Dave Briggs, 52, owner of Wayzata Marine in Wayzata, Minn., sold his first boat when he was 13. Having grown up in the dealership his parents launched (mostly a garden and lawn store in 1967), he was seasoned early on.
Through the 1960s and ’70s, the store grew and changed to meet customer demand. By 1980 it was focused completely on marine sales and service, and In 1982 the corporate name changed to Wayzata Marine.
In 1986 company matriarch Darlene Briggs died, but she would leave a valuable legacy. Her husband, Gary, helped launch the Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year Award, which is sponsored by the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas and Boating Industry magazine.
Last October Dave ran the Chicago Marathon and decided to partner with the MRAA to launch a fundraising challenge to benefit the MRAA Educational Foundation. The goal was to raise $30,000 in honor of the 30th anniversary of the award named for his mother.
The dealership, which sells new Chaparral, Chris-Craft, Four Winns and Regal boats, has been on Boating Industry magazine’s Top 100 Dealers list since 2006 and has earned spots among Chaparral’s top 10 dealers for sales.
We chatted recently with Briggs to ask more about the marathon, the family business and the industry overall.
Q: Can we start with some history of the dealership?
A: My father and his partner started out in 1967, and it was called the Wayzata Lake and Lawn. They did some garden stuff, and they sold some boats and repaired some outboard motors. Quickly it became clear that the boating business was where the business was headed, and years after they started my father bought his partner out and my parents ran it until my mom died in 1986. Then my brother helped my father for a few years. He left, and when I graduated from college I came on full time and I’ve been here ever since.
Q: I saw on your website that you made your first boat sale at age 13 in 1978. Can you talk about growing up in the dealership and what you learned watching your parents?
A: I think it was a lot like growing up on a farm. My chores were going to the dealership and selling oil, sweeping, shoveling snow, that kind of thing. When we were done with school we went to work, and we worked six days a week. A customer needed help when I was that age, 13, and I went off and showed him the boat, showed him all the features, and he said, ‘OK, great, I’ll take it.’ I didn’t know what to do at that point. He and I walked in and I introduced him to my mom, and my mom says I wrote him the sales agreement.
From that point on I was at most of the boat shows helping customers, and I enjoyed that part of the business — getting to know customers and helping them pick the right boat.
Q: Did you look around even back then and think that you had great ideas about how to grow and evolve the business?
A: In my early, maybe mid-teens, I thought I was probably going to get into the boat business. By the time I got into college I thought I probably wouldn’t. My parents joined a Spader 20 Group before I got to college, and we’re still in it, and I’ve seen a lot of transitions happen. I think the one thing that [ensures] the most successful transitions is that the kids have an idea that they know where their parents could be doing better. I hate to say they think they’re smarter than their parents, but I think that is true, so there were things I knew I could do better than my parents. Without that, you have no business going forward because most businesses need an injection of enthusiasm and new ideas. And I had that.
Q: Do you have another generation behind you now?
A: I’ve got a son who’s 28 who has been involved previously in the dealership. I told him he needed to go get another job for about 10 years before he thought about making this his full-time occupation. He’s been gone about five years now — he’s been living in Manhattan working for Goldman Sachs. I can’t imagine he’s going to want to come back here anytime soon. I have a daughter, as well, and at this point I don’t think she’s interested.
Q: You said you didn’t think you’d go back after college, but then you did. What changed for you?
A: I got married when I was in college and had a son, and I needed to buy diapers and formula. I knew I knew how to sell boats, and I knew I could make more money doing that than anything else.
Q: I talk to a lot of family dealerships and they will always say there’s no pressure for up-and-coming generations to take over, but what an interesting move to say, ‘Go get a decade’s worth of experience to make sure it’s what you want.’ How did you come to decide that?
A: Being in the 20 Groups, you see a lot of different ways of going about it. The people who seemed to be the happiest and the most successful with the transition were the ones who went and did different things and then decided that, yeah, the real world is exciting, but the family business is still where my heart is. And hopefully most of them learned other things out there and are bringing new ideas and energy to the dealership.
Q: I always think it’s interesting when families pass the baton. It’s got to be hard to relinquish control of a business you’ve created.
A: Usually they’re too far one way or the other. They either give them too much power when they don’t deserve it or they make it way too hard on them, and usually the middle ground is where they should be. It can tear families apart to some degree. If you give somebody too much power too fast and they haven’t earned it, that’s hard on the rest of the staff. And if you’re way too hard on them, sometimes they never develop and there are other frictions in the family, as well.
Q: How did that play out at Wayzata?
A: Our dealership was a little bit in trouble [when] I came in full time. My father was still, to some degree, grieving from the loss of my mother, so we had a different dynamic. The lake was super-low on water and sales were way off. My father was a little bit in disarray, so for me it was the perfect mix of, I could jump in and start taking the pieces of the company that I wanted as quickly as I wanted to. Because I had worked through high school and college at the dealership, I knew as much as anyone knew around here, which isn’t typical, especially of a twenty-something today.
Q: Your mom is an industry icon. Can you talk about her and the Darlene Briggs Woman of the Year Award, and how that came about?
A: She was a great mom. I want to phrase this right: She did a lot of things a lot like her friends who were in our 20 Group and other women in the industry. She did the best she could raising her three kids, supporting her husband and being a driving force keeping our company going in the right direction. But I think most women who were in the dealerships with their husbands and in the rest of the industry were doing very similar things, especially some of the earlier women who won the award, who were very good friends of my mom’s. They were just as vital to their dealerships as my mom was to ours. I think she’s a great symbol for that, but I don’t think she was doing anything extraordinarily different than what most of the women were doing.
Q: What a great legacy for your mom to be able to bring some recognition to some of those women.
A: For sure. She was selling boats and she was running our accounting system and doing a lot of different things. She was doing the best she could for our family. There again, I think a lot of women were doing that. I think with as many people as cared about her at her age, it was just natural that the award started. And my father, in his grief, that was one of the things that kept him sane — going out and creating the award. There are a lot of women I can remember from back in that time who were doing very similar things.
Q: Tell me about running the marathon and why you decided to raise money to benefit the MRAA Educational Foundation.
A: I ran the Chicago Marathon in October. I told Liz Walz, who runs the MRAA Educational Foundation, that I was going to run the marathon and asked if she wanted to do a fundraising event around that. She thought it was a good idea, especially around the 30th anniversary of the Darlene Briggs Award. They asked me what the goal was, and I really hadn’t thought about that. I said, ‘It probably should be $30,000 if it’s the 30th anniversary.’ We’re basically right there, maybe a few dollars short of $30,000, but really close.
Certainly it was a way to help motivate me to get through the marathon. I did run it with my son, and he definitely pulled me through. I lost about 40 pounds training for and running the marathon, so it definitely got me in better shape. It was awesome to see some of the industry really support me, people I’ve known for a long time — Chaparral, in particular, who donated $10,000. But also Volvo, Regal, Chris-Craft, Four Winns, Wells Fargo, people from my 20 Group and other anonymous people as well.
Q: Why the MRAA Educational Foundation?
A: I am on the MRAA board, and the award named after my mom is through the foundation, so it seemed like if I was going to do something with the industry, that would be the best way to go. They told me the Darlene Briggs Award was well funded. I said, ‘Well, that’s awesome, but we really need to do more about funding technicians, and getting more technicians in the industry, so if this could go toward that kind of thing, that’s great, too.’ But I did it in honor of my mom, and the 30-year anniversary of the award.
Q: You mentioned technicians. How are you guys in terms of filling those tech positions you need filling?
A: We could use more technicians. I think we could use more qualified service management. We’re able to run the business the way it is right now, but to grow it a little bit we’d need to add people. As people start retiring, it’s good to bring young people in to start replacing them a year or two early. When we find the right people, we definitely try to hire them.
Q: Is the work seasonal?
A: We hire people for 12 months. There’s always something to do. We store 225 boats, so usually we can work on whatever percentage of those over the winter, moving in and out of boat shows, doing some maintenance around here. We’ve never had a winter where we ran out of work.
Q: Does that help with retention?
A: Yeah, but I don’t think you could hire people seasonally in that way that are skilled. You can hire marina helpers and that kind of thing, but technicians that actually have to go to school, they would go find another industry. Really they have the same skills that technicians at a car dealership do, and car dealerships generally pay a lot more.
Q: What are your thoughts on what’s happening in the marina industry right now? I’m seeing a lot of investment and a lot of consolidation. What do you think is contributing to that?
A: If you look at other similar industries to ours, it is happening a lot. On the RV side it’s happening in manufacturing, where there’s a lot of consolidation. In the farm equipment industry it’s happening at the dealership level, where a manufacturer will say, ‘OK, you 15 dealers are going to become one company. You guys figure it out.’ I’m sure it has something to do with government and how they make it harder for small businesses to have all the right people to do the jobs, and wages, health care and other things.
I do think that in the boat business you need to be big or you need to be small — being in the middle is a tough place to be.
Q: Why do you think that is?
A: If you’re big enough you can have corporate lawyers and human resource departments and have certain programs to bring in personnel. When you’re small, the owner can affect each customer and each employee. In the middle you can’t move quickly enough to outmaneuver the big guys, and you’re not small enough that owners of the company can personally affect the outcome of transactions. When you’re small, an owner can affect each transaction. Being in the middle is a difficult place to be because right now you’re at the mercy of the big guys and the mercy of the little guys who can change and do things quickly. Places that have four or five locations, the middle-sized dealers, are in the toughest position in today’s economy.
Q: Where do you consider yourself on that scale?
A: We’re small; we have one location. We’ve been as big as four, so we were selling significantly more boats than we’re selling now, but we kind of found our spot in this economy. We’re actually probably a little bit more profitable than we were when we were bigger. Being bigger doesn’t always make more money.
Q: I understand you’re involved in the American Boating Congress.
A: I’ve gone for the last three years. I’m certainly going to continue going there and doing what I can. I think these days, if you’re not present politically, nobody’s going to pay attention to you. Our industry has been hurt over the years by not having a strong enough voice.
Q: What about issues?
A: We do have too many government agencies to deal with, but beyond that Minnesota’s in pretty good shape. Nationally I do think taxes are too high, and I think that has hurt our business and our employees. The people who are paying tens of thousands more in taxes are people who are not in the market to buy a boat. When they don’t buy boats, it’s hard for me to give out raises.
Some of the regulations are just crazy. You’ve seen some of that on the engine side with catalytic converters. The amount of pollution they’re changing is minuscule. That’s created more cost on the engine and fuel systems side. It’s probably added about $3,500 of cost. We as a boat industry care about the environment because we’re out using it all the time. But we also care about what makes sense economically, and there’s a balance there.
The mandatory ethanol in the fuel is another issue. I don’t think it is economically or ecologically sound, and when that becomes mandatory for the boat business, that’s going to affect how engines run and work and how much service they require, which is all going to cost money.
Q: Where do you see the industry heading in general? Where do you see trends going in terms of an aging industry, and two working adults in households?
A: We do need to adjust to the changing demographics. Our dealership’s selling more and more to grandparents and less to young families. That has to do with a lot of things. Boats have gotten extremely expensive and that does limit who we sell to. I think the industry has to think about both of these things. A lot are getting into national pricing schemes, and that can be helpful, but it can also be difficult. It’s harder to take a trade when there’s less room to take one. The Internet has brought some really good stuff and brought some bad stuff. I think we’re all trying to adapt going forward, and the car industry is about 10 years ahead of us.
Q: We always hear how that’s an unfair comparison, and given the scale, that’s true, but people seem to expect what they expect.
A: Yeah. Even little things, like the new smartphones. They’re used to instant gratification, and our industry’s not particularly good at that. We have to get better at that, and we have to get better at simplifying choice a bit more so we can move product through the pipeline faster. It’s a very fine line.
The industry also has challenges with a quality workforce, both at a manufacturing and dealership level.
Q: Being short-staffed can make it hard to meet that “instant gratification” need.
A: It would be easier if it weren’t so seasonal. For a lot of us, all our business is done over the course of three or four months. You don’t know what the trends are because you don’t have any sales during that dark period. A couple of years ago we couldn’t get enough green boats, and then suddenly green boats stopped selling for us. So now I have green boats and I don’t have the orange boats that have started selling. It’s silly stuff like that, but if you have the wrong stuff, you have the wrong stuff.
Q: Have the shows been good for you this year?
A: We had our best boat show since 2007, and April’s been very good.
Q: It’s been kind of oddly spotty the last month or so after a strong start to the quarter, from what I’m hearing.
A: We had a really bad April last year, so it was easy to overcome.
Q: Is there anything you want to add? Some of the positive aspects of the industry?
A: I try to see things from an industrywide perspective. I’m more focused on the dealership side; I have a little better understanding of that, but I also help our manufacturers as best I can with design ideas and those kinds of things. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in both the Chaparral and Regal factories, and I have some understanding of what goes on there.
On the positive side, almost all the people who remain in the industry are good people and good companies. I don’t know if we could have said that in 1970s, ’80s and ’90s even. There were a lot of shysters and people only out for their best interests, and I think that’s changed significantly. That part is really positive.
Q: Yes, even since the mid-2000s, you’ve seen a thinning of dealerships, and it seems like the survivors have really learned how to be profitable in a completely different way. It’s been interesting to watch — at least, after the painful period.
A: Boat dealerships are interesting. When we had four different locations, each one of our locations had a different economic equation. You couldn’t just duplicate what was going on in another because every single piece of property is just a little bit different. When you’re in these 20 Groups, you see everyone has a little bit different way to break even or make money. Sometimes it’s more service, or sales, or service, or parts, or used. The car business, there’s one way that it happens and the RV business is the same. We’re just a little bit different in that way, which makes our businesses a little more difficult to operate sometimes.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.