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Survivors share ideas at dealer conference

Attendance was up at November's MDCE, as the retailing segment looks toward a brighter 2011


The number of marine dealers has shrunk significantly in recent years, but the hundreds of dealer personnel who attended the recent Marine Dealer Conference & Expo are not only surviving, but also are finding new ways to keep their businesses going while the economy begins its slow turnaround.

Held Nov. 14-17 in Orlando, Fla., this year's event was the largest in recent years, with 971 attendees and 115 exhibitors, including 40 boat manufacturers, taking up 106,000 square feet of space in the Orange County Convention Center. Those figures are up from 743 attendees and 75 exhibitors in 2009. Last year about 20 boatbuilders took part in the event, using 58,000 square feet of space.

Organizers say 205 dealerships were represented at this year's event and 465 dealer personnel attended. That's up 6 percent from last year, when 439 dealership personnel took part.

"I think [this year's conference] is the best one yet. I've been to probably 10 of them, and it's the best one to date. The content, the quality of the speakers, the agenda, just the organization of the schedule - it's all top-notch," says Paul Terzian, of Causeway Marine in Manahawkin, N.J. "In today's economic situation, it's more important than ever to make sure we take advantage of every possible opportunity to hone our business and get as lean and mean as possible, and this certainly helps us do that."

This year's event, produced by the Marine Retailers Association of America in partnership with Boating Industry magazine, featured 21 educational sessions in three tracks: Sales and Marketing, Service Department and Powering Profits. The sessions also included keynote and closing addresses, as well as bonus sessions that ran before the official start of the event.


"The sessions - all of them - were full," says MRAA president Phil Keeter. "I thought attendance was outstanding. I think that's based on the fact that we are attracting dealers who are more interested in making sure that their businesses do the right thing. I think we're attracting those people even when they've had a second tough year now ... and yet they still can find time to come to the convention to try and get new ideas."

Keeter says he's disappointed that more small to medium-sized dealers aren't taking advantage of the educational opportunities at the conference. He says organizers need to do a better job of getting the word out that the event is not just for the largest, most profitable dealers.

Keeter says a dealer told him that it cost his business about $1,100 to come to last year's event, and he came away with one idea that brought in an additional $100,000 in revenue this year. "Everyone gets something to take home from [the conference]," Keeter says.

Sharing ideas

One of the most popular features of the conference is the sharing of ideas and best practices among attendees, who are happy to discuss their secrets of success. "A rising tide raises all boats, so a lot of these dealers are smart enough to know that if their peers do well, then they'll do well as a result," Terzian says. "The industry going up as a whole is better for everybody."

Larry Russo Sr., of Massachusetts-based Russo Marine, says dealers previously may have kept their practices a secret to protect themselves from bad dealers. But because many of them were weeded out during the recession, those days are largely over. "I don't mind sharing my success with a contemporary, and I want to learn from him about what he may be doing in his market," Russo says, calling the conference "one of those go-to events."

Julie Crowe, of Crow Marine in Eatonton, Ga., says talking with her peers gets her motivated to go back to her dealership to try to implement things she has learned. "I've gotten some ideas in the service [sessions]. It's hard to go back with experienced people and change everything they do. But I think I've got some outlines that we can say, 'Would this work? What do you think?,' " she says. "It's important to come to learn, to network. I think it gets you motivated."

First-time attendee Larry Godejohn of Staples Sports in Cushing, Minn., says he found the conference enjoyable and informative. "I've picked up a lot of new information," he says.

Manufacturer involvement

Not only has the conference grown in dealer participation, but more manufacturers also are taking advantage of the large dealer meeting to get some one-on-one time with industry partners.

"You have a recovering industry, and for a couple of years, it was really hard for boat manufacturers to get the attention of dealers, to get before dealers, to get them to come to their factories and look at boats, to get them to travel to a major boat show to look at boats," Russo says. "This is their opportunity to get in front of a big, qualified audience that has financial resources, that has systems in place, and say to them, 'Would you like to sell my boats? I hear you're a good dealer.' "

When attendees registered, they received a bag full of pamphlets from boatbuilders. Some included letters asking attendees to come to their booths to learn more about their boats and what the builders offer dealers.

"As you consider your future plans, I also ask that you think about the many leading brands, products and services provided by Brunswick," chairman and CEO Dusty McCoy wrote in a letter to attendees. "Our longstanding commitment to the marine industry and dedication to assisting our dealers makes us a most valued partner."


Duane Kuck, president and CEO of Regal Marine, says there are "select areas throughout North America" where the company is looking for dealers. He touted Regal's factory showroom and programs such as Regal Pre-Production Pricing for yachts larger than 40 feet and Prime Time and Show Times sales events as proof that the Orlando-based boatbuilder is investing in its dealers.

Dennis Revell, vice president of sales at Tracker Marine, invited attendees to the company's booth for a visit.

"In the face of challenging times, we have brought to our dealers unprecedented support, as well as new programs and business methods that are reducing their costs while also delivering increased margins, sales volumes and ultimately a stronger bottom line," he wrote in a letter to attendees. "We have plenty to share and have been busy preparing for your arrival. We would be honored for you to stop in for a cup of coffee and let us share some of the details with you."

State of the industry

Dealers at the conference acknowledged that the economy is still struggling but said there appear to be signs of improvement. "Business has been fairly good, considering the economic conditions," Godejohn says. "Our service side of our business, of course, has been very good. We've probably seen increases in the service side of our business and slight drops on the sales side, but all in all it's really pretty decent."

The Minnesota dealer adds, "I don't look for any great increases in 2011. It will probably be about the same as 2010. I don't expect any real increases until 2012."

Terzian says he thinks the industry has turned the corner, and now it's just a matter of time on how long it takes for things to start to progress in a forward direction. "I really feel, for the majority of us, the hardest part is behind us," he says.

Crowe says she's seeing "signs of optimism" at her dealership and thinks the industry is beginning to "come up a little bit."

Russo says he wanted to ask everyone at the conference to take a pledge that they'd never again say the words "in this difficult economic climate" or "in this challenging economic climate."

"We've got to stop thinking like that. It's over," he says. "We've hit bottom, and a lot of us are already bouncing off the bottom. Now it's a process of managing success again."


The conference included the awarding of several honors to industry veterans and others who have served the marine industry over the years.

John Sima, of Sima Marine in Eastlake, Ohio, received the Irv Rosenthal Award. It is presented annually to someone in the industry who fosters the mission and goals of the MRAA. It was established in honor of Rosenthal, who was the owner of Transfer Monogram and was instrumental in the formation of the MRAA in the early 1970s.


Sima Marine, a family-owned business, has been serving northern Ohio for more than 50 years. Sima, following his father's lead, has continued to grow his business for 35 years, turning it into a full-service marina. He has served on the MRAA board of directors for 12 years, with a term as chairman. He also has served on the American Boat and Yacht Council's board and has been the chairman of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association.

The MRAA honored U.S. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, with the 2010 Legislative Award. This award is given annually to a political leader who has worked in some way in Congress to advance marine retailing.

Voinovich has long supported boating as mayor of Cleveland, governor of Ohio and as a U.S. senator. Most recently, he voted for the small-business lending bill, which the MRAA strongly supported. His vote helped to ensure final passage of the bill, which provided more flexibility in the loan application process and increased the amounts of floorplan financing loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration.

Bombardier Recreational Products received the MRAA's Manufacturer of the Year Award, presented annually to a manufacturer or supplier that provides extra support to the association. "BRP has displayed outstanding leadership in our industry in terms of dealer support programs, retail-driven marketing and successful business practices that have earned the company this recognition from the MRAA," Keeter says.

The Jerry Martin Journalism Award, named in honor of Jerry Martin, a public relations icon and longtime industry activist, was presented to Norm Schultz for his twice-weekly "Dealer Outlook" blog, which runs in the Soundings Trade Only daily e-newsletter.

In his long and active career in the marine industry, Schultz - president emeritus of the Lake Erie Marine Trades Association - has received many awards, including the Irv Rosenthal and Bill Ferguson awards from MRAA.

Barbara Woodard, of Woodard Marine in Bomoseen, Vt., received the Darlene Briggs Marine Woman of the Year award. She and her husband, Robert, have been working together in the business for more than 40 years.

The Briggs award was established in memory of Darlene Briggs of Wayzata Marine in Minnesota. It is presented annually to an outstanding woman who is actively involved in the marine industry at any level. The award recognizes long and devoted service, untiring commitment and the advancement of women in the industry.

The conference ended with a gala honoring Boating Industry magazine's Top 100 dealers. Topping the list was Prince William Marine Sales Inc. in Woodbridge, Va., followed by Austin, Texas-based Sail & Ski Centers; Gordy's Lakefront Marine, Fontana, Wis.; Buckeye Marine in Bobcaygeon, Ontario; and Russo Marine of Medford, Mass.

This article originally appeared in the January 2011 issue.



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