Editor’s note: Rod Malone, the founder and co-owner of The Sail & Ski Center, passed away Aug. 31. While the company had been notified of its selection as Dealer of the Year before his passing, the Boating Industry staff had not had a chance to conduct a formal interview. All quotes from Malone in this article are taken from his written responses to the 2018 Top 100 application.
The Sail & Ski Center has been a part of the Boating Industry Top 100 program since the beginning, consistently ranking among the top dealers since 2005. In 2009, the company was recognized as the third company to win the coveted Dealer of the Year honor.
Now, in the 14th year of the program, the company has once again been selected as the Dealer of the Year. With its second win, the company will become a member of the Boating Industry Top 100 Hall of Fame.
Like many other companies, The Sail & Ski Center struggled during the recession, but remained profitable. The company also faced the dual challenge of a long drought in its Austin, Texas, market that made boating difficult for many boaters and potential buyers.
“Without a doubt, we are most proud of our continuing sales and profitability results in 2017,” Malone said. “We accomplished the results not so much of what we did in 2017 and 2016, but what we didn’t do over the past six years. When business was down we did not panic and we did not lay off our people, who are our most important asset.”
That helped The Sail & Ski Center to take advantage when the local market improved. The dealership grew revenue to a record high in fiscal year 2017, up 7.98 percent from 2016. That was on top of a 31.75 percent increase in 2016.
Net profit was also at a record level in fiscal 2017, up 28.9 percent from a year earlier.
Those records came because the management team at The Sail & Ski Center made sure the company was well positioned for the rebound.
“During that time, even though we could not see the light at the end of the tunnel, we knew there was one and we wanted to maintain our capabilities and retain our people so that we would be ready to respond to the turnaround when it came,” Malone said. “The strategic plan we developed to deal with such circumstances was pretty simple and it has worked for over 40 years: ‘If it fixes something or sells something keep it.’ As a result, when times are tough we reduce fixed overhead and fixed assets by applying the criteria above. We do not lay off personnel, our most important asset, who are the key to our ability to adapt to change that is the light at the end of the next tunnel.”
The Sail & Ski Center started in 1969 as Sailing Imports. Malone became a partner in the business in the 1970s. In 1979 Malone met Buzz Watkins, who was interested in starting a snow sports business. The pair became business partners and combined the two businesses together into what became the Sail & Ski Center.
Despite being in business for more than 40 years, The Sail & Ski Center team continues to work to get better. In 2017 alone, the dealership made improvements in several areas including marketing, service department and staff training.
“One of the most significant tasks undertaken in 2017 was the major overhaul of the process we were using for responding to incoming internet leads, website leads and leads from the OEM manufacturer’s we represent,” Malone said. “Our existing process, having evolved over the past several years, was not broken but was being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of incoming digital inquiries.”
The company recognized there was a fundamental change in the way customers seek information and engage in the purchasing relationship.
“Our goal was to create a position where an individual could receive all of the incoming digital leads, respond to them as close to immediately as possible, qualify the lead and then turn-over the prospect to a member of our very capable sales staff,” Malone said.
This new staff member was designated as the “Customer Success Manager.” As part of this new role, The Sail & Ski Center launched its “No Stone Left Unturned” program with the goal of collecting and benefiting from new opportunities. The plan helped the sales team take advantage of leads around the winter boat shows.
The company has worked to grow sales in other ways as well. As part of the in-house book club, employees read “Fanatical Prospecting” by Jeb Blount in 2016
“After review of the book with our sales department we knew that to effectively implement the processes in the book, each staff member, individually, would have to develop the daily habits and focus required to be successful,” Malone said. “Thus, we created a ‘Fanatical Prospecting Bonus Program’ that ran during the Fall of 2016 prior to our Winter 2017 boat shows with the expectation that each member would internalize and adopt the concepts for use in the future.”
To be eligible for an extra 2 percent commission on their sales during the program each salesperson was required to make 100 outgoing prospecting calls every week from Oct. 2 thru Dec. 17, 2016, and document each call in the company’s IDS G2 CRM system.
“The results of our 2017 and 2018 Winter Boat Shows have given the prospecting program credibility,” Malone said. “Our 2017 combined Austin and San Antonio [boat shows] were up 88 percent in unit sales compared to 2016 in an environment where the show attendance was flat. Additionally, our 2018 fiscal year unit sales are trending above the excellent 2016 and 2017 results. Most importantly the sales staff has learned and internalized the effort and discipline necessary to be successful in the marine sales environment.”
Probably the greatest challenge facing the marine industry is the lack of qualified technical employees. The Sail & Ski Center has operated an apprentice program for service techs for the last 15 years, but expanded it in 2017.
“Without the program we likely would not have experienced the company growth and favorable reputation that we enjoy today,” Malone said.
The company has had success in the past hiring graduates of the Marine Mechanics Institute, with nearly half of its service technicians being graduates of the program.
“While MMI is a good source of apprentice candidates, it is not a predictable source,” Malone said. “It may be a year or more before we have the opportunity to interview a prospective new hire. As a result, we began to look internally as a source of potential apprentices.”
The company identified two individuals that were interested in the opportunity, both of whom had proven to be dependable employees for more than a year. Each of them was paired with a Certified Technician and given a schedule of online training coupled with the on-the job training, with a goal of earning their basic technician certification in 18 to 24 months.
The success of that program also led The Sail & Ski Center to revamp the way it hires detailing staff.
“Boat detailing and cleaning has been an entry level position in most marine dealerships,” Malone said. “It is often staffed with seasonal employees at an hourly wage above but close to the typical ‘minimum wage’ for the community in which it operates. The result is often high turnover and poor workmanship.”
Knowing the importance detailing makes in the first impression of a new boat owner, the company wanted to make sure it had the best people in place. The dealership improved its job description, while also creating a compensation and performance evaluation matrix that better rewards excellence.
Another important objective for the management team is to show appreciation for its hard-working employees. When the company would hold activities after working hours, a number of employees would often not be able to attend.
Once a month, The Sail & Ski Center holds its “Thank you Thursday,” where it provides lunch for every employee. In addition, employees who participate are entered into a companywide drawing for $100 value prize.
“The ‘Thank You Thursday’ luncheon is without a doubt the most successful and cost effective employee appreciation and employee bonding program we have ever executed,” Malone said. “It provides an opportunity for all employees from all levels of the company to be together and to develop a camaraderie that is gratifying to witness.”