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Advice for trying times

Petzold’s Marine Center has weathered more than a few storms since founders Bill and Agnes Petzold sold their first boat out of a front-yard sales office in 1946.


They lived through the decline of wood as hull material and the rise of fiberglass, the fuel crisis and recession of the 1970s, and the lean luxury tax years of the early 1990s.

Today, the full-service, new- and used-boat dealership in Portland, Conn., employs 21 full-time people and boasts eight-figure annual sales. Its service department is trained in Yanmar, Crusader, Evinrude, Mercury and Volvo Penta engines, as well as Kohler and Onan generators. Its new-boat lineup runs the gamut, from family cruisers to luxury express yachts, and it sells used boats, too.

With a six-decade track record of success, Petzold’s is poised to survive this latest downturn, thanks to a diverse product line, a host of on-site services, and a time-tested business philosophy that’s now been passed on to a third generation of the Petzold family.

For some dealers like Petzold’s, the current slump may not prove to be quite as bad as the luxury tax years, but it’s still taking its toll on the industry. “Everyone is slowing down, cutting production,” says Ken Petzold, 45, vice president and sales manager, and a grandson of the founders. “But there’s still business out there, though it’s not going to be like it was in the past for a while. I think the next 12 to 18 months are going to tell the tale for many dealers, manufacturers and vendors.”

Diversity is perhaps Petzold’s chief asset. Petzold’s offers outside and inside storage, mechanical repairs and installations that include repowering, a carpentry shop, a canvas shop, and a well-stocked ship’s store. Any company relying solely on new-boat sales, or on used-boat sales alone, may have a hard time, says Petzold.

“It’s important to have other sources of income within the business,” he says, such as boat storage or a ship’s store.

Petzold’s does rely mainly on new-boat sales, but when they’re down other departments become more important. “We have the ability to store 300 boats,” he says. “We have a strong service department with a large parts inventory and a busy ship’s store. The canvas and upholstery shop also does well for us. These are things that keep people coming in the door.”

During down times, when new-boat sales are slumping and people are holding onto the boats they have, these services are even more crucial to business survival. “People still want to keep their boats running well and looking good,” says Petzold. “So we stock a lot of parts and devote an entire floor to our ship’s store. If someone has a boat with a Crusader engine or a Yanmar, or a Kohler generator, we have the parts they need, and our people are knowledgeable on them. As for our store, we believe it’s better stocked than the chain stores and priced competitively, too.”

The parts department and store bring in customers, and the time-saving, one-stop shopping is appreciated. “You can come to Petzold’s and get your Yanmar oil filter, a gallon of paint and your brushes, your boat wax and a Raymarine VHF radio without making a dozen trips,” Petzold says. “That’s important to people, especially the ones who work on their boats themselves.”


If the backbone of the business is new-boat sales, it’s a must to have the right lineup. Petzold’s is a dealer for Silverton, Ocean Yachts, Mainship, and Ovation by Silverton and Sabre. The fleet covers a lot of bases: cruisers, convertibles, sportfishing boats, trawlers and express boats. “By having that kind of diversity, something is always hot, something is always selling,” says Petzold. “One year, it might be trawlers, another, sportfishing boats. You have to have the boats to fill the need, whatever it may be at the time.”

In choosing boats to add to a lineup, it’s important to know your audience and to anticipate trends. In the late 1950s, Petzold’s took on Egg Harbor, a builder of New Jersey fishing boats for recreational anglers, just as the company was starting fiberglass boat production. The Egg Harbor 33 and 38 became best sellers and helped lay the foundation for future growth. Two years ago, recognizing the continued popularity of traditionally styled boats in New England, Petzold’s took on Sabre Yachts, the popular Maine-built express boats. It was a good decision. Since then, they’ve been “red-hot,” says Petzold. “They’ve helped us, as far as new-boat sales go.”

New technology also can help drive your new-boat sales, too, Petzold says. “Pod drives (Volvo’s IPS and Cummins’ Zeus drives) are especially hot right now,” says Bill Petzold, 63, president, and son of the founders. Currently available on some Ovation models, Petzold’s will debut Ocean and Sabre yachts this fall with similar pod drives. They’re expected to “put a little spark in our sales this fall,” Bill Petzold says.

The Internet is another bulwark against the waves of recession. It’s not only an attractive way to advertise, it can greatly expand your range and bring in new customers, even international ones. “The Internet has created quite a lot of business for us,” says Bob Petzold, 43, vice president and yard manager. “We’ve sold more boats that have gone over the border than we ever have before. We even sold our first boat to [a buyer in] Australia last year. It’s had quite an effect on business. It’s made the world very small.”

But the underlying foundation of success at Petzold’s, through good and bad times, is the founders’ simple business philosophy, which has been passed on through the family. “It’s about service after the sale, and doing the best you can with a customer to keep them happy,” says Bill Petzold. “Personalized service was important back then, and that’s still true today. When the customer comes to the yard here, or goes to the store, chances are he’s going to run into one of us, and we’re going to take a personal interest in him. That’s what will keep them coming back again and again.”

Ken Petzold agrees. “Treating the customer as an individual, whether they’re spending $10,000, $100,000 or millions, is essential,” he says. “Whether they’re coming in with an 18-footer on a trailer, or a 60-footer we’re hauling to do work on, they deserve to be treated equally. Each boat is valuable to the customer, and each boat should be valuable to us.”

That’s resulted in many longtime customers for the 63-year-old, three-generation business. “We had one couple who bought a boat from my grandfather back on the highway, and the family is still with us as customers,” says Ken Petzold. “And we have many families like that, old customers from way back who’ve come back for more boats and services.”

The formula for success is simple, really. “You have to like what you’re doing, which is selling boats and making people happy,” he says. “Running a dealership is not a way to make money in a hurry. It’s doing a little bit over a long period of time that keeps the lights on.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.


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