Don Galey has changed the way marine dealers do business during his 62 years at Galey’s Marine in Bakersfield, Calif. He helped create the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, launch Spader Business Management/MRAA 20 Groups and initiate General Electric’s floorplan program for boat dealers who previously lacked access to financing.
For all of that and more, Galey received the MRAA’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2017 Marine Dealers Conference & Expo in December.
His father, Otto Galey, established Galey’s Marine in 1938, and Don bought the business in 1955 after earning degrees in business, advertising and commercial financing. The only staff was Galey, a secretary and a part-time service technician. He grew the dealership and moved it in 1999 to a property on several acres. Today, son Mark Galey runs day-to-day operations, and two grandsons head up sales and service.
The 81-year-old is still onsite daily and pats each customer on the back when he buys a boat, whether it’s his first or 10th.
Q: How was it growing up in your parents’ shop?
A: My parents were in the appliance business and they were very successful — I’m going way, way back — but World War II came along and most of the appliance manufacturers went into the war effort. Appliances were kind of hard to get. My father was a pretty go-fast guy, and he said, “Gee, we’ve got to make money somehow.”
We had become a boating family. We had two nice little inboard, homemade boats. He’d been in L.A. and ran into a gentleman who had retired from Chris-Craft and moved to California. In his retirement, he was building two boats a year in his garage. My father had seen one half built, and by gosh, he wanted it. He ordered it, and already having two inboards, he said, “I’d better sell these things.” He did, and he made almost $300 on each one. In those years that was a lot of money; he was making a profit.
He was excited about that, so we bought and sold used boats during World War II from 1941 to 1945. That was in a vacant lot next to our appliance store. In 1945, they built a building that was 40 feet wide and 100 feet long, adjacent to the appliance building, and put a nice store frontage on with big bay windows. That became Galey’s Marine and Supply.
I could relate to boats a heck of a lot better than I could to appliances, so I worked there after school in junior high and high school, and during college in the summertime. When I graduated, he was at an age where he wanted to retire. He sold me the building, the inventory, the accessories, everything lock stock and barrel, and loaned me $3,000 — because when you get out of college you don’t have any money.
Q: What was it like running a business at such a young age?
A: Well, at that age, I thought I knew everything about business because I had a couple degrees and was young. The good news was, the buyers liked to help kids, so they all wanted to help me and bought boats from me. I just grew and grew. We were there for many years. I ended up purchasing the whole city block from the alley to the street for a larger Galey’s Marine and Supply, but I still ran out of room.
A good friend of mine had a used-car business and he came to me and said, “Don, I’m in trouble.” He was the first Datsun dealer in the United States. He said, “Datsun wants me to put a store on the freeway, or they’re going to put a factory store in.” I said, “Wally, jump in my truck, I’m going to show you something, because I want to be on the freeway.” And I drove him out and pulled over to the side of the freeway, which is a main road from Mexico to Canada. I said, “I just bought five and a half acres.” He said, “I’ll buy the rest clear down to the other end.” That started the Auto Mall, which is now the second-largest car dealership in California. It’s huge. We’ve got five and a half acres with boats.
Q: You must have witnessed a lot of industry changes. What were you able to change?
A: I met a lot of dealers at little factory shows, but there was no association of boat dealers. There was the association of engine manufacturers, the association of boat manufactures, but there was no association of boat dealers. I thought we needed to have a say in our industry. Not that we wanted to take on the engine or boat people, but we could add specifics of what we do as dealers that will help the total industry. Well, the dealers went for it, and after two or three years, we got bigger and bigger and all the major dealers came in. You got to know a lot of nice fellows. That’s the beginning of our association.
Then we had another hiccup. My parents were in the appliance business, and the appliance, furniture, electronics, automotive, the farming industry — all the other dealers in other industries got financing from their banks, but also from financing institutions. It’s what we call flooring, so when we order boats, we order them from the factory.
I went to General Electric and I got to know the two best guys I’ve ever gotten to know. They became personal friends of mine. We’d hunt, we fished, we vacationed together. One was Richard Strickler, the head of it. The other was Danny Wullenweber, who was going around to dealers all over the United States and putting them into General Electric Flooring.
The good news was when the boat factories called the dealers in the last of August or September to show them the new models, the dealers could order a whole bunch more boats because they were going to be paid for and floored by General Electric.
That made the dealers look stronger in the eyes of their community, but it also helped because manufacturers could estimate what their monthly manufacturing should be. They could hold down their raw materials [costs] more easily by the month, and they could retain their best employees year-round. The moment that boat came off the assembly line, it was sold and shipped to the dealers. The factories got their money right there, and the dealers had more inventory, so it was win-win-win.
At that time, banks did a lot of financing, but they knew nothing about the small family boat business. They knew about cars and appliances, but they turned down a lot of good deals because they didn’t know anything about a boat, or who manufactured them, or what they’re worth. Well, we got that handled.
Q: Can you talk about your focus on collaboration among other dealers?
A: At an annual boat show in Texas, I was contacted by a guy named Dwayne Spader, who asked if I knew dealers down there because he’d like to have a meeting with them. He told us he had a Spader 20 Group, where 20 noncompeting dealers across the United States would submit all our financial data on a monthly basis.
We would get a printout of not only our month and percentages, but we’d get the other 19 dealers right across the page. Those dealers, in a very short time, became your very best friend on a first-name basis. We were on the phone talking to each other, going back and forth, and asking how one did this or someone did that.
In our group, it was agreed upon that a dealer, twice a year, would be host for two and a half days, and all of us go over all these numbers with Dwayne Spader and each other. But we got to go through the dealers’ businesses and look at their service department, look at the sales department, and you could always learn something. When I built my new store, I incorporated a lot of good ideas from dealers around the United States. That was a win for us. We still belong to the Spader Group. My son goes and he reports back to me. We’ve stolen a lot of good ideas from my dealer friends across the country.
Q: You must love working with your son.
A: Braggingly, my son is the third generation — he runs the business now — and I have two grandsons that have been here about 26 years. One started turning wrenches 26 years ago, and for the last four or five years, he has been our service manager. The other one started out selling parts and accessories, and then he started selling boats. For the last three-and-a-half years, he’s been our sales manager. These guys are red hot. They’re just so good, I’m in awe. I’ve taken a giant step back. I’m still here, I’m listening; however, you can only have one boss. You can’t have two, because the consumer gets confused, and certainly the personnel gets confused. It won’t be too long before the great-grandkids will be working in here for the fifth generation. It’s a lot of fun. It really is.
Q: I imagine having so many generations, you have learned some things to do and not do.
A: No question about that. Good things always pass along from one to the other. One thing I’ve learned is: The customer likes to be patted on the back. He likes to be congratulated on his nice boat.
When the customer takes delivery of a boat, it is completely serviced. I don’t care if he’s buying his first boat or his 10th, the day he picks it up, we like to have him and maybe his immediate family here. We give them all the documents — the licensing on the trailer and the boat and so forth — but we turn them over to one of our senior service people. He goes through showing them everything about that boat. He shifts it, he throttles it; when he hooks up to it, he’s ready to go. I get so many cards saying, “Thank you, I didn’t realize what that did,” or “Now I understand what this is for.”
I’ll give you another kind of example. I buy a new pickup every few years, and the salesman who sold me the last one, he was a really nice person, and he handed me the keys and said, “Don, thanks so much.” Now, I know how to start it, I can put it in drive — I can’t figure out the damn radio because of my age. Any 12-year-old could, but I couldn’t and nobody showed me all this electronic stuff on that dashboard. I’ve had it in twice and said, “Fellows, just slow down and talk to me like a 12-year-old,” because it’s hard to pick up. We go through all of that at the time of delivery.
Then we take a picture of them at delivery. Within a couple weeks that big picture comes back as an 8-by-10 with a big calendar on it and information. We send it with a nice note from us thanking them for their business, and even a little discount card for accessories. They’re just awed by that.
Q: You recently got the inaugural Lifetime Achievement award from the MRAA. How did it feel for them to bestow you with the very first award of its kind?
A: Well, people said shut up, and I stood up. Actually, I was overwhelmed. I looked in the mirror twice and said, “That’s for me? A little dumb kid from Bakersfield, California?” I’m just thrilled to death. The industry’s been so good to me. No matter what it is, if you’re going to get anything out of life or work or what have you, you better put a lot into it so it’s a two-way street.
Q: You’ve probably seen the dynamic between manufacturers and dealers change a lot over time.
A: The manufacturers are not our enemy. In fact, they love us because we provide distribution. What my customer wants in central-southern California, they don’t want in Bangor, Maine. It’s a whole different industry in different parts of the United States and Canada. You folks at Soundings Trade give them numbers and information, and for a manufacturer, that’s gravy. Then they know what to build.
Q: We had a major hiccup with the Great Recession. California had some additional struggles, right?
A: Two years ago, in our geographic area, we had a drought. It’s not that there wasn’t someplace to put a boat in to go water-skiing or wakeboarding or fishing, but the press just beat it to death. It really hurt us. At the same time, our county is one of the largest in the United States for oil production, but they lost 80 percent of that production. Now over the last two years, they’ve gained a great deal of that back. That’s politics, and I’m not going to get into that. [Customers] are there, they just have to feel things are good now, and the market comes back. It always does.
Q: Have state boat sales risen since the drought has eased?
A: Yes and no. It got a lot better; however, this year, all the media are talking about central and southern California possibly going into another drought. In this geographic area, we don’t depend on rain. Yes, we get rain, but not like you folks do [in the Northeast]. We have the High Sierra — the highest peak in United States is only 125 miles from me as the crow flies. That 13,680 feet, which I’ve been on top of, gets a lot of snow. That snowpack feeds all of California and its agriculture — it’s the second-largest agriculture state in the country — so if you don’t have that water, you have a real problem. The press seems to overload the situation. I guess the same is true of politics too. It hurts sometimes.
Q: What are some challenges you see in the industry today?
A: Looking at different types of businesses locally [is helpful]. I was on the board of directors of the local Better Business Bureau that was [focused on] financing. Four or five of us got together several years ago and put a little savings and loan together. We were very successful until a big daddy came along and wanted to buy us out, so we sold. I learned a lot there.
I was also involved with two or three local associations that were doing things for our community, and you always learn good things about how people think, and act and react. If you get out and get involved, it’s exciting and it’s fun.
One of the challenges I see is corporations that have nothing to do with the boat manufacturer other than just looking at their numbers. They will take on other businesses without knowing how to run them. Sometimes they lose the thought of how to make that small boat or accessory manufacturer go because they’re looking at net dollars all the time. You have to be personable, you have to be honest, and I think sometimes some manufacturers get so hungry, they start opening up too many dealers in a geographical area, and some never should’ve been there.
I think manufactures should spend a certain amount of time with every dealer, showing what’s hot or not in their area. If a dealer has any sort of promotion, they should be there welcoming people who walk in the door when they can. If you walk in the dealership door and get to meet some high-dollar guy from General Motors, and you’re a GM customer anyway, boy you feel pretty important as a consumer. I know it gets expensive, but when they can do it, they should be involved hand-in-hand with the dealer.
The dealer has to be involved hand-in-hand not only with the manufacturer, but also with the consumer. Once that consumer drives off the lot with the brand-new boat, don’t you forget that consumer. Don’t lose ’em. Make him feel he belongs under your umbrella.
Q: It sounds like you have a lot of fun at the dealership.
A: Oh, we do. It’s the Nashville of the West here. I’ve sold boats to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens and other famous people — they’re not only good people who are local here, they are customers of mine and friends. They were a different cup of tea, but they worked hard, a lot of them made some big money, and they play hard.
This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue.