Fresh ideas at a seasoned dealership

Posted on Written by Richard Armstrong

26_dealer_01A boat club is among the ‘cool’ things happening at the oldest Grady-White outlet in the U.S.

In tough economic times, some businesses dig in and hunker down. One New York dealer, however, is choosing to push forward and explore the opportunities still out there.

“We’re trying to get more value out of our location. Times are tough, so you have to be innovative,” says Elisa Ruroede, president of Port of Egypt Marine, the country’s oldest Grady-White dealer, on Long Island’s North Fork in Southold, N.Y.

The 64-year-old dealership started by her father, William Lieblein Sr., and 150-slip marina (www.poe marine.com) is located on an 8-acre parcel in the heart of prime boating grounds and is within day-cruise distance of southeastern Connecticut, Block Island, R.I., and Montauk, N.Y., on Long Island’s South Fork. This summer, it is introducing a boat club where a family membership of $3,995 gives access to 18- to 25-foot boats from May 1 to Oct. 31 — “about the same as a seasonal boat slip,” Ruroede says. “Our industry knows the average boater never uses their boat as much as they would like.”

26_dealer_02The program calls for one boat per eight club members. As of May 9, five paid members had signed on. Members with a valid boating license simply reserve the boat to take it out.

“We have purchased a used 22-foot Grady-White especially for the club and budgeted for a second boat dedicated to the club,” she says. “We have other [trade-in] boats … should the boat club boat be out of service.”

Outings consist of eight hours on weekdays and four hours on weekends and holidays. Members can reserve one outing per weekend or holiday and can have two unused reservations at any time. Reservations can be made online or in person.

The venture is being launched in hopes of attracting customers who are not ready to commit to buying a boat. The first person to sign up for the program is a retiree who isn’t sure if he wants to own a boat. “He feels this will give him a chance to see if he wants a boat, but without all the costs that come with it,” Ruroede says. The second is a person who was looking for a used boat, but couldn’t find anything he liked on the Port of Egypt lot. “So we suggested they join our club,” she says.

While fractional ownership chains such as the Freedom Boat Club cater to boaters who travel and explore cruising grounds, the thinking behind Port of Egypt’s club is that the local base of potential customers is the core of its business. Port of Egypt has been the No. 1 Grady-White dealer in the nation for sales “many times over,” Ruroede says, and the dealership relies on its repeat customers. “We have customers who have been with us since the ’80s,” she says, citing one repeat customer dating from 1978.

Like many dealers, selling used boats helped Port of Egypt weather the recession. “It’s a tough time to get people to buy boats,” Ruroede says. “And since the only new boats we sell are Gradys and we don’t really have an entry-level boat, we have leaned on our used boats as a way to retain customers.”

The club is part of POE’s strategy to ease the sting of the recession. “We continue to attend boat shows, of course,” she says. “We also host events such as our annual spring and autumn open houses and a special Grady-White event in June to encourage new prospects to come out to our marina. We have a loyal base of existing customers yet like to remain fresh for them by adding to the number of on-site events. And our customer service is always a high priority, since that was how we built our business in the first place.”

Port of Egypt also has renovated an on-site building that houses a casual-dining restaurant (with a new proprietor); stepped up promotion of its 20-unit hotel, owned and operated by POE; and recruited a kayak rental outfit to lease space on its property. Also on site are a bait-and-tackle shop, a small grocery store and an in-ground swimming pool.

27_dealer_02Ruroede says the company is pondering options for two unused buildings, but it believes a structure right on the water is a good site for catered affairs or corporate retreats. “What can we do to get more people on the property?” Ruroede asks, noting that Port of Egypt also is considering partnerships with local yacht clubs to add the marina as a destination for cruise-in-company events.

It’s also adding daylight and moonlight cruise options with local charterboats for customers who aren’t interested in fishing. “We feel there’s a little pocket of opportunity that’s not being filled,” she says. And POE is planning a June 5 party for customers to celebrate its 50 years as a Grady-White dealer, the oldest of many longstanding Grady-White dealers in the country.

“We’re not going anywhere. This will be our 65th year of business,” Ruroede says of her family-owned business, which the Lieblein family started in the 1940s as a fishing station. “We own the property, have the room to do some cool things, and in this market we’ve had some time to think about what we could do.”

Port of Egypt has launched a Facebook page with an eye toward connecting with the next generation of potential customers. “We need to keep our name out there,” Ruroede says. “You don’t advertise less when times are bad. You advertise more.”

The company’s longstanding commitment to Grady-White can be seen in the showroom, where a wooden 1961 model — the first Grady-White the dealer sold — is on display. It was repurchased as a trade-in 20 years ago. The original bill of sale shows the customer paid $1,573 for the new boat.

Fourteen years ago, Port of Egypt and Cataumet Boats in Bourne, Mass., were among five dealers admitted to Grady-White’s exclusive Admiral’s Club in its first year. They are the only two dealers that have earned the award for excellence in sales and service in every year it has been given.

The personal touch is part of earning that distinction, Ruroede says, noting that CEO Bill Lieblein — her brother — demonstrates every boat to its new owner, whether it’s a $4,000 used boat or a $400,000 new boat. The demonstration includes handling in open water and docking in various slip configurations.

“That counts for a lot,” says Ruroede. “People talk to each other and say that makes a difference. We’re just trying to do whatever it takes to attract more customers.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.

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