At the Crossroads

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michael-verdon

In the last few years I’ve noticed many more young people at industry events — IBEX, MIBS, FLIBS, METS — who weren’t there during the downturn. While we gray-hairs still outnumber the 20- and 30-somethings working entry-level through midexecutive positions, a few bolder family-owned companies, such as Edson and Ritchie, have installed younger presidents who bring the energy, drive and foresight the industry needs to find its way forward.

The generational churn is happening at the highest levels: NMMA, Brunswick Corp., MarineMax and dozens of other businesses are watching their old guards surrender the CEO seats to younger leaders with new ideas. Brunswick, once generally seen as the Darth Vader of boat and engine manufacturers, is now branding itself a lifestyle and technology company. Brunswick not only is ushering in a new era of the connected boat, but its Freedom Boat Club acquisition shows how it’s betting on the way millennials will boat in the future. What a generational shift.

This “Generations” issue uses a broad definition of the word. We look at companies where sons and daughters are moving into the business, but we’re also seeing the challenges family businesses are facing since the downturn. Prerecession, many owners had been considering retirement around 2010 but postponed it while they fought for their companies’ lives.

Assembly tech Kirbi Perkins is part of Mercury’s younger-
generation workforce. 

Assembly tech Kirbi Perkins is part of Mercury’s younger- generation workforce. 

Davids and Goliaths

While business has returned to prerecession levels, day-to-day pressures are just as intense for family-owned distributors, dealers and equipment manufacturers — in new ways. The acquisitions and consolidation across these segments have created larger public competitors, along with pressure to deliver products and services faster, courtesy of the Amazon business model. As a result, smaller family businesses have become the new Davids facing much larger, better-capitalized Goliaths.

The generations theme also has many positives: Bass fishing is exploding at the college and high-school levels, Discover Boating has launched a social media campaign zeroing in on younger first-time buyers, and diversity seems to be taking hold across the industry, at least with age and gender.

One of the best trips I’ve taken this summer was to Mercury Marine headquarters. I’ve been to Mercury many times since 1990 — as recently as five years ago for its 75th anniversary — but the changes I saw in Fond du Lac this time were impressive. We’ve all read about the $1.14 billion Mercury has invested in infrastructure over the last decade, including $9 million for a new die-cast facility expansion and $30 million for a new propeller facility. The old ’50s-style factories are still operational (if not a bit grim), but I also saw facilities like the $10 million Noise, Vibration and Harshness building that opened in December. Mercury is slowly but surely transitioning for its future.

Redefining Mercury

What really impressed me were the number of young women and men working in engine assembly. On my last visit, the workforce was mostly 50-something males. They’re still very much present. Now, however, women are driving forklifts, assembling outboards with pneumatic tools and overseeing robotics. Almost half — 49 percent — of the assembly area’s workforce is female, up 20 percent in the last five years. It was great to see my old concept of Mercury being realigned with the new reality.

Ernie Anderson, general plant manager of assembly operations, says the addition of robotic and other labor-reducing equipment has helped transform the assembly floor for men and women. “We’ve been trying to eliminate hand-loading across the facility and reduce wasted movement at every job station,” Anderson says. “The goal is to make men and women interchangeable in all jobs.”

That’s a truly next-generation idea. 

This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.

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