After more than 40 years of helping Grady-White dealers sell boats, Bing Fishman, one of the "good guys" in this business, is sailing into retirement. I caught up with him recently to talk about the industry, his career and those tenets of business that transcend boom-and-bust cycles.
If I were to condense our hour-plus interview into a single sentence, it would go something like this: It's all about people, relationships and doing what's right.
Sure, it might sound a bit corny, but the thing is, Fishman has been putting it into practice since joining Grady-White just a few months before Eddie Smith took over as owner in 1968. And the proof that good guys can win is found not only in his long, successful career at Grady-White, but also in the large number of folks who turned out to wish him well at his retirement party.
"It's not written in a manual. It's in here," says Fishman, tapping his fingers over his heart. "It's very simple. You do what's right. You treat people right." By people, Fishman means consumers, employees and dealers.
The longtime Northeast regional sales manager for Grady-White also addressed an issue that has long bedeviled the industry - the relationship between dealers and manufacturers. "There's not enough respect in this industry for the dealer," says the 69-year-old Massachusetts native. "That's a huge problem. We believed the dealer was our lifeblood." He boiled problem and solution down to a single word: trust. "Without that," he says, "it will be a short-lived relationship."
Fishman says he can be as tough as the next guy when he has to be. "But I have a lot of faith in human nature. ... You have to love helping people out. That's the bottom line. It's not rocket science."
Customer service has long been a part of the culture at Grady-White. "Before CSI became a buzzword, [owner and CEO] Eddie Smith was a stickler for it," Fishman says. "Service has been a major, major reason we've been so successful."
The company lives and breathes CSI - and it shows in its rankings. For eight consecutive years, the Greenville, N.C., builder has received the CSI award from the NMMA for its category (fiberglass outboard boats). The manufacturer's standards are high; Grady-White dealers are expected to attain a certain minimum CSI score or higher each year.
Word of mouth, as we all know, is critical in the boat business, and Grady-White has one of the best, as evidenced by its perennially dominant J.D. Power and Associates consumer ratings (eight years in a row at the top of the coastal fishing segment).
"Boating circles are small," says Fishman. "If you get a bad boat in a marina, [the word] will go from A dock to B dock fast. ... We have an earned reputation. We didn't buy it with ad copy."
Fishman reduces this critical component of success to its essence: "People don't need a boat," he says. "People want simplicity. They don't want heartburn. Don't give them heartburn."
In this cyclical business, Grady-White has long taken a measured approach to running a boatbuilding company. I recall talking with an executive at last year's Fort Lauderdale show who remembered clearly what Eddie Smith once told him: Always build one fewer boat than the dealers are asking for.
Today, Grady-White is close to its inventory level goals and is even starting to see deficits in some areas. And the builder's 50-some dealers have remained mostly intact. Fishman worked with nine in the Northeast on a daily basis.
"There's not one of those nine New England dealers who won't land on their feet when the smoke clears," he says. "Don't get me wrong - every one of our dealers has felt a lot of pain." But, he says, they're making it through.
Fishman says consumers seem to have righted themselves compared to a year ago. "I think there are fewer and fewer people talking about how bad things are," he says. Still, the next several months in particular are going to be tough sledding, the veteran predicts. "This fall and winter will be one of the toughest periods this industry has been through."
The post-recession consumer just starting to emerge will be a more cautious buyer. "He will be more careful than ever about where to plunk his money down."
Moving forward, buyers will be looking for a quality product that's relatively easy to maintain and one that has good resale value. And they will want to do business with a builder and dealer who understand the meaning of service and will be around for the long haul.
"These things will never change," says Fishman, with the experience of four decades behind his words.
This article originally appeared in the December 2009 issue.