Inspiration in Utah

There’s something quite inspiring about a visit to Utah Watersports. Amidst the doom and gloom and extremely slow sales of this past year, this marine dealership stands out as a bright spot.

That’s not to say, however, that sales are easy to come by in Salt Lake City. The economy here is equally as tough as it is in the rest of the country. But even with slow sales, the mood and optimism within the walls of this sandstone-accented facility are high.

It was 1999 when Wayne Sorensen was bought out of his partnership in a software company. He followed a lead in a local paper that advertised a boat dealership for sale.

“I called the guy,” he explains, “and I asked him what brand the dealer sold — ‘because there’s only one brand that I’m interested in.’”

The broker gave him the good news — MasterCraft was the brand — and the rest, as they say, is history.

These days Sorensen doesn’t spend time in his former office at Utah Watersports, which is based just off of I-15 in South Jordan. His company has expanded rapidly over the last decade and he now works from the corporate offices of MasterCraft Dealer Services, his aptly named parent company, where he oversees the latest additions to his family of dealerships – MasterCraft Inland Northwest (Liberty Lake, Wash.) and, most recently, MasterCraft Northwest/Seattle.

The three locations make up one of the top-five largest MasterCraft dealership businesses in the country, and the parent company’s growth and achievements have been fueled by a level of creativity rarely seen in the marine industry.

Its Utah Watersports location, which Sorensen designed himself in the months after his acquisition, screams of the ski and wakeboard lifestyle. Lively, adrenaline-pumping music sets the mood as you walk through the front doors. The lowered showroom floor allows visitors to view the boats from above, much as they would from a dock, and the floor-to-ceiling window on the east side of the building keeps it well lit.

Sorensen takes great pride in the open-air sales area on the showroom floor. It used to be that the sales people occupied offices on the upper tier of the dealership.

“We found that customers were hesitant to want to go sit in one of those offices because they were so closed off,” he explains. “It’s much more comfortable for a customer to want to sit in one of these new areas. There’s nothing behind them but boats, and they don’t feel so ‘trapped’ into the sale.”

But the creativity spawned from Sorensen’s leadership reaches much further into the business than merely the structural appearance. Utah Watersports has demonstrated an innovative approach to its sales and marketing, as well.

Boating Industry has noted the company for boat show best practices in the past, and each year the company’s approach to moving boats seems to advance while others mimic the examples Sorensen sets in an attempt to catch up.

This year, for example, the Salt Lake City Boat Show was like most other shows across the country — down in attendance. Sorensen was admittedly “sweating it out right up until the start” of the show because he made the bold decision to expand his presence as others cut back. The move paid off, though, as he sold 20 boats at the show, including five non-current units.

The non-currents were positioned near an indoor wake-park display and were put up for silent auction. While other dealers were happy to sell distressed inventory at a slight loss just to get rid of it, Sorensen priced his above dealer cost and made money on each unit. And, as for his current model year units, he’s finished the first two months of 2009 with an average gross margin of more than 20 percent — nearly double that of the average dealer’s margin during this industry downturn.

Boat sales during the downturn seem to be made possible only by such proactive sales efforts. One Saturday afternoon in February, for example, when the temperatures hit 50 degrees and floor traffic was non-existent — exactly the opposite of what General Manager Jason VanWagoner and his team were expecting that day — the sales team fended off their disappointment by deciding to take the boats to the people … literally.

VanWagoner hooked a truck up to a MasterCraft X45, drove it out to a prospect’s house and parked it right out front, in perfect view from the rather large bay windows. This wasn’t just any prospect, though. This was a buyer who had visited Utah Watersports’ booth just to give them “a chance” against a competitor’s boat. He was so intrigued by the pitch that he came back the next day and put a down payment on the boat.

In the weeks following the show, however, he wouldn’t return calls from Utah Watersports. So the guys took the boat to him and wound up sitting on the couch in his living room discussing the boat.

“I told him I wasn’t there to make some hard sell,” VanWagoner says. “I didn’t take any paperwork or contract or anything like that. I just brought the boat out so he could see it again. And I told him that I just wanted him to be able to sit in it again and feel what it would be like.”

Without that type of innovative thinking, the future wouldn’t be as bright at Utah Watersports.

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