businesses live in the world of the baby boomer, an increasing number of which are exiting the working world and the boating lifestyle every day. If our industry’s businesses don’t have a plan to replace them with younger buyers and workers, I’m not sure the word “growth” will continue to be a part of our vocabulary.

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