Q&A with Mark Curry, Furrion vice president

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Mark Curry is vice president of Furrion, which manufactures data and power connections for the marine and recreational vehicle industries. He is responsible for sales and operations in North America, South America and Europe.

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Curry, 59, began his career in the marine industry more than 30 years ago as manager of marketing and strategic planning with the Powerwinch division of the Scott Fetzer Co. He worked there for 15 years, until the Connecticut facility closed.

Curry moved on to marine hardware manufacturer Wilcox Crittenden for two years, first as national sales manager and then as plant manager. In 1994, he joined the Guest Company and worked in various positions for 15 years, ending his tenure with the company as senior product manager. With the closing of the Connecticut facility, he joined Furrion and has been with that company for the last two years.

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Curry is a graduate of the University of Connecticut with degrees in management science. He lives in Waterbury, Conn., has been married for 33 years, and has two children - Megan, 28, and Toby, 30. In his free time, Curry enjoys making furniture.

Q: How has the marine industry portion of your business fared during the downturn, and how is business now?

A: We're a little bit unusual in that we started to introduce our product line just as the economy turned down, so we're a unique case. We found that, coming into the industry at that point in time, we actually did very well. When everybody was coming out of the boat shows or the consumer shows and it was kind of doom and gloom, we were picking up new customers.

During the course of that, OEMs and distributors were looking for places to save money, and our line happens to be a less expensive line, so we were very successful during the down years. As things are starting to come back, our sales are growing tremendously. They're growing exponentially right now.

We came in in very good financial condition, and we knew what we were getting into. We knew it was going to be tough. We had a very serious competitor to begin with, so we expected slow growth, and it's been much faster than we anticipated.

Q: You also sell to the RV industry - how would you compare that segment of your business to the marine segment?

A: Typically, the RV industry leads the marine industry. When things are starting to get tough they go down first, and when the recovery starts to happen they come back first.

So the RV industry got hit just as hard as the marine industry. Over the past couple of years there's been a lot of consolidation - closing plants, thinning down the work force - and that's happened both in RV and marine. We did see the RV industry start to come back - probably about midsummer we really started to see some things happening in RV, and marine's on the edge now. It's springtime. Now we're going to find out whether that industry's come back and how strong it's come back.

I think that both of them are emerging out of this a lot stronger than they went in. Certainly sales are not as high, but the companies are leaner, meaner and stronger - that's true of both segments.

Q: Which side of your business is doing better, OEM or direct sales?

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A: OEM is just starting to come back. The OEMs got hit by as much as 70 to 75 percent during the worst part of the recession. We'd go to visit them and there would really be nobody there. We're starting to see them coming back to work. The plants are opening up. They're coming back strong; they're coming back leaner. There's still a lot of movement trying to reduce costs, but you have to remember there's a whole ton of boats out there. There's about 12 million registered boats. That's a marketplace that isn't going away.

On the distribution side, there have been a couple of recent shows, and the shows were very strong for us. They were surprisingly strong. We didn't know what to expect and we got there, and the stuff was just flying off the shelf.

Distribution has been very cautious. The dating season coming into this year - the distributors were cautious on how much they stocked. Even with dating they didn't bring in a whole lot of inventory, and I think now is the time where we're beginning to see the boomlet from distributors to dealers and consumer interest. If the show I was at [recently] is any indication, then it's going to be a pretty decent spring.

Q: Can you talk about the importance of research and development to your company? How much do you invest in it, and is it something you've kept up during the downturn?

A: Research and development is huge in our company. What Furrion attempts to do is to bring in innovative products that have features that aren't going to cost the consumer a lot of money, but they're meaningful. Things as simple as an LED on both ends of the cord set so that you can tell the amp power coming out of your outlet and going into your boat.

With some of the changing regulations - ABYC has got a regulation going in in June that's going to require some significant research and development on our part - a very large percentage of our profit dollars are going to R&D.

We're working on the second and third generation of our cord sets, and we're just in the process really of introducing the first. So research and development is really a priority for us. What we attempt to do is give a good cost value on the features. ... We don't price to market. We price up from cost, and that's the difference between us and the other guys.

Q: Can you explain Furrion's SMART technology?

A: The intent of it was to allow the boat owner to be able to tell when something significant happened at a glance or when he was on the verge of perhaps overloading his boat - in other words, tripping his breakers or if he lost power and couldn't figure out where it was. It's designed to help pinpoint the problem. We put that kind of technology into almost everything we do. If you look at cord sets with LEDs on both sides, our inlets have LEDs, even our connectors. When you're doing a connector to go from 30 amps to 15 amps it has an LED in it so you can tell you have power, you have continuity.

Q: Will this technology have a role in the emerging hybrid boat market?

A: Absolutely. Actually, the technology becomes more important because as we rely more and more on the monitoring systems, the control systems for that become extremely important. As that progresses, we'll obviously have to progress along with it.

Q: There is a notice on the Furrion Web site asking for ideas for new products and offering the winning idea a trip to Hong Kong. What kind of response have you received?

A: We haven't received much of a response to that program. At this point, all the ideas have come from within the company. It's not surprising. Understand, the people that started Furrion are experienced chief engineers that used to work on megayachts. It's a group of engineers that got together and said we can do this bigger and better and less expensive. And with the right business model ... we can do very well.

One of the keys to Furrion's success right now is the business model. We're made overseas; our corporate offices are overseas. It's a group of Westerners that live in Hong Kong. Our organization in the United States is small. We don't have a lot of suits sitting around trying to determine what's the best thing to do next. We're very hands-on people. One of the things that we do well is appreciate what it is to be a distributor and a dealer. We have a lot of experience.

Q: You have partnered with Trees for the Future. Can you explain this relationship?

A: Every time we sell a 50-amp product, we plant a tree. We work with Trees for the Future, and what they plant [is] a tree in an area that needs trees. Our intent is to offset our carbon footprint. We're not doing that totally right now, but within the next two to three years we hope to put programs together so that we are a carbon-neutral company. It's very important to us. We're all ecology-minded people. We're all boaters. We all enjoy being outside in nature and don't want to lose it.

Q: What is your outlook as the marine industry starts its turnaround?

A: Indications are that it's going to probably be the best marine year in two or three years. The early sales are indicative. The people that I've seen, the turnout at the shows, indicates it's coming back. I don't think it's going to be back to the point where it was three or four years ago. It will take years to get back to that point, if it ever does, but I think that the industry as a whole is beginning to look much healthier.

I think that people are back to work, which is always a good thing. You can't spend any money unless you're working. But with the number of boats out there, people are restructuring their leisure time. Instead of flying away somewhere they're spending time on their boats. That's a good indicator.

So we'll see how boat sales go during the course of this year. I think in the course of the last 18 months that the dealer inventories have emptied out. The problem during the recession was that ... everybody had too much inventory. They couldn't move the inventory, and with that the OEMs shut down. Once the inventories started to move out, the builders started slowly going back to work, and basically the inventories are clear. You can get credit now to buy a boat, the backlogs are cleared up, and things are looking much brighter.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.

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