“I think I may have a statistic here.” That’s something you might hear when you talk to Jack Ellis, founder and managing director of Miami-based Info-Link Technologies, a company that tracks marine industry sales trends and boat registrations. His passion for numbers and data seems trumped only by his love of boating and his family.
For data nerds, this is an appealing quality, but even for those who aren’t, Ellis gives a thoughtful, big-picture perspective. He enjoys turning the industry’s challenges over to examine them from various angles.
And you also won’t have a conversation with Ellis without hearing him laugh. Don’t think numbers guy — think guy who realized in the mid-1990s that he had to make a living to support his habit — sailing — and it had to be in the boating industry.
We talked with Ellis about his industry beginnings and what he sees as boating’s challenges.
Q: How did you get started collecting industry data?
A: Like a lot of people in this industry, I was born with the water gene. I inherited it from my dad. From the time I was a kid, we either had a boat under construction in the yard, or the second the snow melted we were headed down to the boatyard. Boatbuilding and maintenance became as much a hobby for me as the boating itself. And our family spent summer vacations sailing around New England. We didn’t go to Disney World — not that we never went, but we didn’t go in the summer. There was no leaving New England at that time of year.
It was a different time. When my dad went on vacation, he went on vacation. He was an exec at a bank, but even if we were just five miles offshore, like Cuttyhunk for instance, for all practical purposes there was no way to reach him. We’d disappear for two weeks. You don’t see a lot of that these days, for obvious reasons.
Growing up in Rhode Island I had all kinds of opportunities to work around boats. I taught sailing at the local Y. I worked as a dockmaster at Newport Yachting Center. I did boat maintenance for people. The year I took off between college and graduate school, I worked for Shannon Yachts, building boats, because I had at least some experience and wanted to work for a boating company. That same year, I earned my 50-ton masters license, which I later used. I haven’t used it professionally in about 25 years, but I still maintain it because you never know.
From an education standpoint my initial background was really science. I attended the University of Rhode Island, and my intent at the time was to maybe study oceanography. I had the good fortune of working down at the graduate school there and it quickly became evident to me this wasn’t all Jacques Cousteau. As a research scientist you spent a lot of time in the lab. And the other thing that became evident to me was that working in academia was not going to get me a cruising sailboat anytime soon. I’d worked at Shannon for a little less than a year and then went off to the University of Miami to get my M.B.A.
After graduating there I worked for a large multinational logistics thing here in Miami. It happened to be by the name of Ryder. Having that corporate gig … afforded me the opportunity to buy my first boat. I bought a Shannon 38, which I still own. And of course I had worked for the company, so I knew exactly how that boat was built.
I worked there [at Ryder] for a number of years, and as much as I liked the job and really enjoyed the people I worked with, I realized I just wasn’t properly wired for corporate life. So around the mid-1990s I started looking around the Miami area for a business to either start or buy. I was considering anything — a small boat manufacturer, a marina, a rental operation, whatever. I just knew I wanted to get back into the boating market, and I spoke with just about anybody who would speak with me. When I spoke with people about the markets they served, I found that most seemed to be making decisions just based on gut feelings and their common practices. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this, but it became evident that this was happening because there was no choice. Much of the information I was asking about simply didn’t exist.
I spoke with a gentleman who had a small [business] building center console boats. I said, ‘How big is the market you serve?’ and he kind of looked at me like, ‘What do you mean, how big is the market?’ Well, if for instance you could build an unlimited number of boats and you had no competition, how many of these can you sell? He said, ‘I have absolutely no idea.’ Do you know how many your competition sells? ‘Nope.’ He had gut feelings about what was selling, where it was selling, but no hard facts. To go get a loan and ask a bank for money with no answer to that, I didn’t think that was going to be viable.
In the latter part of, I think ’95, I enlisted the help of two friends and basically took a leap of faith and decided that instead of entering the boating market to serve consumers, we’d participate in the business-to-business side and offer research and advertising services, which is what I was familiar with.
The reason I say it was a leap of faith was because, at least at the time, it wasn’t something people were clamoring for. It wasn’t like there was this untapped opportunity necessarily where people said, ‘God, if only I had this.’ It didn’t exist. In many ways we kind of created a market.
Q: Now I know why you won’t sell your boat. You can always fix it.
A: It’s funny, that boat. … Probably the only thing I own that’s not for sale is that boat. I guess everyone has their price, but I can assure you what I would want and what somebody would offer are on two different planets.
Q: You don’t have to address this if you don’t want to, but when did Statistical Surveys Inc. enter boating?
A: My recollection is they actually started, I believe, in 1995. I am guessing. It was definitely before us. They got into the marine market, I think, a year before us. But SSI has been around a very long time. They were doing this for the RV industry for 20 years before we existed. To a certain extent it was somewhat of a coincidence, but at least on the new-boat side of things somebody was starting to serve that market. When I made the decision to do this, it hadn’t yet started. But they certainly had a head start.
The other thing is, that’s a piece of what we do. We look at the entire market. We maintain information on every boat registered in the U.S. with new and used sales transactions going back almost 20 years. It’s a bit of a different approach. It’s more of a holistic approach.
Q: When did you buy your boat?
A: That was 1990. I was 25. So a few years ago.
Q: And had you already married? Did your wife grow up boating as well?
A: I was dating her. I needed her blessing. She had the water gene as well. She grew up in South Florida, and she and her family spent most of their weekends in the south Keys. She was primarily boating just by default. It’s funny; she was a lot more hands-on with the boat back before we got married. I always kid her, especially in front of her friends — you should’ve seen her before we got married. She was in the big white outfit with the respirator on underneath, grinding the hull of the boat. I mean, we had no choice, I bought this boat I could barely afford, so we did all the work on it. Now I can’t get her to go in the backyard to spray the bird crap off the top (laughing).
Q: I’m sure my husband has a few examples of that kind of thing, too. You raised your two daughters on the water, too, right?
A: They inherited the water gene, too. My oldest daughter is a competitive sailor. And my younger daughter is a competitive swimmer, so if she’s not in the pool, she wants to be out on a boat. We spend quite a bit of time on the water. We have the Shannon, which we use primarily for cruising and overnights, and then we’ve got a small center console, which we primarily use for playing around the bay and running down to the Keys, or just out to dinner.
Q: You passed the water gene to your daughters, but I think I’ve heard you say you’re not positive they’ll be boat owners. I think you were speaking to the difference in generations, but also gender.
A: Yeah, I certainly hope they do own boats, but I don’t know for sure. And it’s certainly a combination of age and gender. Not only are we not seeing younger folks buying boats, but we’ve talked about the fact that women really aren’t buying boats very much. I don’t know the answer yet. Maybe it’s a societal thing that is hopefully starting to disappear a bit. But back when I was a kid, the girl was expected to sit there for the ride, not drive the boat. Perhaps that explains some of it — I don’t know.
Q: I always think it’s interesting to look at the complete shift that happened in motorcycles. I mean, when I was a kid, you’d occasionally see women on the backs of them, but almost overnight you saw this complete shift, and suddenly women just had their own.
A: Exactly. And maybe that’s an industry to try to emulate. It’s a pet peeve of mine. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. We’ve seen boat companies become more sensitive to women now when it comes to design and amenities. For instance, a lot of the smaller boats have heads in them. The accommodations are more luxurious than they used to be. Companies spend time picking fabrics and colors. But I rarely see attempts to market directly to women as the primary buyer, and it’s a shame. We looked at this a while ago. The needle has barely moved in 20 years.
I spent four days at the Orange Bowl Regatta after Christmas, and I would say at least a third of the kids were girls. And with the bigger boats, the 420s, I’d say close to half were high school-aged girls. So you really have to wonder, you know, what happens. Does boating become too physical? Are they intimidated by having to back the boat down a ramp? Is it a societal thing? I don’t know, but I think it’s arguably some low-hanging fruit, perhaps even more so than the minority market.
Q: When I bring the motorcycle example up to marine industry folks, they’ll say, “Yeah, but that was a specific brand. A manufacturer made that shift.” So I wonder if it’s the job of the industry or of a manufacturer to go out and specifically market to women in a completely different way.
A: You know, especially with so many different brands in this industry, everyone wants to differentiate themselves. As far as I know, nobody has attempted to differentiate themselves by saying, hey, we cater to women. You tell us how you need this boat designed specifically for you. But you’re right. Was it Harley that was primarily responsible for getting women in?
Q: Yeah, definitely Harley, and that company is also doing a lot with millennials, as well as boomers, interestingly enough. You know, the bikes with three wheels and sidecars — sort of like the pontoon boats of motorcycles.
A: They’re a marketing machine, that company. Yeah, you and I have kind of beat this to death, but the issue still remains. In my opinion, the aging of our core market is the primary challenge of our industry. We’re doing a really good job of catering to our base, which is primarily white males in their mid-40s to late 60s. But I don’t think we’ve come close to serving millennials. When I say we, I mean Info-Link, as well, because our entire focus is looking at boat owners — people who are already in. We don’t look at anyone who is not already a boat owner. It’s something we as an industry have got to figure out. As much as I hate to admit it, and as much as people hate to hear this, I think we perhaps should not focus so much on trying to sell these people new boats. I think if we focus solely on selling new boats to these people, the endeavor is apt to fail.
The baby-boomer generation had a completely different mindset. They like owning things, even if it doesn’t make physical sense. I think about the people I know who have a house here in Florida, they have a house in North Carolina, they have a ski chalet in Vail, and a boat. I mean, how could you possibly justify all that stuff? But they’re 65 years old and they’ve accumulated these things. And it doesn’t bother them; it’s just what they do. But I don’t see the millennials or even the Gen Xers, for that matter, doing the same thing. From everything I’ve heard and read, they don’t want to be bogged down by stuff. But they are, however, willing to pay for experiences.
What’s kind of encouraging — if you think about this — we’ve got millions of people who are currently millennials and Gen Xers that grew up boating. We don’t really need to sell them on the sport. It’s something they enjoyed doing with their families as they were growing up. I tend to just think of things from an analytical standpoint, so if you took any five-year period over the last 20 years, there’s at least 15 million boat owners. And if you consider that most of these people are married with children — let’s just be conservative and say 10 million are married with children — and then, on average, what do people have, about 2.5 kids? So over a five-year period, that’s 25 million kids who have been exposed to boating, who are now at a point where they themselves have the ability to invest in boating. But they’re not.
That’s why I think boat rentals, and clubs, and even some things that don’t even exist yet are going to take off just to serve that market. I think there’s ways of serving that market without asking that they plop down a big chunk of change and take out a mortgage. Mind you, in some senses that’s being unfair because certainly there are boats that even a kid with a relatively new job can go buy. But you’re talking about a jonboat with a 5-horse engine on the back.
Q: Yeah, but selfishly, as a Gen Xer who loves to boat but doesn’t have one, we live near the coast and would want something that could go in the bay, and be safe, and hold my whole family comfortably. You’re getting into some cash for a few months of the year, at least where I live.
A: Yes, and that’s true of millennials in a sense. While there is something they could afford, the reality is when you’re in your 20s or 30s, you want to buy something you’ll be able to take your friends out in. You’re not going to take them on a jonboat. It’s got to be big enough to accommodate their social life. And we’re asking them to make quite an investment to go boating. That’s why I really think the rental market is going to, I hate to call it explode, but it’s going to grow — and things we haven’t considered yet as alternatives.
Q: Can you talk now about some trends you see? I know you always say you’re looking at the past and not the future, but because you look at data I imagine you have a good sense of what’s happening.
A: There are really two ways to answer that, and one is to look at what’s been happening, and the other is where is it going, which is considerably more difficult because there are so many factors that come into play.
We don’t have any inside info per se, and in fact I’d argue that the people building boats and those out in the trenches know more than we do because not only do they have our information, they’re out seeing what’s going on in the market day to day.
This said, we are able to look at long trends and stand back and look at where things appear to be going. I’d say the most significant trend we’ve seen in new-boat sales over the past 15 years is this seismic shift from family runabouts to boats that have more of a mass appeal, particularly for older boaters. To a certain extent this has affected the cruiser market, as well, as fewer people are evidently using the boat to overnight on. If you look inland, the most common alternative is the pontoon boat. It serves many needs. It’s going to appeal to the older boaters who don’t have little kids they’re going to tow around on the runabout anymore.
Then on the coast, I think what we’re seeing mostly are saltwater fishing boats filling that void, even among people who don’t fish. You’re seeing that more and more with these companies building what look like fishing boats; they can be used as fishing boats, but they’ve got accommodations on there to make people comfortable. That’s what I wound up doing — buying a Scout for that reason. My primary use for the boat wasn’t to go fishing. And usually the center console fishing boats have limited seating and are intended to go fishing. But that’s changed a lot in recent years.
Looking forward, I think it’s safe to say that 2016 is going to look a lot like 2015. We’re going to continue to sell new boats at a relatively good clip, but after that it’s hard to say. My expectation is we’re going to start to see some softening in certain segments — in particular some of those that have been doing really well over the past few years. I think eventually we’re going to get to the point that we’ve somewhat saturated the market with product. There will be a point that enough pontoon boats have been built to serve much of the market, with the exception of the people who just want a new pontoon boat every few years. We see these cycles all the time. There’s a constant ebb and flow.
But as far as looking out further, I have no idea. We’re often asked if we do forecasting. It’s funny because I don’t think forecasters are held accountable; nobody really expects forecasters to get it right. But because everything we do is based in fact, we made the decision years ago not to make guesses that we can’t prove. It’s a very difficult industry to forecast, primarily because it’s a product nobody truly needs. If you’re trying to predict auto sales, it’s not that difficult. If you have a sense of where the economy’s going, how many cars are out there, what the population looks like — I mean, almost anybody with a job needs a car. Likewise for refrigerators, or most other consumer products. You know they’re going to scrap out at a certain rate, and everyone needs them. But with boats, heck, you’ve got the economy, the world, just what’s going on in society at the time. You just can’t predict these things.
Q: Well, that segues nicely into the fact that boats last forever. You’ve talked about this before, but boats really never die. There is literally no product I can point to that I haven’t had to replace in the last 10 years. And it’s usually half that for a car.
A: Absolutely. Because there’s a point that with all these things it just doesn’t make sense to fix them. With electronics, you don’t ever bother fixing them. You just throw in a new one. Likewise with appliances — they reach the point where, why would you pay somebody $100 an hour to come fix it? You just get a new one. And I think the same holds true with an automobile. But boats are an odd thing. But I think I may have a statistic here because I mentioned it for an article I did for the [Soundings Trade Only] 2016 outlook.
Our industry is both the beneficiary and a victim of its own success because, generally speaking, we build boats that can last a lifetime. We looked at this and we found that almost 90 percent of the roughly 3.5 million powerboats that were sold in the U.S. in the past 15 years are still in use. That’s huge. Of the 3.5 million boats, only 10 percent are not currently registered. And then, you’ve got the issue of, did they actually go away? Can we consider them to be scrap? No. I mean, we do, when we look at scrap rates because we have no choice. We consider them scrapped when we’re trying to determine the scrap rate of a particular type of boat. But the reality is they come and go.
We looked at this last year, and what we found is there are tens of thousands of boats that spend years sitting in somebody’s backyard, or in the corner of a boatyard, and then are reintroduced to the fleet.
To give you a sense, last year we found there were 730,000 boats that entered the fleet that were not registered a year earlier, excluding new boats. So these were boats that just sat on the sideline unregistered during the prior year. So you have this ebb and flow. You’ve got boats that are leaving the fleet and boats that are coming back in, and on top of that you’ve got brand new boats. There are actually more boats that already exist re-entering the fleet than there are new boats being sold into the fleet.
In my opinion, this is good news for a lot of the industry because all those boats need all the services — maintenance, insurance, storage, service, marine supplies. And with today’s engine technology, it’s starting to make more sense to repower these boats. So there’s a lot of opportunity there. One of the things we get caught up in, and understandably so, is how many new boats we sold last year. For lack of a better [system], that’s the measure of how well the industry is doing. At the same time, there’s still over 10 million boats in use in the United States. That dwarfs the number that are sold each year.
That whole subject is interesting. I think you asked: Where do boats go to die? I don’t think — I mean, some do, obviously. I think there are companies out there that will take them and grind the boat up — but I don’t think that many of them are dead forever. The owner doesn’t want the thing anymore, and shoves it in the back of a boatyard. At some point there’s some person out there who’s handy who walks up and says, “That’s a beautiful boat. Let me put a new coat of paint on it, and rebuild the engine, and I’m off on the water.”
Q: I also was interested to hear your perspective on other industries. For example, the RV industry took a hit, but has recovered. Golf has a lot of the same issues as boating and has had an even tougher time, it seems, than boating. Is there something to be learned from looking at these other industries?
A: We don’t follow the RV market very closely, but that industry took a hit during the recession, as well, but they’re back to pre-recession sales levels. Is there something to be learned? Probably. But at the same time we have some unique challenges RVing doesn’t have. You need to learn to drive and navigate a boat. That’s probably a barrier to some people. If you can drive, you can pretty much drive an RV. You don’t have issues with access to water. I suspect the time commitment is less. I don’t RV, so I don’t know, but I’d think it’s a little easier.
Just based on things I’ve heard, golfing faces exactly some of the same things as our industry. Most golfers are older. And the time commitment. From the time you leave your house to the time you finish 18 holes, you’re talking five hours. Apparently it’s not appealing to younger generations. I’ve been hearing some cool things that, maybe out of desperation, the industry is trying or thinking about trying — shorter courses and making the holes bigger.
Q: One thing that struck me last time we spoke was California. The numbers you gave on sterndrives in that state were staggering — I think you said 10,000 were sold there in 2005, and last year, wasn’t it something crazy, like 425?
A: For the most part, California basically fell into the ocean during the recession, and it just never recovered. It’s doing better now than it was a few years ago, but I mean it really fell off the cliff. I think there are a number of factors that come into play here. First of all, California has the reputation of being more active. If you looked at the market 15 years ago, they sold the heck out of runabouts, ski boats and PWC — boats you actually are active on. I think about 20 years ago they were selling almost 20,000 PWC in California, and I think this year we’ll be lucky to break the 3,500 mark. All of those markets took a hit on a national basis. It’s just more pronounced in California because they had so many of those boats.
On top of that, the housing market just took a hit out there, you’ve got the droughts, and as I understand it, California’s just heavy on regulation, which might also be taking a toll on boating. But it’s almost like a country unto itself when you look at it from a market perspective. Nobody’s recovered to pre-recession levels, but at least they’ve popped back up quite a way. California is really just still in tough shape.
Q: You touched on this a few minutes ago. Will making boating more affordable help move the dial?
A: I think, of course, it will enable more people to get into boating. But I don’t think we can remove enough excess cost from boats to make a significant impact. I’m sure the boatbuilders have done everything they can do, within reason, so now we’re talking incremental decreases in the cost of a boat. What I think has to happen — we’ve got to stop trying to sell more boats to people, and we have to make boating more accessible and more affordable. Not the boat, but the participation. And going back to our discussion before, less time-consuming.
My guess is that people don’t have an issue spending the entire day out on the boat. What they’re probably not excited about is having to drag the boat to the ramp, and do this, that and the other before it even hits the water. And when the fun’s done, they’ve got to drag the thing out of the water, wash it, cover it, call the mechanic to check the engine because they sucked up something into the air intake. I deal with that. But I don’t think these next generations are dealing with that as happily as I might. It goes back to what I said at the beginning. Part of the enjoyment of boating for me as a kid was building the boat and fixing it. I think if you talk to people like [Soundings Trade Only editor-in-chief] Bill Sisson, he loves it. I suspect he’d say he has just as much fun working on his boat as he does being on his boat.
This article originally appeared in the March 2016 issue.