The so-called graying of the industry has been a hot topic lately. Discussions have ranged from how to attract younger people to boating to ways to integrate youthful ideas with the wisdom that only decades of experience can impart.
As the industry grapples with how to attract more under-40s to the boating and to the industry itself, Soundings Trade Only asked some industry leaders where they see things going and the role they think youth plays in the health of the industry. Oh, and these industry leaders — they’re all 40 or younger.
Ben Dorton, 24
Bryant Boats brand manager
Dorton, like many of the young adults, is not the first generation of his family to be involved. He was six when his dad, John, the former CEO of MasterCraft, began with that company, and he immediately became hooked. “As I got older, I’d draw concepts of boats and stuff like that. I’d go with him when school wasn’t in session to work with him and sit in meetings. I preferred boating magazines over comic books and things like that. Every weekend I spent with my family on a boat. I started fishing on an old Hydra-Sports at 11 months old.”
Dorton began wakeboarding competitively at age 13 and started a series of internships at MasterCraft, where he “did a little bit of everything,” he says. “I think my dad wanted me to get a good overview of the company as a whole, so I’d spend every other week doing something different, whether it was working on lean manufacturing or marketing.”
Despite his age, Dorton feels he’s been in the industry a long time — a common thread among the subjects interviewed for this report. After graduating from college, he got the opportunity to work with someone he considers one of the most talented boatbuilders around.
“I might be biased, but it’s my dad,” he says. “I got to watch him work with other builders, too, and I’ve just always admired how he understood the boat company as a whole, and the boating industry. I think he did that by boating. He’s also open-minded to new practices. After watching him for 17 years, I got asked to do something I’d always wanted to do, and that was run a boat manufacturing company with my dad.”
The senior Dorton has always been open to radical-sounding ideas, something that has been helpful for Ben. (For example, his father recently partnered with a design school in a class that tasked students with designing a concept boat that would appeal to them.) “I think we will continue for the next five years in really pushing the sleepy I/O segment into some innovation, and the outboard segment, as well,” he says. They plan to stretch the design boundaries by spending time on the water with customers, not by sitting in a boardroom, he emphasizes.
Apart from the ski and wakeboard segments, which are too expensive for many, Dorton believes boats lack youthful appeal, meaning an evolving market is not being served. “I think that once we see more kids in their 20s — even in their teens — working in manufacturing, I think we’re going to finally see some of those fresher ideas,” Dorton says. “The problem is, these kids are coming in at age 24 and they’re not in a leadership role” and are often dismissed as being “inexperienced,” (another theme among interviewees).
Discouraged when some of their out-of-the-box ideas are shot down, younger folks sometimes mimic the status quo in their efforts to succeed in the industry, Dorton says.
“My view of what looks good and sounds good is a whole lot different than a 50-year-old’s idea of something that looks good and sounds good,” he says. “The been-there, done-that knowledge of the older generation, along with the fresh approach from the 20-somethings, is going to be a great thing. I don’t think we’re there at all.
“I think in some industries we’re starting to see younger generations accepted, and I really hope we see it in the boating industry soon or we’re going to … wind up missing a huge segment of these younger boaters.”
Melissa Danko, 40
Marine Trades Association of New Jersey executive director
Danko has been at the job for 13 years and through two disasters. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred a few months after she landed in the role, and last year’s Hurricane Sandy continues to challenge her daily. “I love it. I work with an amazing group of people, which is fun. It’s also very hard. These are small business owners, and it’s hard to run a small business. It’s hard anywhere, but it’s especially hard here in New Jersey.”
Danko was challenged to an extreme when Sandy devastated a huge part of the boating industry along New Jersey’s coastline. “As awful as Sandy was, it gave us opportunities to help members in ways I’ve been very proud of,” Danko says. She lists the acronyms of agencies she has dealt with during the past year in a stream: DOT, DEP, FEMA, SBA, EDA and HUD, to name a few. She is still fighting with the last two because of a loophole that prevented money from being dispensed to marina owners.
“We’ve had to figure out rebuilding, permitting, transportation, waterways,” Danko says. “We had a huge issue with debris in waterways, and we were concerned that people were worried about getting back on the water, so we launched our Go Boating New Jersey campaign, where we all got out in the water in cold March to shoot videos.”
The association is preparing a post-storm business assessment. “We’re trying to put together questions (as much as I hate bothering these guys with more questions) to try to get a handle on where they are today because we don’t have a clear picture of where the recovery is,” she says. “There have been some that have rebuilt and have moved on and are doing well, and some didn’t make it at all. There are a handful of folks that didn’t actually reopen.”
Danko wants to put together SPARC, a Storm Preparedness and Response Committee manual. After Sandy, the manual “almost created itself,” she says. “Members are making changes. I think there are a lot of lessons to be learned and changes that can be made.”
Ryan Crawford, 32
Vice president and sales manager at Winnisquam Marine, and president of the New Hampshire Marine Trades Association
Crawford spoke to Trade Only during a rare vacation at Disney World with his wife and children, ages 2, 4 and 6. He, like Dorton, has a father still active in the industry, and his sister, who is 25, also is involved in the management and oversight of Winnisquam Marine.
“In the marine industry, we’re definitely considered young,” Crawford says. “My sister is seven years younger than me. “She’s No. 2 in sales and she does our marketing. At dealer meetings, she’s one of the only women. We get a different reaction. I don’t know if we’re taken as seriously at first.”
Peers quickly change that view when they recognize Winnisquam’s results. “We don’t seem like a big dealership, but we do very good volume,” Crawford says.
Winnisquam Marine has won its share of accolades. Its website indicates it was “rookie of the year” and top dealer for Palm Beach Pontoons in 2013; largest Premier PTX pontoon dealer in the world in 2011 and 2012, and top dealer for 2013; third-largest Crownline dealer in the United States for 2012; 100+ Mercury Outboard Platinum Level dealer 2011-2014, to name a few.
The age range of the dealership’s sales team is wide, Crawford says, and the average is younger than that of many competitors. “We have a pretty good group of younger boaters just starting to have families who are getting into boating at our dealerships, but that’s not being felt across the board” because dealerships that aren’t as experienced in selling to this generation might unwittingly be pushing them out the door, he says.
“Some families are going to dealerships and getting the ‘car-salesman’ boat salesman. They don’t like the experience and so they’re not going to get into boating,” Crawford says. “We’re able to retain a lot of those customers. I think some salespeople underestimate the buying power of the younger generation. The money’s there, and if they catered to them and knew how to sell to them, they would retain more of them.”
Most important, these younger customers don’t like a hard sell. “It’s like more of a friendship with them,” Crawford says. “You’re their go-to guy. The younger generation has already done a lot of research online, so they know the product and want to be sure you know it, too. The young guys in our crew, they all know the product extremely well. They bring them out for test drives and lay off the hard sell. The younger generation, you’re going to push them out the doors before you push them into making a decision. And if you do push them, they won’t be happy afterward. They need to feel guided, not pushed. You never want to seem a hard sell, but the older generation, it’s a different mentality.”
Crawford was tapped to be president of his marine trade association after he helped defeat a bill that would have hurt the industry. “The bill was in the Senate after passing the House, and I went through the fine print and spoke on it in the House and Senate and got people to write in and defeated the bill,” he says. “After that, the marine trade association selection was coming up, and they said, ‘We need something to change. We’re not gaining new members, and everything is staying status quo.’ Now I’m down in the statehouse multiple times every month, fighting different bills. I like that part because you can see the direct impact of your work. So often, if these things go through, people just complain. But if they’re not protecting their own interests, they really shouldn’t [complain].”
Matt Lodder, 38
Lodder’s Marine general manager
Lodder started working at the Ohio business his father started in 1966 when he was in high school, and he has done every job from boat washer to his current role as general manager.
Although he misses spending time with his wife and children, ages 3 and 6, he believes he plays an integral role in what he thinks is missing from many dealerships — a succession plan.
“The marine industry is definitely an aging base,” he says. “The industry really [took off during] the ’60s and ’70s, and a lot of those entrepreneurs are still in charge and don’t have a good succession plan in place. They don’t have up-to-date websites. They’re not on social media like they could be. That stuff is in my wheelhouse because of my age.”
Lodder says a dealer’s online presence is almost as important as the showroom itself. “We really try to push both of them ahead at a rapid rate. It helps having younger people in dealerships. I’ve been to dealerships that don’t have that younger person, and they’re often not using new tools that are out there that we all have access to,” he says.
Being youthful in an aging industry is not without challenges, he says.
“On a lot of occasions I’ve felt like — the best way to explain it is, you know how you would go to Thanksgiving dinner and you had to sit at the little kids’ table? That’s how I felt starting out. It was almost like, ‘OK, great, have your little thing over there,’ but you’re not really accepted in the normal role of business. I don’t know if it’s because I’m older now, but I feel like the older generation now says they want younger people in the industry and our time has come. The average boat buyer is getting older, which worries me because eventually that buyer is not going to be around. I know Grow Boating has talked about bringing other new groups into this industry, but we can’t lose our focus on getting younger people into boating.”
Lodder chairs his Spader 20 Group, is on the Grow Boating board and recently joined the board of the MRAA Educational Foundation. He agrees with Dorton’s take on the manufacturing side of the industry.
“We don’t have anything tapping into that young of a market. What’s important to some of the older generations is not important to younger ones. They don’t care what the engine looks like. They might just want to know how it can pull them up on a wakeboard. I think builders have to look at what they’re bringing to market and how to appeal to younger buyers. I don’t think they do it well right now, and I think that buyer does get ignored. Some of the stuff I’ve seen in entry-level price ranges doesn’t have the pizazz. So yes, there have been some affordable things, but do they tap into the emotional aspect of buying? I don’t think they do. I think a lot of them miss the mark.”
Matt Gruhn, 40
Marine Retailers Association of the Americas president
Liz Walz, 38
MRAA director of education and membership
It’s hard to separate this pair when addressing their contributions to and visions for the industry. They launched marine careers at Boating Industry magazine. When Gruhn became president of the MRAA in 2011, he quickly tapped Walz to oversee education, marketing and membership. They’re largely responsible for the success of the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo, the one industry show that focuses on the retail side.
Their involvement with MDCE began while they were still at the magazine. “We asked to launch the Top 100 Dealers in conjunction with the dealer conference at the time,” Walz says. “It was only a dealer gathering. It wasn’t brand-specific, and probably 100 dealers attended. It was time for it to evolve, and it didn’t hurt that the marketplace was changing at the time. We didn’t know it, but we were about to go into a recession, so that gave more value to what MDCE could provide. There was an opportunity for dealers to learn from each other’s success and to really kind of raise the bar for professionalism, and ultimately to provide a level of education and a professional development opportunity that I’m not sure existed before on that scale.” The educational content of the show has become a cornerstone of its success.
Working together at the magazine, Gruhn and Walz say they felt a shift. “When you become a journalist, you feel like it’s your job to report objectively on what’s happening in the industry you’re covering,” Walz says. “Somewhere in my career I realized I didn’t just want to report on the industry, I wanted to be part of the story and contribute to its success.”
Many say that has already happened in the short time they’ve been with the MRAA. Participation in the conference increased from fewer than 100 in 2007 to more than 1,000 in 2012, and MRAA membership has grown 188 percent. Walz has been instrumental in forming Marine Retail Universities, which are held around the country to give dealers a regional perspective on data and sales and provide a local venue for dealers who can’t make it to MDCE.
“We already have record dealer registration for this year’s conference, so people are starting to see and understand that’s our focus,” Gruhn says. “Liz’s passion is in the events side and building educational agendas, and … we’re evolving her toward that because that’s her passion and that’s what she does best.”
Gruhn says his job is to facilitate things such as helping his young team find their passions. His two most recent hires have been people in their 20s. “It’s funny because I went from being the young guy [replacing long-time MRAA president Phil Keeter] to being the old guy pretty much overnight. Now we’ve got a couple of 20-somethings working with us, and the things they’re bringing to the table are so much further advanced than what we would’ve been able to do without them.”
Gruhn says he didn’t purposely hire younger people, but he believes that many of the ideas he offered in his younger years were ignored. “I always felt that my opinion and approach and thoughts didn’t matter, and I’m not saying my ideas were great, but I always felt like that approach was bad for business.”
He says empowering people is a big part of allowing younger employees to flourish. “I’ve always been one to have ideas. It’s up to managers as to whether they want to consider new thinking, especially where it might be coming from someone who might be considered inexperienced. We want to have new ways of thinking and innovation because that’s what’s going to move us forward. We could always do things the way they’ve always been done, but when we approach them from a different angle, I think the opportunities are expanded significantly.”
Gruhn points to an author he heard on a Harvard Business Review podcast arguing that top-down management no longer is relevant. “He was suggesting that you, as the leader of a business, can’t be in charge of bringing all the ideas and dictating how everything’s going to work. You have to have participation from people who are smart enough and influential enough and passionate enough to make … the right decisions for your business. I think it’s important to enable people on the front lines who are really the ones who make the results happen for your business.
“I think that really underscores the feeling I was dealing with when I was younger and potentially not being taken seriously, and it’s the challenge we have as managers today — to foster that next generation of thinking and those fresh ideas.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue.