Energizing the dealer corps

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Keynote speaker Chester Elton is considered an expert in the field of company culture and employee engagement.

Keynote speaker Chester Elton is considered an expert in the field of company culture and employee engagement.

When the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo ended in November after four days of seminars, speakers and networking, it was just the beginning for the organization that co-manages the event, the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.

The group used the conference and expo — held at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Fla. — to launch four initiatives to broaden industry services, including improvements to the dealer certification program and the creation of tools to connect employers and job seekers and foster business-to-business activity.

The MRAA goes charging into 2015 after a six-month spurt of program development and research, president Matt Gruhn says.

“With all the progress we’ve made over the past two or three years, we feel like this is our biggest year,” Gruhn says. “Our team has been extremely energized and is eager to bring all these programs and products and services to life. The MRAA is here to serve the industry and to do a better job of helping dealers find success and continue to grow their businesses.”

The MRAA has held its annual convention for more than 35 years. In 2008, it contracted with Boating Industry magazine to produce the event together, rebranding it the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo. The previous year, 98 people attended the convention; in 2008, attendance more than doubled, to 198. It more than doubled again in 2009, attracting 431 people. There were 740 conferees in 2010, 960 in 2011, and this year nearly 1,200 people participated.

“At this year’s conference, there was more of everything,” Gruhn says. “There were more educational seminars, more attendees, more exhibitors and four educational tracks and two keynote speakers. Attendees we’ve talked with are saying it was the best ever. We want to make every year better than the previous year — and I think we did that.”

The key to the growth? Gathering information from conferees every year, Gruhn says. Those who attended the seminars — there were 31 — were asked to fill out a survey that ranked the speaker and topic. The association also conducts its own “customer satisfaction index” survey after the event, emailing and calling every conferee. “Our agenda next year will be fueled by what [the dealers] want,” Gruhn says. “Year in and year out, we are listening to the dealers.”

New products remain a staple of the showroom floor.

New products remain a staple of the showroom floor.

Gruhn also points out that a committee of dealers feeds the association with opinions, advice and requests. Seven dealers sit on the committee: Rob Soucy (Port Harbor Marine); Jeff Strong (Strong’s Marine); Rob Youker (The Sportsman); Phil Miklo (Oak Hill Marina); Paul Nickel (Pride Marine Group); Stephanie Haywood (Blue Springs Boat Co.); and Jeff Siems (Blue Springs Marine).

There were roughly 70 boats in the expo hall this year, most of them small boats under 30 feet, the majority of which were pontoons, deckboats, bowriders and center consoles.

Sold on the seminars

Regulator Marine, a builder of center console fishing and day-cruising boats, displayed the Regulator 25, and president Joan Maxwell and Tim Ford, a Regulator sales representative, attended the event for the second year.

“The seminars are really valuable to me,” Maxwell says. “You leave here with a head full of information. If you can apply just one thing to your business, one strategy or piece of advice, then it is worth it.”

Maxwell got so much out of last year’s MDCE that she encouraged her dealers to go this year and offered to pay for two people per dealership to attend.

“We wanted our dealers to experience this and get better and hopefully sell more boats,” she says. “Maybe they don’t sell a boat as a direct result of the conference, but they provide better customer service, which leads to selling more boats down the road.”

Two of Regulator’s dealers took her up on it — the Boat House in Cape Coral, Fla., and Ocean House Marina in Charlestown, R.I.

Rob Lyons, founder and owner of Ocean House, and his son, Jon, the sales manager for the business, attended a seminar that pertained directly to their situation — succession planning for family businesses. Jon Lyons is in line to take over the business his father established 32 years ago, so the session was quite useful.

“Having a business that can really run itself with processes and procedures that make it self-sustainable is really important,” says Jon, who attended “A Contrarian Strategy for Preserving Wealth,” presented by Tom Deans.

Jon also enjoyed Valerie Ziebron’s “Lessons Learned from the Master Service Adviser,” a session about a position that contributes to dealership loyalty, and the dynamic presentations of Don Cooper, “The Sales Heretic.”

“I can definitely see us attending next year and bringing more employees, such as our service manager,” Jon says. “They certainly won’t fall asleep during these sessions. They’re engaging from start to finish and stick with you.”

Improving certification

Helping dealerships improve through the dealer certification program continues to be a top priority for the MRAA. One of its four initiatives is to improve dealer certification by simplifying the participation process, creating more virtual interaction and online resources, making participation more affordable and reducing the frequency of recertification. The group also has stepped up its marketing efforts.

“We’ve been told the program lacks marketing, but now we have videos explaining and promoting certification that certified dealers can use to show customers and help sell their dealership,” Gruhn says.

Don Cooper, who is known as "The Sales Heretic," makes a point at one of dozens of seminars.

Don Cooper, who is known as "The Sales Heretic," makes a point at one of dozens of seminars.

The videos — one featuring powerboating, one sailing and a third with both — each runs about two minutes.

Last Jan. 1 the association officially launched MRAATraining.com, which provides a direct link to the dealer certification program’s new interactive virtual training, which walks you through the process at your own pace.

The website asks users to sign up to gain access to the virtual training. In pop-up videos, Gruhn and Liz Walz, MRAA vice president, summarize the tools at your disposal — the “Training Center,” the “Certification Center,” “MRAA recommended training,” “My Report Card,” “The File Vault” and “My Favorites.”

The training website also includes a new MRAA marine industry career center, which aims to connect job seekers with marine businesses.

The American Boat & Yacht Council and the MRAA are working together on the career center effort (mraa.com/careercenter). Businesses can post job openings and use tools to help them find the right employees to better manage their work force, and job seekers can search through the open positions and post their resumes, Gruhn says.

Another popular speaker was Sam Dantzler, a consultant known for blending industry data with common-sense logic.

Another popular speaker was Sam Dantzler, a consultant known for blending industry data with common-sense logic.

The MRAA also created a Marine Industry Directory, an online list of businesses and the products and services they offer.

“We have had a lot of companies asking us how to get in touch with a specific company or which companies have certain products available,” Gruhn says. “We expect the directory to connect dealers with the suppliers and the manufacturers they are looking for.”

The group also will create four electronic “guide to success” books for free download from the MRAA website.

Gruhn says Walz deserves credit for creating and producing the educational content on the website — and at the conference. He also took the occasion to announce his promotion of Walz from director of education to the position of vice president.

Walz, 39, served as director of membership and marketing from August 2012 to November 2013, and then as director of education.

“This event and its education is all Liz,” Gruhn says. “She is behind every educational aspect that we offer. She has an intense focus on what and how we can deliver services to dealers to help them grow.”

Walz worked at Boating Industry magazine for about 12 years before coming to the MRAA.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue.

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