West Marine’s crown jewel - Trade Only Today

West Marine’s crown jewel

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Fort Lauderdale ‘super’ facility is twice the size of flagship stores and five times as big as standard outlets

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West Marine CEO Geoff Eisenberg says the boating supply giant keeps its sights trained on the horizon, which helps explain the grand opening of its Fort Lauderdale superstore late last year in still-turbulent economic times. At 50,000 square feet, the superstore is the largest boating supply store in the United States and possibly the world — twice as large as any of West Marine’s flagship stores and five times the size of its standard retail outlets.

Eisenberg and his management team try to look beyond this quarter or the next or the one after that in their planning. “We’ve been around a long time [36 years] and we want to stay around a long time,” Eisenberg said at the Dec. 7 grand opening. “We take a long-term view of things.”

Recession or no recession, West Marine is moving forward with a strategy it adopted before the economy faltered: to own fewer but bigger stores. Executives say bigger stores maximize use of real estate — a major expense — offer boaters one-stop shopping and serve a larger area.

West Marine has 319 company-owned stores in 38 states, Puerto Rico and Canada. It bought E&B Marine in 1996 and BoatUS’s retail and catalog divisions in 2003, which gave it multiple stores in many regions. Since 2002, the company has opened eight flagship stores of about 25,000 square feet — in Newport, R.I., Brick, N.J., Woburn, Mass., San Diego and Jacksonville, Sarasota, St. Petersburg and North Palm Beach, Fla. Six of those have opened during the last two years.

The company plans more flagship openings — in Honolulu, Old Saybrook, Conn., and Clear Lake, Texas, plus an 11,000-square-foot standard store in Biloxi, Miss. — by the spring. Typically a flagship outlet replaces several smaller ones. Eisenberg calls the strategy being “hopefully, intelligently aggressive.”

He has reason to be hopeful. The company’s net income for the first nine months of 2011 was 30.6 percent better than the same period in 2010. It also was debt-free at the end of the first three quarters of 2011 and holding a record cash balance of $44.1 million and $98 million in borrowing capacity under a revolving credit facility. West Marine is advancing its plan from a position of financial strength. “You have to be in good financial shape to do this,” Eisenberg says.

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Eisenberg insists there are some things a successful company doesn’t change, even when the economy turns sour. One of those things is values. West Marine focuses on its core customer, the boater, and on serving that customer efficiently and well, he says. The other is vision. A company’s vision may be modified to reflect market changes, but it shouldn’t change dramatically, he says. West Marine has closed stores during the recession, but it also has opened bigger ones in major markets, especially Florida, the nation’s largest boat ing market. The state has a year-round boating season and 914,535 boats were registered in 2010. A quarter — 73 — of West Marine’s stores are in the Sunshine State.

West Marine has been in Fort Lauderdale since 1992. The superstore replaces a retail outlet — about half the size of the new one — that already was one of the supplier’s biggest stores. A second West Marine store remains open in Fort Lauderdale. “We’ve done well in this market,” Eisenberg says.

Broward County alone registered more than 41,500 boats in 2010. “We feel comfortable investing here,” Eisenberg says. He declines to say how much West Marine has invested in the superstore. Fort Lauderdale-based Stiles Corp. bought and developed the 4.37-acre property in southwest Fort Lauderdale for West Marine, built the store and has leased land and building to the retailer for an initial 15-year term. CBRE, a Los Angeles-based real estate services company, was listing the property, building and lease for sale for $13 million in December.

Eisenberg stresses the superstore’s sharp focus on the customer. He says that what West Marine is doing at the superstore isn’t much different from what it was doing in 1977 when he opened West Marine’s second store, in Oakland, Calif., after a year with the company. “Our goal [then and today] is to do a really good job of serving boaters,” he says.

The Fort Lauderdale area is a “big market with lots of competitors and lots of places for the customer to choose to shop,” he says. The superstore carries 35,000 products, about twice what its other flagship stores carry and five to seven times what a standard store stocks. West Marine’s online catalog carries about 70,000 products.

The superstore has departments for all types of boaters: a rigging shop with 1,800 pieces of sailboat hardware and staff who build rigging on-site and install it; an engine parts counter; rods, reels and lures for saltwater fishing from Miami to North Palm Beach; marine plumbing, electrical and lighting supplies; outboards; a megayacht chandlery; water sports and kayaking sections; 14,000 square feet devoted to footwear, apparel and accessories; what the company is touting as the largest marine electronics department in the world, with more than 1,000 units and accessories; and a megayacht flybridge designed and built by Hargrave Yachts displaying electronics and audio systems, and bridge simulators where customers can work the electronics.

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Experiential displays enable buyers to see how fast different-size pumps empty water from a tank and how boat lighting looks under water and in the cabin. The store also has video versions of its popular West Advisor, helping customers compare products and make buying decisions.

Serving the boater has always been a core value at West Marine, Eisenberg says. “We’re just more sophisticated now,” he says.

The store has 90 associates — specialists in their fields working the floor and helping customers — and it already is hiring more. Eisenberg says the store employs 30 to 40 percent more workers than the one it replaced.

“Overall we think this is our best-ever store,” West Marine founder and chairman Randy Repass says. “But we can always do better.”

Count on Eisenberg to keep scanning the horizon for ways to do that.

This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.

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