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Quality must match our customers’ expectations

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I’ve always held a “glass is half full” attitude when it comes to our industry, in large part because of the resilience of small, smart business operators and the enduring attraction we have to the water.

That’s not to say we don’t have our challenges.

The marine industry is in the midst of a structural sea change on a number of fronts: the aging of the fleet, the graying of the core market, the rising cost of boats and boating, and the challenge of attracting the next big generation of boaters. But there also is plenty of upside.

We have seen significant advancements in propulsion, design and construction. And electronics advancements, in everything from communication and navigation to safety and systems monitoring, is nothing short of remarkable. We’ve right-sized our businesses, and we’ve emerged from the recession smarter, faster and more versatile. After what we’ve been through, who’s afraid of a little change?

A well-conceived, well-built boat in 2014 is a thing of beauty and utility, with a longevity that can only be guessed at — 20 years? 30 years? More, perhaps.

Can the typical middle-class family afford that boat? And if they can’t, should you lose sleep over it? The market for premium brands will continue its march toward an increasingly upscale market. My caution is this: The value proposition for that high-end boat needs to be somewhere in the same neighborhood as that of a luxury auto or a nice home.

And with those premium prices, of course, comes an expectation of quality and service approaching the concierge level. Be ready. At that level, the consumer doesn’t want excuses about why something isn’t working properly or why a problem is taking so long to correct. You just can’t say, as we’ve all heard many times, “What do you expect? It’s a boat.” That won’t cut it.

To be sure, there are plenty of small boats, value boats and a flotilla of preowned in every condition, from roll-up-your-sleeves project boats to pristine offerings, to satisfy just about any budget and any shade-tree mechanic. There is always a way to get on the water if someone wants it badly enough.

We are seeing growth and recovery, albeit not as fast as we might like. For 2012, new-boat sales in the major powerboat segments grew 11.4 percent. The total industry figure for new-boat sales that year was 9.6 percent.

Preliminary numbers for 2013 show new-boat sales in the top powerboat categories at 6 percent as of December (with 27 states reporting). Industrywide, the preliminary number stood at 2.1 percent. That figure is likely to rise when all of the states have reported. That qualifies, I guess, as “modest” growth.

What are the skill sets that will be required to be successful in the future? To quote from a national debate, “Is average good enough?”

It used to be that you were drawn to this industry because you loved boats. That was the attraction. And you came with a high-school education or a bachelor’s degree and probably some real-world experience. Or you grew up in the business — your family owned a boatyard or a dealership. That was enough.

Is simply an understanding of boats enough anymore? What will it take to run a modern boatyard or marina or to start a successful boatbuilding company or dealership today? Those are complex small businesses.

Is average enough? If you listen to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman (and others), “Average is over.” Doing an average job with average skills won’t get the worker what he or she is looking for — or the employer.

“Everybody needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment,” Friedman writes.

For a refreshing look at how one company continues to excel, I suggest you read Ben Sherwood’s piece on Grady-White’s Eddie Smith on Page 28. The observations by Smith and president Kris Carroll on leadership, product quality, customer satisfaction and running a business are well worth reading.

“It’s not just about creating great products,” Carroll says. “Eddie Smith just as much also wants a well-run company. We are focused on the details of satisfying our customers, and we’re just as focused on the details of running our company. It’s a passion. It’s the art of doing business. It’s the art of satisfying our customers.”

That’s not average. That’s the gold standard.

This article originally appeared in the February 2014 issue.



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