Survival of fittest? No. In this arena, you toss a lifeline

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson
Bill Sisson

sisson_billWe tend to forget during these tough times that many of us got into this business because of our love of boats and the water. And we remain in this topsy-turvy corner of the world in large part for the same reason. Lord knows it’s not to get rich.

Yes, recreational boating is our livelihood, but the industry has always represented more than just a paycheck, at least to the fortunate ones. One common denominator has been our enduring proclivity for messing about in boats. One part affliction, two parts affection; 30 years later you look around, and you’re still up to your elbows in boats. Where did the time go?

You hear people say they have salt water in their veins. Don’t laugh. There’s something to it. A passion for boats and the water is a lifeblood that runs not only through our customers but also through a good many of us who make our living designing, building, selling, fixing and writing about boats.

Boating breeds both self-reliance and the knowledge that we’re all dependent upon one another when we leave the dock. After all, you just can’t pull over on the shoulder when something goes wrong and walk home.

Most experienced boaters know the good Samaritan rule: You will come to the aid of a fellow mariner in distress – no ifs, ands or buts. This sense that we’re all in this together – that we’re somehow part of a larger fraternity of sailors, anglers, cruisers, and so on – carries over in varying degrees to our business practices.

To many of us, this is an extended family of sorts, with longstanding friendships, even among competitors. Yes, we compete hard, but there’s also a time when you put out your hand to help your partners and customers get back on terra firma. And that, I am certain, is one of those things that makes this industry unique.

This sense of camaraderie and fraternity built around a common pastime does not exist in most other business sectors. At least not to the level it does in this one. Remember, this industry was started by people who sailed, or built the iron breeze, or were born with a fishing rod instead of a rattle. That was the DNA from which all that we have today sprang. Our pioneers had either salt water or sweet water in their veins.

A number of comments in our Page 1 story on vendors and the supply chain reminded me of this. “The marine industry has never, in my opinion, been a place where you’re going to go to strike gold,” Will Keene, president of Edson International, told us. “You do it because you love the industry, the vocation of boating, and being on the water.”

I’ve chased striped bass with Will around the Elizabeth Islands off Massachusetts, so I can attest to the fact that these are not empty platitudes. Will Keene loves his business, loves boats and loves catching fish. He also believes that during these difficult times, you throw your customers a lifeline when possible so that they – and you – have a better chance of surviving.

It’s in everyone’s best interest right now to work with partners rather than to leverage them out of business. And there are plenty of examples of vendors working with manufacturers and vice versa, but I’d be naïve if I said things were perfect – or even close to it.

Not everyone is following the Marquess of Queensberry rules. There’s boxing, and then there’s street fighting. Better to keep it clean – no hitting below the belt, no kidney punches. The economy has delivered enough sucker punches without us inflicting them on one another. Tough times don’t mean you just throw your code of ethics over the side.

These days require all the wisdom, intuition and fortitude you can muster, along with the host of strategies we’ve been talking about for the last year. Plus one more thing: Where possible, extend the proverbial helping hand, in some form, to someone you do business with who really needs it. It’s no different than what you’d do on the water. And it will come back to you in ways you can’t imagine.

This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue.

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