Julie Crowe is part owner of Crowe Marine, an Eatonton, Ga.-based dealer of Bennington pontoons, Chaparral Boats, Hurricane Boats, Kawasaki Jet Skis, Robalo Boats and Yamaha engines.
Crowe, 72, was this year’s winner of the Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year Award, presented annually by the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Boating Industry magazine. The award recognizes a woman who is actively involved in the marine industry at any level. It recognizes long and devoted service, untiring commitment and the advancement of women in the marine business.
Crowe Marine has been in business since 1959, and Julie Crowe has worked there for 32 years. She currently serves as secretary/treasurer and is actively involved in the administrative work of the dealership. She owns the business along with her husband, Bill, and son Brian. Daughter Amy also works there.
Crowe worked in the mortgage/banking industry for eight years before joining the family business.
She has served as chairman of the Eatonton-Putnam County Chamber of Commerce, which honored her as businessperson of the year; served on the local Habitat for Humanity board; and worked with the Ferst Foundation, which provides books to children in Georgia. She also was the first woman to serve on the Lake Oconee Area Development Authority board.
A resident of Greensboro, Ga., Crowe enjoys reading and working with orchids in her free time. Crowe says her husband describes her as someone who knows “how to work the crowd,” and Crowe admits she’s a people person.
“I like people and I like what I do, and I think it shows,” she says.
Q: What does winning the Darlene Briggs Award mean to you?
A: Just being nominated was a wonderful honor. Of course, it’s the highest honor for a woman in this industry, so it made tears come into my eyes when I got nominated. I got nominated the year before, and I never did ask how many were nominated this year, but that year there were 70-some nominations. You have to be nominated, and then you have to fill out an application, so it’s two parts.
Last year, two of the girls that were on the committee told me I was right up there at the top, I think, to encourage me if I got nominated again to fill out the application. On the application there were questions for a woman that you wouldn’t ask a man. Like, how did you manage your home life with working and how did you manage your children. I think maybe those questions have been there since inception. I said they could update it a little bit.
Bill Pegg, with Chaparral Boats, is the one who nominated me. That was the biggest compliment somebody can pay you.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for women in the marine industry to be recognized with their own award?
A: There are quite a few awards that they give out during the [Marine Dealer Conference & Expo] to men and it’s always been that way, and I think they’re finally realizing that women play a bigger role than they used to. I know at the convention there were quite a few women that participated.
Q: How has Crowe Marine managed to stay successful during the downturn? Have you had to make many sacrifices/changes to stay in business?
A: We’ve tightened our belts. We’re lucky we have good manufacturers that have worked hard to help the dealers. In the beginning, everybody took a 20 percent pay cut across the board, and before we’ve given bonuses, and those kinds of things we’ve had to sacrifice. Now the pay has gone back to the original [pay], as of last year.
We’ve had to manage inventory better — that’s probably the next-biggest thing. We were able to get another line of credit where we could buy at the best price and circumvent some of the high interest rates.
Q: Can you talk about sale of new versus used boats? What are people most often looking for when they come to your dealership?
A: Of course, everybody wants the best buy. It may be 50-50 new to used because everybody thinks they can get a used boat that looks just like the new ones in the showroom, so sometimes you have to educate them that that’s not always the way. And, of course, one thing we do is we put our boats on sale when we’re starting to get the next year’s inventory. We try to have our inventory clean at the end of our fiscal year. I guess ’09 was the first year we probably carried over more, but then somehow or another, I don’t know how to explain it, my husband has always been able to kind of feel when things were starting to downturn and we started buying smarter, less. In fact, he told my son, about a year before that, that he’d taught him everything he thought he could except how to get through a bad time. So then he said, ‘God, I didn’t mean for it to get this bad.’ ” We’ve been lucky. We’re in an area where it’s a lot of retirements and golf is the big thing. We’re at two lakes. We moved from East Point out close to the Atlanta airport in 1996, and it’s been a really good move for us.
Right now, I have two or three 2011s, but mostly new 2012s.
Q: You sell boats ranging from pontoons to ski boats. Was it a conscious decision to sell boats for many different purposes and lifestyles? How has it helped your business?
A: It was a [conscious decision] because when we came [to our current location] we only had a runabout line and a pontoon line and jet skis. As you see what people are trying to do — put more people in a boat and ski, or whatever — we try to be flexible. We’ve been lucky and picky about the manufacturers that we deal with. Bennington, the pontoon business, it’s what’s really carried us through the down time. At this point, for the last couple of years, pontoon boats are our best sellers.
You’re always looking [at different lines]. You never say never. We did take on Robalo at their dealer meeting because they’re getting progressive. They’ve come in with some more entry-line boats and that will help our market.
Some of our customers might be older. They’ll come in and buy a runabout, thinking their kids are coming [to use it]. And after three or four years, if they don’t come, then they want a pontoon so they can cruise and get people on easier and that kind of thing — that happens.
Q: How big is the service end of your business?
A: It’s a big part of our business — about 20 to 25 percent. Some of the local dealers around here went out of business and my guy can fix things nobody else can fix. People are fixing things that normally they wouldn’t have fixed. They’re taking care of what they’ve got rather than buying new.
Q: Have you seen improvements in business in the last year and, if so, do you think it will continue in 2012?
A: Last year came up for us, and with what we’re seeing so far we think this is going to be a better year. Not tremendous, but anything is better if you keep creeping up. That’s what we’re anticipating.
Q: Does your dealership participate in boat shows and, if so, why are they important for your dealership? What other event do you take part in?
A: We go back to the Atlanta Boat Show. We’ve been in it over 40 years, and a lot of our people have a home in Atlanta and one out here at the lake. When we first moved out here we thought we’d never have to go back, but we do. It’s just kind of a must. You need a presence. We don’t take quite as big a space as we took before, but we think it’s important to be out there and be seen. Sometimes it will be two years, and they’ll come in with that old catalog [from the show]. Of course, they want that old price, too, but that doesn’t happen.
We have a little small shopping-center site that we go to every year, too. You get your name out there and let people see what you’ve got.
We are on the busiest intersection in this lake area and that is one of our biggest drawing cards. If they go from one golf course to the other they’re going to come right by our front door. That’s probably our biggest advertisement.
Q: How is the financing situation these days, both for your dealership and for your customers?
A: There again, we’re in a unique situation. Financing has never been a real big problem. We have a new credit union that’s about two-and-a-half years old that’s a quarter-mile from us and they’ll do no-down, good interest rates with good credit. We also deal with Priority One. We haven’t seen a big problem with that.
We still deal with GE Capital, but we have another local bank that has just bent over backward in these hard times and we have a credit line with them.
Q: Do you place a lot of importance on things like your website or social media? How do you use these tools?
A: We’re beginning to do more of that. In fact, at the MDCE I went to those types of meetings. Most of our customers are not that savvy, but we see as younger people come up that will be a bigger thing. So we are getting into it. We do a lot of e-mailing, and we do e-blasts when we have a special on service or winterizations. We e-mail that to our customers. We get good responses. And we tell them when we’re doing their delivery paperwork that they need to be watching for our specials and we make sure we get an e-mail address. These young kids, they’re doing everything on the iPhone and the iPad, and if we don’t get involved with it, we’re going to lose out.
But we don’t like selling boats over the Internet. We try to sell in our territory. We don’t try and sell in north Georgia. There’s a dealer up there and they should handle that customer. We encourage people to shop locally.
Q: What do you see as the future of the boating industry?
A: I’m sure it’s going to take a while to come back because when things get tight, what’s the first thing you can do without? It’s not your car. It’s a boat. But, I think, as families want to do things together — you’ve got to have something fun to do — it will gradually come back. I don’t know if it will be what it was five years ago, but it will certainly come back.
We’ve gotten rid of a lot of bad manufacturers and dealers so that maybe the pie won’t have to be split so far in the future.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.