Dealer’s Perspective – Interviews with Don and Casey Robertson

With brand ownership frequently changing hands across the segment, Boating Industry wanted to find out if dealers around the country had any particular loyalties to the products or brands that they sell.

Several dealers were contacted for their input on a number of different questions concerning loyalty.

Don Robertson, the owner of Robertson's Marine in Salt Lake City, was one of the dealers who provided input. His son Casey, who is the dealership's sales manager, shared his opinions on the question of loyalty as well.

Here is an edited transcript of those interviews. To read the full story, please click here, or check out the April issue of the magazine.

Don Robertson

BI - Does your dealership have loyalties as far as what you sell?

DR - Well I grew up with OMC, so I've lost my loyalty to any of them. I don't trust any of them anymore. They're owned by big corporations, they make changes, it's just a whole different world.

BI - What brands do you sell?

DR - We sell Mercury and Yamaha, Crestliner, Glastron, Ranger Bass Boats and Carver Yachts.

BI - How long have you been in the business?

DR - Since 1956. Kind of a hobby that grew and grew and grew.

BI - Have you been a boater your whole life?

DR - Oh, yeah a fisherman and I raced boats in the 60's. Tunnel boats with outboards. Did it for 10 years, it just got too expensive. It's a good way to get rid of money.

Our store now houses the display and the service and is about 22,000 square feet. We are carrying about 17 or 18 employees right now. That will grow in the summer a little.

We used to sell snowmobiles but we lost our butt doing that so we quit. We carry a lot of CSI awards.

I think these days the big thing is that people are expecting everything to be good - top quality. And I told the manufacturers, you know they've been talking about “Grow Boating,” is that the first thing we've got to do is straighten up our own house. We've got to make these damn things so people don't have problems with them, so they're not in the service shop everyday. And I think they agreed and I think they're doing a much better job now. I think it's probably going to improve and pick up and we'll be able to do some good promotions.

BI - We've heard from some other dealers that they are worried about the brands they carry being sold constantly, and how hard that makes it for them to reassure the customers about longevity. Have you found the same thing?

DR - With OMC, the way it faded out really created a problem and cost us a lot of money. And Brunswick and Genmar now pretty much own everything. There's a few independents left but not many. I wish they were all independent, like they used to be, but they're not. And now Genmar says, “Well, let's get rid of our aluminum boats," and they sell them off.

BI - How did that impact you guys?

DR - Bad. Well, I shouldn't say bad. We had to go to Mercury, and we never did carry Mercury, we just carried Yamaha. Now we're carrying Mercury, which is all right, it isn't that big a deal. A lot of customers don't even know it's happened. But if they favor Yamaha's and have had good luck with Yamahas and want another Yamaha, we've got a problem.

BI - So you're not allowed to sell Yamaha's anymore?

DR - Oh yeah (we are). But the trouble is, the way they package boats, with the prices that they package the boat and the motor together, we can't buy the boat and the motor separate and be competitive. Because the price of the motor is so much cheaper when you buy it with the boat. So it puts you out of the competition the other way.

BI - Did the aluminum sale come as a shock?

DR - It was a big surprise to me, it just happened over night. I didn't expect it. They just called me from Genmar and told me they were selling and I said, “What the hell for?” and he says “$90 million.”

Well that's a good enough answer I guess. But it interrupts the business when things like that happen. I know that some customers are concerned about it. They worry, “Am I going to get service with that motor, am I going to get parts?”

What the hell? With OMC we were selling Johnson and Evinrude, we were selling 300 and 400 motors a year. And then, boom, they're gone. Bombardier picks them up, but people are leery. There were problems with the motors, and we didn't have any backup and we were stuck with a lot of [product].
So it's one of those things. I've been through about five or six bankruptcies, not motor manufacturers, mostly boat manufacturers. Everyone of them hurts.

BI - Will that ever change do you think, or is that just the way it is?

DR - I think that's just the way it is. They make those corporate decisions up in a big building and they don't even give a damn about a boat. If it's making money they're happy, if it's not, goodbye.

BI - What does that do to your loyalty then?

DR - I don't trust any of them, because that's what they've been doing to us, especially in the last 10 years. It's up and down, up and down, in and out, in and out, and you don't know who's who or what's what.

BI - You can't afford to have any loyalty to them?

DR - No, if I do then I'm stuck if they go out of business. So maybe it's better that I was forced to take Mercury. Now Mercury is suing them for dumping - they're messing this whole thing up again. Of all the stupid things to do, they're cutting their own throat.

It's something we don't need. I think the boat business has been a little bit off anyway for the last few years nationally, and I think they're trying to revive it and get it back. This doesn't help. But we go on, time marches on.

Boating Industry - Are your customers more loyal to boats or to engines?

Don Robertson - Well, there are a few of them that come in and look for engines first, but the majority of them - 90 percent - want the boat first and then they go to the engines.

BI - Has it always been that way?

DR - Pretty much. There used to be a lot of loyalty toward brands when we had separate franchises, the old Johnson, Envinrude, Mercury, Yamaha days. But now, with packaging, every dealer has every brand, and people I think nowadays expect them all to be good, everyone of them to run good. It's not like you have to really sell the quality of anything nowadays. I think people kind of just let that go by their ears and don't pay any attention to it.

BI - Are most people looking for packages?

DR - Well I think the majority of them are on packages, because that's usually the way we set them up.

Casey Robertson

BI - Where do you think a customer's loyalty rests when shopping for a boat?

Casey Robertson - From my point of view, which is selling, it's all in the boat. The only guys who really separate the engine from the boat are my Ranger customers, my professional bass fisherman, those kind of guys. You have those that either want a Yamaha engine, or a Mercury engine or an Envinrude engine.

But your recreational boater, your skier, he doesn't know if it's a Volvo or a Mercury, he doesn't care. He just expects it to run. Basically the only thing you can do is to try and sell them on the warranty. If you try to get technical with them, and say “This has cone clutch shifting,” you'll see his eyes glaze up and roll in the back of his head. He doesn't know what you are talking about.

BI - Do buyers come in already knowing what they want?

CR - Most of your boat consumers have a couple of brands in mind, just because of popularity, like Sea Ray and Bayliner, and then they want to see what else is around that they aren't too familiar with - this is a first-time boat buyer. A seasoned buyer will sometimes know [what he wants]. A guy who has had a Glastron his whol

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