A thirst for innovation and a knack for reading trends have made Don Galey, at 80, one of California’s most successful boat dealers
Galey’s Marine Supply of Bakersfield is the oldest boat and marine supply dealer in California, with a sales facility that is believed to be the largest in the state and a service department that certainly is the biggest. Four generations of the Galey family have kept the business growing for 68 years through hard work, innovation and keeping up with trends.
Owner and president Don Galey is an industry legend who grew up around boats. He has been involved in the business for at least 68 years and has been a dealer for 57 of those years. “My parents started an appliance business in 1938 when I was just a young boy,” he says. “We always had a boat and were a boating family.”
That nautical interest inspired Don’s father, Otto Galey, to buy a couple of used boats that he resold for a nice profit. When the United States entered World War II in 1941, appliance manufacturers stopped making those goods and began turning out products for the war effort. To continue making a living, Otto began to deal in used appliances. He also began to purchase and resell more used boats, displaying them in a vacant lot next door.
When the war ended in 1945, Otto put up a 40-by-100-foot Quonset hut with a nice storefront and windows and went into the boat business full time. Young Don soon started working there. “I worked for my dad after school and in the summertime,” he says. “I could relate more to boats and the boat business than I could to delivering appliances. It was much more interesting and a lot more fun. So 67 years ago is really when I got very involved in the boat business.
“About the time I graduated from San Jose State College in February 1956 [with a bachelor’s degree in business and a minor in advertising], my parents decided to retire and put the business up for sale,” he says. “I decided I wanted to buy it. So Dad and I went to an attorney and drew up a buy/sell contract for the business, inventory and building. And then I had to borrow $3,000 from Dad to have some money to put in the cash drawer.” The younger Galey retained the secretary and part-time mechanic who had worked for his father.
It was a time of transition for the new owner. “I also had gotten married just six months or so before I graduated from college and bought the business,” he says.
“Slim” Sommerville, who helped Orin Edson start and build up Bayliner Boats and was vice president of sales and marketing for the company, had been a high school classmate of Galey’s. They were teammates on the school’s swim team. “When Orin Edson and I started Bayliner, I knew that if I could get my high school friend Don Galey to become a dealer we would do very well in Southern California because Don is well respected by everybody,” Sommerville says. “Don did become a dealer, and he was fabulous. He did a great job for Bayliner.”
It took Galey about 15 years to pay off what he owed his father for the business. Afterward he bought out the other businesses in the block, cleaned it all up and rebuilt his store and shop. “Sales were good, and my boat business had become very lucrative,” he says.
“About 12 or 13 years ago I decided I wanted my dealership to be on the freeway. There were plans to put in a brand-new auto mall right by the freeway. [The auto mall] became the second-largest in California, and I built a new boat dealership there. I was the only business that wasn’t a car dealership for almost three quarters of a mile.”
It was a prime location. “There are 87,000 cars that drive by these dealerships every day,” Galey says.
Galey has always been heavily involved in marine industry affairs. He and a few other dealers founded the Marine Retailers Association of America in 1972. He was a director of the new association and in 1978 became its third chairman. “The MRAA gave marine dealers a needed voice in the industry,” he says.
One of Galey’s longtime friends is Phil Keeter, who for years owned Romer Marine in Tulsa, Okla., and was chairman of the MRAA board in 1979. Keeter later sold his dealership and became the first president of the MRAA, a position he held until retiring at the end of 2012.
“I go back to 1972 with Don Galey when the MRAA was founded,” Keeter says. “In 1974 [he] called me and said, ‘Keeter, I had a fire in my store, and the best part of it is I had business interruption insurance and it kept us alive for a few months.’ Don then asked me, ‘Do you have this kind of insurance?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have it, but after what you just told me I am going to get it.’ So I got the business interruption insurance, and afterward I had a fire that burned my shop down completely. It gutted my shop, but not my showroom. If Galey hadn’t called me and told me to get that insurance, the fire would have really put some hurt on me. Once Don is your friend, he is your true friend forever.”
Galey also has been on the dealer advisory boards of several boatbuilders over the years. And he proudly points out that Galey’s Marine was a founding member of Duane Spader’s 20 Groups for marine dealers in 1976. “For the last 40 years this has been a beacon for marine dealers’ advancement, success, profitability and fellowship,” he says.
Galey also has been a board member of the Southern California Marine Association and served as its chairman last year. Galey’s Marine Supply has been one of Boating Industry magazine’s Top 100 dealers for several years.
Galey says his involvement with the MRAA and the SCMA has taken him to a lot of successful dealerships around the country. “I have learned a lot from these dealers over the years and also from my 20 Group,” he says.
The California market
Galey says customers in the California boating market are attuned to styling. “Buyers want bells and whistles,” he says. “There is a saying in California: ‘If it’s not chrome, you better pinstripe it.’ When people out here buy a boat, it has to match the color of their truck — it has to look good, pinstriped and such. That’s our market.”
Pontoon sales have been “getting stronger and stronger” in recent years, he says. “Folks like them. They are stable, and most of them have lots of bells and whistles. The bigger ones have a tilt-up lounge where you can change out of a wet bathing suit or keep a Porta-Potti. And they are like a big playpen for little kids and grandkids. Yet the pontoon boats are big enough and fast enough to pull skiers or tubes.”
Pontoons are just one of the boat types Galey sells. “I can put 35 to 40 boats in my showroom,” he says. “And our accessory department is almost 4,000 square feet. Our accessory business is a real cash cow.”
Used boats also are a profit center. “We sell used boats,” Galey says. “We bring them into the shop and thoroughly detail them. If they need reupholstering, we do that. We replace the carpets, repaint the trailers and put them on the lot. We make big margins on our used-boat sales.”
A changing industry
The marine industry today is vastly different from the one Galey entered nearly seven decades ago. “When I started in this business, most of the boats sold had small-horsepower outboards, and although they were usually called family boats, they were mostly used for fishing,” he says. “Now boats are being powered by 150-, 175-, 200-hp and larger outboards. Jetboats are also doing well now.”
Jetboats are not new to his business, Galey says. “Twenty-five years ago we sold lots of low-profile jetboats. They were like a sports car. But that business went down the tubes. They were powered by automotive engines that could use 35 gallons of gas on a Sunday just pulling the kids on skis. But now this has changed a great deal with the new jet-powered boats that really look good, have all the bells and whistles and are powerful enough to ski behind. … The cheapest jetboat we sell costs between $32,000 and $34,000, and they can go up to $60,000.
“Most of the boats in our showroom are on the floor, not on trailers,” he says. “That way, women can look at the interior and check out the fabric, the carpet, see if the windshield is high enough that the wind won’t blow their hair. They might even get in the boat to see if it is comfortable and if the Bimini top is high enough that they can have shade. They aren’t asking about the engine. For several years now I don’t think I have had anyone ask, ‘What’s the cubic inches of the engine?’ Many years ago when I was a Johnson dealer, that was one of the first questions buyers would ask.”
Increased confidence in product reliability is one reason for that change, Galey says. “Boaters, like car buyers, used to want to look at the engine, ask what the cubic inches were and so forth. But not today. When people buy a new car today, they probably don’t even lift the hood. They know it is going to run good, and they know the engine will be dependable. The same is true with boat buyers.”
One of the big changes that causes problems for dealers today is consumer financing, Galey says. “This year at least 50 percent of all our boat sales we couldn’t get financed because we couldn’t find a bank to give the customer credit,” he says. “Some of them did have bad credit, no question about it, but a lot of them have really great credit but still got turned down.”
Galey says the recession greatly reconfigured the marine industry landscape in his state. “It is estimated that 53 to 62 percent of dealers in California that were in business three years ago are no longer in business,” he says. “This is bad, yet in a way it is good in that many were marginal dealers to begin with. In Bakersfield, a city of 500,000 people, there were five dealers three years ago. Now Galey’s Marine Supply is the only dealer left here. It has been a rough three years, but the good news is that in August of this year we were 66 percent ahead of what we were doing just a year ago. So it is looking up for us.”
A fourth generation
The fourth generation of the Galey family is working at the dealership. Don and Jean Galey (the former Jean Cannell, who attended East Bakersfield High School at the same time as Galey) have three children: son Mark, who is general manager of Galey’s Marine Supply, and daughters Jill and Brenda. Mark followed his father’s career path when at age 13 he started working at the business after school and during the summer. He went full time in 1974 and has been general manager for 10 years.
Don and Jean also have six grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren. Two of the grandsons (brothers) have been employed at Galey’s Marine for more than 12 years. Grandson Steve is parts and accessories department manager and, says the elder Galey, a “crackerjack salesman.” Grandson Jeff is a factory-trained, certified and registered mechanic in the dealership’s award-winning service department. “Jeff has won many awards from engine manufacturers, and in the future he will be our service manager,” Don Galey says.
Galey says Steve is very knowledgeable about wakeboarding. “But I noticed about a year ago he started letting his hair get real long and grew a beard, which is not very favorable in my eyes,” he says. “But he sure can sell tournament wakeboard boats and wakeboards. The prices of our wakeboard tournament boats start at $60,000 to $70,000 and go up to $110,000. Young people used to go snow skiing. Now they go snowboarding. And they used to go water skiing, but now they would rather go wakeboarding. They just don’t buy skis anymore. I used to stock 150 water skis, but now we stock 200 wakeboards instead. Steve really knows what he is talking about … and customers in the market for a wakeboard boat really relate to him and want to deal with him.
“They don’t want to buy a wakeboard boat from some old guy like me,” Don says with a laugh. “The wakeboard accessory business is really great. When people buy a wakeboard they have to buy the special bindings, gloves, a special jacket and a special wakeboard rope. This can quickly add up to $1,800 to $2,400 worth of stuff. I can remember when I was a water skier I just had a $29 water ski.”
Don Galey celebrated his 80th birthday Aug. 24, but he is as sharp and energetic as a guy many years younger. He is an avid sportsman, loves hunting and fishing, and has traveled most everywhere you can imagine.
This article originally appeared in the October 2013 issue.