By David Gee
The term “Movers and Shakers” was coined by Arthur O’Shaughnessy in his 1874 poem Ode. It is commonly used to describe those whose achievements are uncommon.
For our purposes, the 9th annual Movers & Shakers Awards recognize innovative leaders and pioneers in the recreational boating industry who embrace the challenge of change.
Their passion for boating, combined with a continual quest for improvement and problem solving, not only make their own companies better, but brighten the future of the entire industry.
We present to you our 2019 Mover & Shaker of the Year, Ron Huibers, President & CEO of Volvo Penta of the Americas, as well as three others we are recognizing, including one posthumously, for their outstanding contributions.
“When I expressed interest in the topjob at the marine group following a retirement, lots of people within the company wanted to know why I would want to go from running the largest business within Volvo Group North America to one of the smallest. I told them that for me, as a lifelong boater, it’s just my ultimate dream job.”
And we’re off. My congenial, wide-ranging conversation with Ron Huibers was supposed to begin with his early boating background. However, the 26-year veteran of Volvo Group, who joined the marine group in 2012 as it was emerging late from the economic downturn, quickly worked the dream job reference into our discussion.
And if you need boating references, well, he can provide them. Lots of them as it turns out, up to and including a certified Captain’s license issued by the U.S. Coast Guard, with Master 50T, Near Coastal, Auxiliary Sail and 100T OUPV endorsements.
His father had a 28-foot Chris Craft, and then a sailboat, and Ron and the Huibers family power boated and sailed throughout the Great Lakes, the east and west coasts of Canada and the U.S., the Caribbean as well as several broader international destinations.
Ron’s second date with his eventual wife of 35 years, Jenny, was on a Star racing sailboat. After they got married, they even bought a boat before buying their first house.
“We have friends to this day that my wife and I met through boating when we were newlyweds and new boat owners,” said Huibers proudly. ”Boating became an integral part of our family, throughout all of our lives, and our children have gone on to be boaters as well.”
You won’t talk to Ron Huibers for very long before you catch his enthusiasm for boating. It’s kind of contagious to be honest. And his desire for ensuring future generations grow to love boating is just as strong.
“Boating is the greatest family activity in the world. But we need to work hard to keep selling the boating lifestyle. That’s a continual challenge when there is so much competition for people’s discretionary dollars and their discretionary time,” Huibers said.
Iteration and innovation
Huibers feels strongly that innovation is the key to creating – and keeping – those new customers. And his path at Volvo Penta is permeated by numerous award-winning innovations.
During his first 90 days on the job, Ron analyzed the industry for trends. He met with industry stakeholders including key OEMs, dealers and employees. He attended shows. And he listened.
From there he charted a course to strengthen and grow the dealer and OEM partner network, strengthen and expand the Volvo Penta IPS, diesel and gasoline product offerings, and transform Volvo Penta by investing resources in people, marketing, solutions and customer satisfaction.
“The Volvo Penta culture is about people,” Huibers said earnestly. “Mutual respect. Diversity. Inclusiveness. What that creates is an open culture where people are free to express their opinions, and debate. A previous Volvo company leader was fond of saying debate makes for great science. It also creates a fertile environment for innovation.”
That environment, and Huibers’ forward thinking, led to the development and launch in 2015 of the Volvo Penta Forward Drive (FWD); a sterndrive unit featuring forward-facing propellers tucked under the boat away from the swim platform. This design allows Volvo Penta’s customers to build boats for the ever-growing watersports market.
Today thousands of FWD boats are in operation, and customers such as Cobalt, Regal, Chaparral and others have gained significant sales and market share as a result of the FWD. In fact, today there over 40 FWD models in the market with 10 builders.
Huibers also challenged the Volvo Penta team to solve problems related to winterizing sterndrives based on his own personal experience as well as feedback from customers.
This led to the development of Volvo Penta’s Easy Drain; the first gasoline sterndrive raw water engine-draining system that can be activated with a single knob. It allows boaters to drain raw water from their vessels in minutes without having to remove the boat from the water,
“Our guiding principle is easy boating,” said Huibers. “We need to do all we can to lower the barriers to entry for boating, by making boats safer, easier to drive, maintain and own.”
His analysis and research also led to Volvo Penta’s strategic decision to enter the outboard segment, specifically the high horsepower outboard segment, with the acquisition of Seven Marine in 2017.
With the original launch partner for the Volvo Penta IPS on a Tiara 38, and a strengthened partnership, he and his team were able to collaborate with Tiara on a completely new Tiara Sport 38LS experience.
The collaboration produced the world’s first fully-integrated outboard system featuring Joystick driving and docking, Glass Cockpit, Electronic Vessel Control (EVC), closed cooling and DuoProp, giving higher overall performance and efficiency. This innovative offer earned an Outboard Innovation Award at the 2019 Miami International Boat Show.
“When you look at the history of our company, whether it’s trucks, construction, heavy equipment, finance, or buses even, we have accomplished so many industry firsts, and commercialized so many great ideas, including the stern drive,” Huibers said. “As far as the marine space goes, it’s such an exciting industry and business to be part of, knowing we are selling fun and enhancing the quality of life of our customers.”
The numbers have certainly been enhanced under Ron Huibers’ tenure, directly attributed to a focus on nurturing and developing his team. Through this collaboration, Volvo Penta of the Americas’ achieved more than 40% growth in the marine business since 2012. During this same time, sterndrive sales specifically grew over 38%, gaining leading share, while the total sterndrive market declined over 30%. And sales have grown over 52% on the diesel side as well.
While that is all good, it’s also mostly a look back. What good things does Huibers see as he looks ahead?
“Our soon-to-launch silent shift is so cool. Whether it be a stern drive, an outboard, or IPS, the clunk will now be gone when you shift the boat into gear. It now feels more like a high-end automobile. We have also developed a surfable pontoon boat with our forward drives that we are super excited about. Again, the idea is simply to get more people boating.”
Add increased connectivity, automation, and even electric drive sailboats to the list, and you can see the future looks pretty bright as well.
“We have to keep innovating so people want to go boating over just about anything else. We feel so strongly about that!”