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Indiana dealership keeps things upbeat

B&E uses interest rates, fuel prices, solid service and the fun factor to sharpen its sales pitch

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Staying positive is a key to success for Michigan City, Ind.-based B&E Marine — a family-owned business that has been around since 1953.

Although sales are down, comptroller Rosanne Dwyer says there are still people out there who want boats. They may be scared to buy right now, but the desire is there.

“We’re trying to keep positive and attend boat shows,” she says. “We’re just out there telling people it’s a good time to buy because you’re getting a lot for the money.

“There are a lot of incentives out there to buy,” she says. “Gas is down now, which really makes a big difference. Interest rates are low. You can get into a pretty nice sportboat for around $200 [monthly payment].”

B&E Marine, which sells Sea Ray and Boston Whaler, was founded in a basement by Ronald Bensz and Roland Evett. They later moved to a parcel on Trail Creek, a canal adjacent to Lake Michigan, which is where the company is based today.

Stopping-off point
Michigan City’s waterfront was once heavily industrialized, but Bensz knew the company’s location would make it a popular point for boaters traveling between Chicago and Michigan. So in 1962, plans were under way for the construction of docks and a marina.

Over the years, Bensz went on to help launch the Michigan City In-Water Boat Show, and was a founder of the Hoosier Coho Club Fishing Tournament.

He retired in 1979 and sold the company in the mid-1980s to his sons, Barry and Rodney, who continue to take an active role in promoting the city’s waterfront.

The business currently has about 35 employees, though it had to lay off a few people because of the economy, Dwyer says.

“We believe in family, we believe in our employees, we believe in good ethics,” says Dwyer, who has been with the company for 24 years.

B&E Marine consists of a dealership, a 55-slip marina, winter storage facilities for about 300 boats, a service department and a ship’s store.

The Disney pitch
“We think about fun and having fun with our customers,” Dwyer says. “We believe in our customers being able to use their boats with their families because that’s a good release and a good time to be with the kids.”

A Disney vacation, she points out, could cost thousands of dollars. For less money, you can enjoy a boat with the family all summer long.

“We try to look at it that way and tell that to people,” she says.

B&E holds rendezvous for customers a few times a year, along with other events designed to keep people using their boats.

B&E is an MRAA-certified dealership, a Top 100 Dealer, a MerCruiser national customer service award winner, a certified Sea Ray and Boston Whaler Master Dealer, and No. 1 in Boston Whaler CSI worldwide, according to the B&E Web site.

“I think customers look at [certifications],” says Dwyer. “If they’re going to buy a boat, they don’t want to buy it from somebody who’s not going to be there to service them. When somebody comes in and they see that we do run our business well and we obtained all these certifications, it means the difference between a dealer that may not be here tomorrow [and one who will].”

While sales are down about 50 percent, Dwyer says inventory is at manageable levels. B&E recently sold some boats at the Chicago boat show and says it has had a lot of positive feedback from customers and prospects.

“I think people are a little nervous about spending money right now, but the want for a boat is still there,” she says. “They were all positive about the product. Let’s just hope that once everything turns around, we’ll be having more buyers.”

Relying on service
In the meantime, the dealership has been trying to keep its service department busy to keep money coming in while sales are down.

“We’re hoping that because we have a good service department, that will help us in these difficult economic times,” Dwyer says. “People who may have thought to buy a new boat will do something with the boat they have now — put a new accessory on it or whatever … and be able to enjoy boating.”

Besides staying positive, Dwyer’s advice to fellow dealers is to manage their businesses well and not to panic and lay off a lot of employees.

“Keep the people, because when [the economy] turns around you’re going to need them,” she says. “A lot of businesses panic and they start laying off people that they’re going to need. Then when it turns around, they don’t have the work force to keep up with [demand] and a lot of times that’s the end to their dealership.

“People who are ready for the turnaround can grab the marketplace,” she says.

This article originally appeared in the March 2009 issue.

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