West Marine finds solid footing under CEO Eisenberg

So what’s your most valuable asset? Cash? Your terrific product? Your strategic position in the market? I’ve got it — your skill as a leader?

Think again.

“It’s not the stores. It’s not our balance sheets or our inventory,” says West Marine CEO and president Geoff Eisenberg. “It’s our people. That’s the hardest thing to compete with.”

Staying close to your customers — and your employees — has always been good, sound business practice. But it’s also easier said than done, especially when you’re the busy guy at the top. It’s one of those things everyone means to do more of but too often can’t quite find the time.

I attended the April 12 grand-opening ceremony of West Marine’s newest flagship store in Old Saybrook, Conn. So did Eisenberg. For him, the Connecticut ribbon cutting represented his 501st store visit. Impressive. That’s called keeping your ear to the ground. And it represents a large investment of time and a ton of air miles. “I try to get out of my office. I spend a lot of time in the stores,” says Eisenberg, 59, who has been with West Marine for 36 years. “I try to help the culture and help the people do their jobs. You have to be in the stores, at the boat shows, talking to people.”

West Marine today has 311 stores and 4,200 “associates,” or employees. And the marine retailer is solidly profitable and debt-free after weathering a rough patch several years ago. Looking ahead, Eisenberg says he feels good about the future of boating. “We spent a little over $20 million investing in new stuff this year, new capital,” Eisenberg told me in an interview at the store. “We wouldn’t invest that if we didn’t think there was a bright future.”

It’s been almost 4-1/2 years since Eisenberg rejoined West Marine full time in December 2007 as CEO and president and financially righted a ship that was taking on water and red ink. He announced in early April that he will be stepping down as soon as a replacement is found. I asked him why he was departing now and about his future plans. “The company is doing well,” says Eisenberg, a longtime sailor who owns an Alerion 38 yawl. “We made a lot of progress and are continuing to make a lot of progress. It’s seems like a good time. There’s really no drama to it. I’ll stay as an adviser to the company.”

In other words, mission accomplished. He says he has no definitive plans at the moment other than to help the company — where he has worked in senior executive positions for almost four decades — through this latest transition. Of his career at West Marine, Eisenberg says, “It’s been spectacular.”

“It’s a good story. He really put the company back on a solid foundation,” says Bruce Edwards, 49, executive vice president of the Stores and Port Supply division. “He had a tough row to hoe in his first year, but obviously he’s done great.”

Edwards describes Eisenberg as a keen strategist and a hands-on chief executive — an intelligent, committed, straight-talking leader with great integrity and “moral courage.”

“He walks the talk to the nth degree,” says Edwards, who was hired as an intern by Eisenberg 25 years ago, shortly after graduating from college. “It’s not corporate-speak. It’s how you act. He’s incredibly honest. There’s no hidden agenda ever.”

Of Eisenberg’s departure, Edwards says, “It’s bittersweet, but he’s doing it the right way. He’s super-committed to the team. He wants to make sure the transition goes well.”

The new flagship store in Old Saybrook is a far cry from the small, specialized chandleries of yesterday — the kind where Eisenberg was working as a young sailor in Santa Cruz, Calif., in the early 1970s when he first met West Marine founder Randy Repass. But the CEO says the workers in a 25,000-square-foot store, such as the newest one in Connecticut, can and should have the same sort of one-on-one personal relationships with customers as he had when the world was smaller and he was selling sailing hardware. “We can’t have the assortment we need in a little store,” Eisenberg told me. But, he noted, “We want to capture the people part of it. That’s doable.”

Eisenberg was one of the architects of the company’s current strategy of focusing on “fewer, larger, more dominant stores,” in the CEO’s words. West Marine had about 412 stores at its high-water mark in 2005. Today the number is 311. Even with 100 fewer locations, the total square footage of retail space is roughly the same, according to Edwards. (West Marine has 12 flagship stores that are 25,000 square feet or larger, including nine of the latest generation. By comparison, the so-called express stores that are being phased out averaged about 2,500 square feet.)

“We’re trying to combine the good things about being a large company with the good things of being a small company,” says Eisenberg, who was away operationally from West Marine between 1994 and 2007 running other businesses, although he remained active with the company in a variety of capacities, including as a member of its board. “And there are good and bad to both.”

Despite the size of the stores, Eisenberg says, “We don’t do cookie-cutter stores because the customers are different, the water is different, the fishing is different, the boating is different. And all that makes a difference.” The managers tailor a store’s product selection and emphasis to local waters and local interests.

Edwards says the company tries to hire “super-active” boaters whenever possible. “There’s nothing that ever replaces that kind of knowledge,” says Edwards, a longtime, active 505 sailboat racer. “Boating is about that local connection, whether you’re into sailing or fishing or cruising. We want to hire local boaters and stress personal connections.”

Eisenberg is the sort of leader who prefers to talk about his employees, their accomplishments and the stores rather than about himself. And you get the sense that he doesn’t lose his focus. “When business is good, it’s hard,” Eisenberg says. “When business is tough, it’s hard — because you’re always trying to do better than you’re doing and trying to improve. That hasn’t changed in 35 years.”

Words to run a business by.

This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue.


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