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FLIBS 2016: MarineMax CEO says to tackle problems directly

FORT LAUDERDALE — A word to the wise: Run at customers’ problems, not away from them, and don’t try to shift blame, said Bill McGill, CEO and president of MarineMax.
MarineMax president and CEO Bill McGill (left) sat Thursday for a question-and-answer session with Soundings Trade Only and Anglers Journal editor-in-chief Bill Sisson.

MarineMax president and CEO Bill McGill (left) sat Thursday for a question-and-answer session with Soundings Trade Only and Anglers Journal editor-in-chief Bill Sisson.

FORT LAUDERDALE — A word to the wise: Run at customers’ problems, not away from them, and don’t try to shift blame, said Bill McGill, CEO and president of MarineMax, the largest U.S. recreational boat and yacht retailer, Thursday morning at the Fort Lauderdale International Boat Show media breakfast at the Bahia Mar Yachting Center.

“Whether the customer creates the problem, the manufacturer creates the problem or we create the problem, we have to deal with that problem,” McGill said, answering Soundings Trade Only and Anglers Journal editor-in-chief Bill Sisson in a Charlie Rose-style Q&A in a packed dining room.

McGill, whose chain of 56 dealerships showed a 22 percent increase in same-store sales and 25 percent growth overall in fiscal 2016, said he gets people into boating and keeps them there by immersing them in the lifestyle — offering them the chance to go on boating getaways and on charter vacations, and by showing his customers that boating really does bring friends and family together.

“There’s a need for that,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of divisions today. As I keep telling my team, we change people’s lives — and we do, every day.”

His employees teach new owners to use their boats. They teach spouses and children to boat. “We make the ladies the best captains. We bring the ‘ing’ to boating.”

McGill said one of the challenges to growing boating is time. “I hear that from our customers all the time,” he said. “They’re not able to use their boats as much as they’d like to.”

Getaway events help get his customers on the water.

Another challenge is the cost of boats. “A boat that cost $50,000 10 years ago costs $150,000 today,” he said, partly because of all the electronic gear and technology.

He said the upper middle class and the wealthy are his customers. They have the discretionary income to buy a new boat. The middle class has been largely frozen out of new-boat ownership because incomes have not kept up with costs.

“We focus on premium products and experiences,” he said. “That’s what we rely on.”

McGill said the Fort Lauderdale show is “absolutely one of the most important shows to our company.” MarineMax has 14 boat displays and 150 employees at the show.

He said his team comes to the show with 100 concrete appointments on their calendar.

McGill attributes MarineMax’s double-digit growth each year since the 2008 recession — growth that is unprecedented — to the avalanche of new product.

Boatbuilders “have come out of their cocoon,” he said. “New products are the most important single thing” that has driven sales during the past eight years.

McGill said he is selling boats to millennials, he’s hiring millennials and he’s adapting the way he does business to the social media that are the preferred medium of communication for this generation.

“We’re bringing the lifestyle to them,” he said. “But their expectations need to be recognized. As customers, affordability is an issue to them. They’ve got a lot of student debt. Buying a boat is a challenge to them.”

McGill said he looks for a passion for boating in his employees, a passion he still stokes at age 72 by barefoot boating just about every weekend with his family (McGill has five children and nine grandchildren).

“You’ve got to stay young,” he said. “If I stop, it will probably be over for me. I’m not going to stop.”

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