Good service is a high-cost, high-return commitment

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson
Bill Sisson

Jack Brewer owns more than two-dozen marinas, but he’s the first to tell you the business he’s really in is the service business. That’s an important distinction, not just a matter of semantics.

I recently attended the opening of Brewer Yacht Yards’ annual two-day mechanics seminar that brought in nearly 80 “techs” who work at the company’s 28 marinas and yards from New York to Maine (see story on Page 1). In opening remarks, Brewer talked about the importance of the technical crew gathered before him, the value of self-improvement and how the customer is king. To make the latter point, Brewer held up a yellow sign with black letters that read: “Remember. The customer is our employer. Our jobs are in jeopardy unless we deliver a quality product at competitive prices.”

The message, which came from the Brewer Dauntless Marina in Essex, Conn., was printed on dozens of signs handed out to managers and foremen for all the marinas.

“Your boss and my boss is the customer,” Brewer told the audience. “And he can put us out of business just by taking his business elsewhere. Many businesses don’t exist today because they either couldn’t or  wouldn’t take care of their customers.”

Poor service, Brewer noted, “hurts our whole industry.”

The comments have weight and significance beyond just the marina and boatyard business. In one way or another, all of us are in the service business. And in these tough times, who can afford to let business slip out the door because someone doesn’t return a phone call or e-mail in a timely fashion? Or because a worker makes promises he or she doesn’t have a prayer of delivering on?

Today’s boater is “expecting more and more for his dollar,” Brewer told me later in an interview. “We have to do a better job.”

As boats and systems continue to grow in sophistication and complexity, mechanics are on the front lines between time-strapped boaters and their vessels. And smooth-running boats typically translate into happy customers.

“A good mechanic is priceless,” Brewer says. “Not only does he generate work for a marina, but he keeps a customer out of trouble.” And Brewer is not shy about expressing that sentiment directly to his troops; he told them in opening remarks just how important they are to the business.

Maintaining a high level of customer service doesn’t just happen. Bringing in dozens of mechanics for two days of training represents a dollars-and-cents commitment to quality. “It’s not cheap,” says Michael Keyworth, the general manager of Brewer Cove Haven Marina in Barrington, R.I., who has helped manage internal training within the Brewer chain for a decade. “But if you’re going to do things right, it’s a necessary investment. You have to pay to play.”

And at the top of the list are your people. “Nothing is more important,” says Brewer, 68, who has been in the business since 1964. “I realized a long time ago that other people would be better [yard] managers than me. I give them a lot of room to run the businesses as if they’re their own. I’ve had guys with me 25 or 30 years.” And, he adds, “It’s a great time to pick up good people.”

Another theme Brewer emphasized to his troops was the value of always learning and improving yourself. To make that point, he reminded his audience about the story of NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, the former Arena League QB who was out of football and stocking shelves in a grocery store for $5.50 an hour before he finally got his shot at prime time. Warner became a Super Bowl MVP.

He also made reference to the economic bailouts handed to struggling banks, automakers and other industries. “The only person who is going to take care of you is you,” he says. “So keep trying to improve and better yourself. In these tough economic times, take pride in what you do, in your work.”

The investment doesn’t stop with people. Brewer spent a few minutes going over a list of improvements made at the various yards in the last year. A new building, heads, floats, dredging, a bulkhead, a wave wall, and so on. “We spend a lot of money on improvements, but we pay for them,” he says. “We have very little debt, which is very fortunate.”

He’s bullish on the future of the marina industry and boating in general. He sees “pent-up” sales demand once consumer confidence returns, with an upturn starting in 2010.

“Where else can you get a weekend cottage on the water for $35,000 – and one you can move around?” he asks.

To hear this veteran marina owner talk, running a successful business is not rocket science, but you do have to pay close attention – not just lip service – to the basics, to those business fundamentals that were as important 10 years ago as they will be 10 years from now.

Invest continually in people, equipment, training and facility improvements; keep your marinas clean and attractive; and, finally, “pay attention to the customer.”

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