BoatU.S. growing up

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – If there was a marine industry ranking of the best places to work, BoatU.S. would likely make the top 10.

Not only does the company go above and beyond most others in ensuring their employees’ futures after retirement, it also goes to great lengths to avoid layoffs – and assist the few employees who have been laid off in moving on to new positions.

This puts BoatU.S. in a strong position as it grows its membership. It currently employs about 400 people. But with BoatU.S. President Jim Ellis’ vision that membership may eventually almost double to 1 million members, a future workforce expansion seems likely. (For more information on the company’s growth, see the article, From foe to friend, in Boating Industry magazine’s April issue.)

Adopting an ESOP

Under the umbrella of the BoatU.S. brand is Boat America Corp., which now is a 100 percent employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) company; BoatU.S., the boaters’ association; and the BoatU.S. Foundation. Under Boat America are the BoatU.S. insurance, towing, travel, boat finance and documentation businesses.

All of the BoatU.S. employees actually work for Boat America Corp., however, which means all benefit from the generosity of its founder, Richard Schwartz.

Schwartz, who owned the entirety of Boat America Corp., sold about 20 percent of the company to his employees around 1990, explains Ellis. Since then, he’s sold the rest, making the company 100 percent employee owned. But the catch is that employees never had to pay a dime, says Ellis. It was paid for out of the ongoing concern of Boat America.

What that means for employees is that those who have been with Boat America Corp. for five years and are fully vested have stock – which now is just as important to almost all of the employees’ retirement plans as their 401K.

“If you’ve been here five or ten years, many people’s stock has surpassed their 401K, so the company is basically … providing a very reasonable opportunity for our employees to retire, and that was Richard’s objective,” explains Ellis.

It also means that the employees control their own future at the company, in a sense. If there were an opportunity for Boat America Corp. to be sold, the employees would have to agree it was a good decision, for instance.

“We’re all very beholden to Richard because he took this path, which was maybe not the best financial path he could have taken,” says Ellis. “It wasn’t bad for him, but not the best, and he created this organization that will probably go well into the future as the umbrella brand of BoatU.S.”

Doing layoffs the right way

BoatU.S. rightly considers itself a company dedicated to taking care of its employees. , Therefore, when it sold its retail business a few years ago, how its employees would be treated was an important consideration.

One of the reasons Ellis says BoatU.S. decided to sell to West Marine is that the company wanted to retain most of the 1,000 to 1,200 workers that had served in its equipment division.

In the end, only 88 of them were laid off, most of which were based at BoatU.S. headquarters in Alexandria, Va.

“We put together what I consider to be a very attractive severance package, and I would tell you that within 90 days we had all but a dozen of these people placed,” says Ellis. “That meant a lot to us. BoatU.S. is not a company that does layoffs. These are people I grew up with in a sense.”

For more information on BoatU.S. as it steers a path into the future, read the full text of Boating Industry magazine’s interview with Ellis, available at under Web Exclusives.

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