West Marine and nautical know-how

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I was able to catch up with West Marine CEO and president Geoff Eisenberg at the grand opening last Thursday of the company’s newest flagship store in Old Saybrook, Conn.

We talked about his long career with the company — Eisenberg has been with West Marine in a variety of senior executive roles for about 36 years — his pending retirement, the state of marine retailing today and a host of other topics. The interview will appear in my “Letter from the Editor” column in the May issue of Soundings Trade Only.

It’s been almost 4-1/2 years since Eisenberg rejoined West Marine full time in December 2007 as CEO and president and put the big retailer back on a course to profitability. Today, the company — with 311 stores and about 4,200 employees — is solidly profitable and debt-free.

Of his departure, Eisenberg said, “The company is doing well. It seems like a good time. There’s really no drama to it.” He will stay on as an adviser. Eisenberg’s focus now is on helping West Marine through this latest transition, rather than on his future plans.

One thing we discussed was the importance placed on hiring and training, two areas in which West Marine invests a good deal of time, effort and money.

From personal experience, I can attest that one key to a satisfied customer experience in a marine retail environment is to be able to talk to someone who knows something about boats, rather than receiving as a response to your question a look that suggests you’re speaking a dead language.

“We spend an enormous amount of money on product training, e-learning,” said Eisenberg, 59, a longtime sailor. “It’s a technical environment. Everything about it is technical — always has been, always will be.”

And consider that the 25,000-square-foot store in Old Saybrook has almost 20,000 products.

The premium placed on product knowledge is one of the reasons West Marine looks to hire what executive vice president Bruce Edwards calls “super-active boaters.”

“There’s nothing that ever replaces that kind of knowledge,” said Edwards, who at 49 remains an active 505 racing sailor. “We encourage our associates to be on the water as much as possible.”

West Marine estimates that the 40-plus employees, or “associates,” in its flagship Connecticut store collectively have more than 740 years on the water covering more than 160,000 nautical miles.

Reflecting on his tenure with West Marine, Eisenberg said, “The best thing is the progress we have made and are making because progress is positive. I care about progress with our relationships, products, with financials, our customers and our world.”

Eisenberg remembers when he was a young sailor working in a boating supply store in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he met West Marine founder Randy Repass in the early 1970s.

Funny thing, he recalled. West Marine carries some of the same pieces of sailing hardware today that he sold almost four decades ago — in some instances, even the part numbers are the same. “It’s unbelievable,” Eisenberg said.

The more things change …

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