By David Gee
After joining Mercury Marine in 1998, Chris Drees has had a succession of roles and responsibilities, culminating in his recent promotion to president. Boating Industry’s David Gee recently had the chance to speak with Chris about his new job, career and love of the marine industry.
David: First of all Chris, congratulations on your ascension to president at Mercury Marine. That’s exciting.
Chris: Thanks David. And congrats on your new role as well. I believe we both started around the same time, and hopefully good things are in store for both of us.
David: Indeed. I get to share my love of boating with a wider audience now. Did you grow up boating?
Chris: I did. I grew up around Lake Michigan and have been a life-long boater. Obviously the Great Lakes aren’t great for water skiing and watersports, but my wife’s parents owned a cottage up in northern Wisconsin, and that’s where my love of watersports more fully developed.
David: How did you first come to Mercury Marine?
Chris: When I completed my MBA at Marquette University, I began to look for my next career opportunity and saw that Mercury was hiring. My immediate reaction was what an iconic name Mercury is, and wouldn’t it be great to work for a company like that. And it just so happened to be located right in the Fox Valley of Wisconsin. I got hired and began working in the purchasing area of the company. I recognized right away it was a company that was continually evolving and changing. I also thought it likely that there would be lots of opportunities to move up within the organization, from supply chain, to product management, to the sales group, general management and so on. It’s worked out that I have been in a lot of different areas within Mercury, including as general manager of the Mercury propeller business. That led to a nice opportunity through Brunswick to lead Mercury’s Attwood operations, first as COO and then as president. Then I was promoted to vice president – Mercury Global Operations, before moving to Marine Parts and Accessories four years later, and then now my present role as president. Brunswick is a very vertically integrated company and it’s exciting to learn all of those processes. And to add to it, we have been experiencing some tremendous growth and lots of new product innovation. That has allowed us the chance to revamp and improve and modernize all of the operations within Mercury. It has been fun!
David: Boating Industry recently ran a picture of you in our online news section having fun with a hard hat on your head and a shovel in your hand, as you broke ground on the $17 million propeller plant expansion. Congratulations also on that front.
Chris: Thanks. I believe Mercury is the best propeller manufacturer in the world, all the way from the research and development and engineering to the manufacturing. The addition will add 30,000 square-feet to what will be a 90,000 square-foot facility, producing propellers for Mercury engines and, and most competitive engines in the marketplace. We are seeing market growth in our four-stroke outboards, and also a positive reception to our V6 and V8 outboards, all of which are driving unprecedented demand for our stainless-steel propellers. In fact, last year that demand grew by 29-percent.
David: The demands on you grew with your promotion. Have there been any surprises in your first month or quarter on the job?
Chris: No, is the short answer. We are pretty open about things in terms of the way Mercury manages their business and partners with Brunswick. Discussions about the industry, the market, our strategies, the direction of the company, are led by a core group of people and a management team and I have been a part of that group. So I knew exactly what I would be walking into. And that is a good thing. I think we are very good at succession planning as a company and that also helps. And my broad background and cross-functional experience within Mercury and Brunswick I think has prepared well for being president. Might I add it is also so gratifying to see the high level of infill we have here and watch as people assume your previous roles and perform so capably.
David: Are there things you are watching now that you weren’t just a few months ago in your previous role?
Chris: When you are in a leadership position at Mercury we like to think of ourselves as one team. So in that sense the change hasn’t been that dramatic. But I do find myself thinking a little more about the things that you can’t control. Tariffs, the general economy, weather patterns, harsh winters, late springs, are all things I probably have a heightened awareness around.
David: One of the issues every member of our audience has a heightened awareness of is workforce development. Can you talk a little about your company’s efforts in that area?
Chris: We are fortunate that in our geographic location there have come to be a critical mass of engine manufacturers located here; Briggs & Stratton, Kohler, Mercury Marine. That in turn has led to the development of a really experienced and well-trained workforce. Specifically though we invest in local STEM programs here in the Fond du Lac area and actively try to grow and support technical education. It’s always certainly our goal to be the employer of choice within the marketplace.
David: I recently had the chance to speak with Michelle Dauchy, Mercury Marine’s chief marketing officer, about customer engagement (see Boating Industry June/July cover story on Boosting brains and building brands.) She told me about the company’s efforts to move away from functional marketing messaging, i.e., features and specs, to storytelling.
Chris: Boating is an experiential pastime. It’s relaxing, it’s time spent with friends and family, it’s social, it’s fun, it can be active. I don’t remember ever really seeing anyone out on the water who looks like they aren’t having a great time. We would love for more people to have that experience, to bring new people into the market, and we are emphasizing the experiential factor to try and do that.
David: Marketing to a new generation of boat buyers is certainly a challenge. As you look into your crystal ball, what else do you see as your biggest challenge?
Chris: Wow, you saved the biggest question for last. Like any company, we face lots of challenges. I would say the one I am most aware of is our 80-year legacy of industry-leading product development. From 1939, when Carl Kiekhaefer purchased a defunct outboard engine manufacturing plant, to our position today as the largest builder of marine propulsion systems in the world, our company has a long history of firsts and constant improvements. I want to continue to build on that legacy of growth and expansion and product leadership. I also want to continue to improve our interactions with our prospects and customers in an effort to be the best partner possible. Lastly, we are also constantly trying to create the best culture we can within the organization; engaging employees, promoting diversity, and trying to have our employees serve as our competitive advantage. Whether it’s our customers or our workforce, we are trying to create a lifetime loyalty to Mercury and I look forward to continuing that and building on it.
David: Thanks so much for your time Chris. I have enjoyed the conversation and wish you the best in your new role.
Chris: And same to you David. Good luck in your new position and I’ll see you on the water. Maybe we can make some ski runs together.
David: I’ll look forward to it!