“Let innovation carry the day.”
That was the message keynote speaker Josh Linkner hammered home at this year’s Marine Dealer Conference & Expo, the industry’s primary education and networking event for dealers.
“The stakes have never been higher,” Linkner told a packed house of more than 600 marine industry professionals. “The challenges have never been more difficult. The competition has never been fiercer. But our opportunities are limitless. So folks, let’s go out there and seize it.”
Linkner is the founding partner of Detroit Venture Partners, which has invested in and mentored more than 100 startup businesses.
A record 675 marine industry professionals attended the Dec. 5-8 MDCE at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. The previous high was 617 in 2013. The MDCE is organized and managed by the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Boating Industry magazine.
Growing the industry through innovation was one of several themes streaming through this year’s conference, along with tackling a daunting workforce shortage problem and stepping up efforts to tap in to more financially capable minority markets. The Hispanic, African-American and Asian markets are ripe for the taking, said National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich.
“These populations are in our most populous boating states, and they’re growing very rapidly,” Dammrich told an audience of 700 at the event, sponsored by Volvo Penta. “So we are experiencing some seismic shifts in population trends that provide a major business opportunity for our industry. As the census data show, there are millions and millions of people in these populations who have the financial wherewithal to be boat owners.”
In a recent industry survey roughly 75 percent of respondents “said they were somewhat unconcerned about reaching out to these new markets, about diversity in the boating industry,” said Dammrich. “They had a perception that these populations could not afford boating. Well, the data tell us just the opposite. [The respondents] also told us they had a strong interest in reaching a younger customer, so there is a huge disconnect here because the millennial generation is the most diverse in the history of this country!”
Dammrich backed his statements with a long list of facts.
- Hispanics will represent 52 percent of U.S. homeowners by 2030.
- Hispanic buying power is expected to reach $1.7 trillion by 2020.
- The median age of the Hispanic population is 29, compared with 43 for the non-Hispanic white population.
- From 2000 to 2014, the African-American population grew 35 percent faster than the total population.
- The percentage of black high school graduates in 2015 enrolled in college jumped to 70.9 percent from 59.3 percent the previous year.
- African-American spending is expected to increase from $1 trillion in 2013 to $1.4 trillion by 2017.
- Asian-American households in 2014 had the highest median income of any racial group — $72,689.
- Nearly 54 percent of the Asian population ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher education, compared with 32.5 percent for the entire U.S. population.
Strength in numbers
The strong potential of these markets should motivate industry leaders to strengthen the workforce, says Matt Gruhn, president of the MRAA, which recently released a report illustrating the need for more employees. More than 20 percent of positions (3.8, on average) at dealerships remain unfilled, according to the report, which surveyed 1,300 dealership locations. Fifty-nine percent of the unfilled spots are in service, and 88 percent of the unfilled service positions are for technicians. Also, the report says six additional employees will be needed by 2019 at dealerships, and 86 percent of responding dealers had multiple positions unfilled.
“The workforce shortage is a tremendous challenge, but at the same time there is an enormous opportunity to grow boating — as we’ve seen here today,” Gruhn said in an interview after the luncheon. “We can go out and go after diverse markets. We can sell more boats. We don’t want to dwell on the workforce crisis; we are countering the challenges we are faced with by also talking about the opportunities.”
The MDCE also serves as a rallying place for the industry as it moves into 2017.
“The primary purpose of the event is the education,” Gruhn said. “The dealers come here to learn, to sharpen their axes, to strengthen their businesses. But while they are here they know there is strength in numbers; this is the largest group we have had here; there is a lot of strength in that — strength to advance the industry because we are all here under the same roof.”
Big show, better show
This year the event featured new “Dealer-to-Dealer Roundtable Discussions,” which consisted of 30 meetings on topics that included inventory management, website design and handling difficult customers. Also new were Dealer Case Studies — insights into best dealer practices that are already in use and that other marine businesses can easily adopt. The Innovation Spotlight, a series of 15-minute educational presentations on trends in marine products and services, was also introduced this year.
“One of the goals of the past several years has been to find ways of taking advantage of who we have under this roof,” says Liz Walz, MRAA vice president and director of education. “When we think of the MDCE community we are looking for more ways to bring that community together to take advantage of the experience and innovation and ingenuity of the people here.”
The core of the event consists of 11 pre-conference workshops, four educational tracks (leadership, sales, marketing and service) and keynote presentations. For the first time there were three keynote speakers. The first was Linkner, author of two New York Times bestsellers: “Disciplined Dreaming: A Proven System to Drive Breakthrough Creativity” and “The Road to Reinvention: How to Drive Disruption and Accelerate Transformation.”
Linkner packed his 90-minute presentation — “The Gravity-defying Leader: Innovative Approaches to Hyper-growth Leadership” — with stories of business leaders as well as everyday people who succeeded by taking chances on innovation in unconventional ways.
His five obsessions
Linkner, whose father owned a 38-foot Island Packet sailboat, used his five “obsessions that drive innovative thinkers” (get curious, crave what’s next, defy tradition, get scrappy and adapt fast) as the backbone of his presentation.
To illustrate the “get scrappy” principle, Linkner, who grew up in the Great Lakes region and later owned a pontoon boat, used the example of a bicycle company that began using shipping boxes labeled as “plasma televisions” so carriers would use extra care during transport. That led to a sharp decrease in warranty claims. “The key to innovation is grit,” said Linkner.
To show how successful people are capable of adapting rapidly, Linkner ran a video of Kevin Bull, a young stockbroker competing on the TV show “American Ninja Warrior” who used his legs instead of his upper body to complete an acrobatic feat that had not previously been accomplished on the show. Linkner called Bull’s move “a reversal” — an unconventional idea that leads to innovative achievement. He also told the story of a Pittsburgh hospital that used window washers dressed as superheroes to cheer up sick children as they squeegeed their way down the building.
Another example of fast adaptation was an epic billboard advertising war in Los Angeles between Audi and BMW in which each car company countered the other with a larger billboard. “They were both winners because they both showed their ability to adapt,” said Linkner.
Linkner tried to get the crowd’s creative juices flowing with examples of innovative and cutting-edge marine products and boats, such as a solar-driven yacht (Solaris by Duffy London), an underwater drone-like device that cleans the bottom of a boat (Keelcrab) and an app (Dockwa) that carries out dockage and dining reservations for cruising boaters.
“There’s lots of innovation in [the marine] industry,” said Linkner. “It’s anything but stagnant, which means it’s our responsibility to rise to that challenge. No matter what your business card says, I believe you should add the title of ‘innovator,’ or ‘boating artist,’ or ‘entrepreneur.’ ”
This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue.