Q&A with John Ropp, Michigan Boating Industries Association president - Trade Only Today

Q&A with John Ropp, Michigan Boating Industries Association president

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John Ropp is president of the Michigan Boating Industries Association and also serves as its chief executive, overseeing the management and direction of the 300-member group. He took the position in November 2010, succeeding Van Snider Jr., who resigned after serving for more than 20 years as the association’s president.

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Ropp, 50, joined the MBIA from the Albion-Homer (Mich.) United Way, where he was the executive director. He has many years of professional experience in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. Other previous experience includes serving as director of development of the Michigan Theatre of Jackson; director of development and public relations at the Leila Arboretum Society; executive director of Scuba Passport; and seven years as executive director of U.S. Ski Team Passport.

He also previously served as director of the American Ski Association.

Ropp holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Olivet (Mich.) College and a master’s in organizational management from Spring Arbor (Mich.) University. He also holds a Certificate of Fund Raising Management through the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Ropp lives in Concord, Mich., with his wife and two sons. In his free time, he coaches the local high school’s varsity baseball team and his sons’ sports teams.

Q: What are the top issues facing the boating industry in Michigan?

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A: There’s a number of them. Of course, I think facing everyone in the country is the economy. Also, the price of boats keeps increasing, which is making it more difficult to get that entry-level, new, younger-generation family into the sport. There’s always a number of legislative issues we’re facing. Invasive species — in parts of the country that’s not a big concern, but it is here. We’re running into a lack of qualified employees — more specifically, boat mechanics — and the harbor dredging and trying to get federal and state funds for that. Those are just some of the issues that we battle daily, but they’re definitely the important ones we’re facing, with the economy being critical, though improving.

Q: How does the association address these issues and what can you do to help solve them?

A: In general, MBIA, we’ll get involved and become a leader for others to champion the fight on these issues with us. MBIA feels that being the only official association statewide representing Michigan’s boating industry, it’s our responsibility to take that leadership position.

The economy — that’s very difficult to have an impact on that, so we’re pretty much riding that out with everyone else. There are things we do to help lessen the impact on the industry if we can. We’ll continue to put on quality boat shows and keep costs down as much as we can for our dealers. Honestly, it’s a little impact when the economy is [down], especially Michigan, hit like we were.

The price of boats — again, we don’t have a lot of impact on the pricing of boats, or control, I should say. We do continually promote the affordability of the sport of boating as compared to other alternatives that everyone has. We want to continue to show young families that boating is a family activity worth investing in and it’s truly within most families’ means. It sometimes gets an unfair shake — people thinking it’s a very expensive sport. The amount of money you might spend on a week’s family vacation, if you spent that amount of money on a boat annually, provides you enjoyment throughout the entire summer, not all condensed into one week. So there’s things like that we do and promote and get out the press releases on.

Legislatively speaking, we feel we have one of the best lobbying firms in Michigan to provide support and consultation in this arena. Currently, we’re tracking 158 introductions that could have ramifications on our industry, but we’re specifically focusing or watching closely 41 that have a direct impact on boating. That’s what we do. That’s the benefit for the entire industry, not just our members. That’s what we promote as a major reason why you should be a member. You cannot be a member and still reap those benefits, but it’s the old ‘do your share’ in that regard.

A couple key issues we’re working toward is the sales tax on difference. We’re one of only five states in the country that does not have that. It’s basically: If you trade in your boat for a new one, you pay full tax on the new price of the boat. You do not get to deduct the trade-in value. If you’re buying a $10,000 boat and trading in a $5,000 boat, you pay tax on $10,000, whereas in most states throughout the country you pay tax on the difference. It’s a real disadvantage and we’re working hard on that one. Florida changed their laws recently and has shown that it’s incredibly successful for them. It’s a revenue producer. That’s one we’re working on real hard.

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Also, the registration process, we’re trying to get centralized and more streamlined. Those are a couple of issues we’ve been working on for years and I think we’re making some ground and victory could be much sooner rather than later.

Q: How about issues like luxury tax proposals, which have been suggested in other states? Has Michigan dealt with anything like that?

A: Yeah, we always have some silly elected official that tries to start a bill or something like that. We had one circulating last year that we jumped hard on and led the charge. It was trying to eliminate the tax deduction for boats, but they weren’t going to eliminate it for cabins or cottages or second homes or RVs or anything like that, so it was a little unfair. They were targeting the boats that you could live on and had at least a galley and a head. A lot of people treat their boat like other people travel in their RVs or vacation at their cottage up north in Michigan. It’s the same thing.

I’m not exactly sure where that is, but we’ve heard a lot less about it this year. That was just about 12 months ago. If it’s not finished, it was shot down pretty hard, so I’m not sure it’s moving at the moment. That scenario seems to surface every few years — some harebrained idea. Let’s stop giving a benefit to the wealthy. That’s how they always try to put a public spin on it, and then the truth comes out and it usually fizzles.

But we always have something like that we’re dealing with.

Q: Michigan was particularly hard-hit in the recession, due to its ties with the auto industry. How would you describe the general economic climate in your state these days? Are things better?

A: Definitely — all the indicators are there, and not just indicators, the actual results. Michigan wasn’t just hit hard. The county I happen to live in, in the central part of the state, had the highest unemployment rate in the entire country 18 months ago. In the entire state we were in the top three in every bad category there was.

The state’s turned around substantially, quicker than anticipated, driven of course by the auto industry. We’re still a little too heavily weighted in one industry, and every time you get hit with a hard recession it helps you to diversify to prevent that in the future. So that’s where we are, and it will be many years before we are able to really diversify, so we feel the impact like we did.

But it is turning around. Nationwide, boat sales are up. Michigan resembles that or is a little better. Our shows to date — the three shows in the fall of 2011 and the recent two shows in 2012 — everything was up. Attendance was relatively flat, but the boat sales were up, so your real boat people are out there and the pent-up demand that has been there is being released. They’re buying boats because the economy has improved. They’re feeling more comfortable with the economy and where they’re at.

Q: Do you think rising fuel prices will affect the industry?

A: That has an effect on everything — the cost of everything, even things you don’t realize. But I think it’s going to have less of an impact than it’s had in the past. People are becoming a little bit numb. People were hit with that three years ago, wasn’t it — we hit $5 for a little while in July. Once you see it, it’s a little bit easier to tolerate the next time. The sticker shock isn’t quite so shocking anymore. It’s becoming an old story.

Does it have an impact? Sure, it will. It will prevent some people from taking up the sport, just as it impacts the person who was going to buy that SUV and now maybe will buy a Focus.

It won’t be nearly as great as the auto industry will face. For the most part, it is a lifestyle and an enjoyable family activity, creating memories. You’re not going to forgo that. You’ll maybe not go so far — do things where you still enjoy your boat on the water, but you aren’t using quite as much gasoline. Your driving may change a little bit. Instead of racing back to the dock, you cruise back to the dock — slight alterations that will keep the amount of the expenditure on that element of your sport not changing a lot.

What would be a great benefit to the industry is if the media would quit talking about it. I understand the media gets paid to make news and you’ve got to make news sometimes, but that’s the biggest problem. They just want to keep talking about it. It is what it is. Do we really need to keep talking about it? Everybody sees it.

None of us individually are going to change this, so let’s stop bringing it to the top of people’s minds — especially right before my boat show!

Q: Do you consider your boat shows the biggest benefit to your members? Or is it some of the other work you do?

A: I would say what we do legislatively is the biggest benefit for the entire industry. They all benefit — members and non-members alike. We do it for the industry.

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The boat shows, the three that we own and operate, are located in southeast Michigan; therefore, for the most part, only southeast-to-central members have the opportunity to take advantage of that. I say ‘for the most part’ because we had a dealer from Traverse City come down to our show last week and have a big exhibit space, and every once in a while someone will drive from a little farther away and exhibit.

The boat shows afford MBIA the ability to do what we do for the entire industry and all of the other services we provide our members. That’s how we make our money to operate. So, I guess in a sense, yes, boat shows are the greatest benefit because without them we wouldn’t be in operation.

We’re continuing to look at other shows, and one farther north [in Michigan] is one we’re looking at right now, and it may come together in a short time. The board will make a decision on that. Plus we’re constantly looking at other member services, other things that our members commonly utilize, and trying to leverage a discount by bringing them into the association.

Q: In what way do you work with other boating industry associations, especially in the Great Lakes region?

A: We’re affiliated with experts from all areas of the industry, and associations all over the country will offer expertise and opportunities to partner and to collaborate. Right now MBIA is collaboratively working with most major industry associations or organizations and companies with the grow-boating Growth Summit. We also consult with the other state trade industry associations on a number of membership issues. It’s nothing to pick up the phone and talk to other associations throughout the country on their boat show issues — what works, what doesn’t. We come together and meet once a year and meet via teleconference multiple times a year to discuss the business we’re all in.

Q: What were your impressions from the growing-boating Growth Summit, which was held last December?

A: The hardest thing with something like this is to keep moving it forward, but because there were so many people there and it was such a wonderful gathering of stakeholders from the entire country there’s more eyes watching, which keeps the pressure on to keep moving it forward. So, in and of itself, that’s the positive part — that so many people are watching. We can’t let it fail now. If we’re going to move this industry as a whole, we’ve got to collectively and collaboratively work together to do it. No one association is strong enough to do it by themselves.

Q: In general, why are trade associations such as MBIA important to the recreational boating industry?

A: We pull everybody together. We unite forces and, it’s an old saying, but power is in numbers. Without an association, what you have is a lot of people wanting the same thing … but no one having the time or energy to pull it all together, to leverage the power of numbers so collectively you can make a change. That’s what associations do. We bring large numbers together. We speak as one voice. Associations basically steer the ship as your member and board members tell you which direction to go in.

That’s the reason everyone should belong [to an association]. By belonging you’re making the association stronger. Every member makes it stronger and brings some assets to the table that someone else might not have. The stronger your association is, the better your industry will be.

Q: What do you see as the future of the marine industry?

A: I don’t have a crystal ball on the economy, which is a big driving factor, but let’s just say things remain normal and good. I think it’s in a positive position to move forward.

What we’ve been is out-marketed by other recreational alternatives. We’re competing with all the activities people can choose to do. There’s not enough leisure time to do everything. I believe with this collaboration that’s under way we will become a much more aggressive marketer as a whole for our sport and recreation, which will put us in a good position.

If you look at the numbers, there’s a huge amount of wealth changing hands over the next 20 years throughout this country. So the means will be there if we become the sport of choice and you can only do that by marketing or advertising. I can’t think of many products that have been successful that never had to advertise — and as far as a national campaign, we have not done an adequate job marketing our sport. You need that message hitting them nationally to say, ‘Let’s check out the boat show. It’s been here in town 54 years, like our Detroit one. Let’s go see what it’s all about.’

And I think the marine industry is in a good position to take advantage of the economy improving, the wealth that’s changing hands in the next 20 years, the product advancements, the technology — everything’s improving. We need to control the pricing as much as possible, and that’s the case with any sport. Every sport’s facing the same challenges. Our prices are going up, but so is everything else.

But you put everything on an even keel and I think we’re in a very good position to see growth and success.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.

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