In 2017, when Indmar Products president Chuck Rowe was elected chairman of the board at the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the U.S. economy and marine industry were thriving. When the economy collapsed during the Great Recession of 2008, Rowe led the industry board and executive committee, “helping them to make the right decisions that guided not only NMMA, but the entire marine industry through these tough times.”
That praise came from John McKnight, NMMA senior vice president of environmental health and safety, in a letter nominating Rowe for the NMMA Hall of Fame Award. The Hall of Fame Award is one of many accolades that Rowe and his company have received, in addition to the recognition that the company’s innovations have received. In just the past two years, Indmar has been awarded 15 patents. Over the years, it has also earned 18 Customer Satisfaction Index awards, eight Innovation Awards and five environmental awards (NMMA, USCG, and EPA).
Indmar is now entering its 50th year in business, after Rowe’s father, Dick Rowe, founded the company in 1971. Times are a lot different than they were back then, but Rowe is looking ahead toward whatever the future may hold next.
Indmar touts itself as being the world’s largest privately held manufacturer of gasoline inboard marine engines. The company is the market leader in the increasingly popular towable segment, supporting more than 1,600 dealerships and service centers, and with customers in more than 150 countries.
The company operates manufacturing facilities in the United States with distribution centers in Millington, Tenn.; Merced, Calif.; Clarkston, Wash.; and Nowra, Australia. In 2017, Indmar completed a 25,000-square-foot expansion at its Millington world headquarters.
Last year, the company added 6,000 square feet to create an engineering research and development facility. “The boating industry is entering a new era of innovation and advancement,” Rowe says. “In order to better explore new architectural philosophies to enable the abundant functionality of tomorrow’s boats, we expanded to provide engineering with a facility that embraces Indmar’s culture of innovation and allows our engineering team to unleash their creativity in a safe place that is away from the constraints of daily operations.”
The facility fosters cross-disciplinary collaboration with an open, co-working design, Rowe says. It also houses a 3-D printing lab, a recording studio for instructional training, and other spaces intended to advance ideas, product development and product support.
Rowe says the industry is arriving at an inflection point — something he sees as one of its biggest future challenges — in which electronics and software will displace mechanical hardware as a boat’s most critical and valuable component. That shift means what he calls “legacy development methodologies” will strain under the pressures and challenges of engineering the boats of tomorrow.
“Architectures common today will not be able to support the features and functionality expected in the boats of the future,” Rowe says. “Our new R&D facility was designed to address these challenges and allow our team the ability to innovate in four key areas: power train, lightweight materials, connectivity and safety.”
A Half-Century of Innovation
Indmar has developed 15 technologies that changed the marine industry, from fuel-injected engines to emissions-reducing technology, Rowe says. “Without Indmar’s introduction of fuel injection to the marketplace, we wouldn’t have the cruise systems and technologies in place that we have today,” says Rowe, who was in aviation until 1973, when he joined his family’s business.
Last year, Indmar disrupted the jetboat segment with its EcoJet, a product that touts 310 hp and 350 pound-feet of torque when coupled with the company’s new 2.3-liter EcoBoost marine engine. “Due to its versatility and ability to power a variety of boating applications — from ski boats and traditional inboard-powered watercraft to outboard-powered watercraft — the dynamic duo has extended the Indmar brand into new product segments that we have never powered before,” Rowe says. “As a result, our manufacturer roster continues to grow.”
The EcoBoost package for marine OEMs is based on multisport performance, simplified installation, quality construction and a lightweight, compact package, Rowe says. Ford Motor Co. introduced its EcoBoost technology in 2009, and it has made the technology exclusive to Indmar in the marine space. “I think we benefit by being Ford’s only customer in the marine industry,” Rowe says. “I think we get more attention. They can focus on us a little better.”
The EcoBoost and EcoJet package also makes boating more affordable, he says. “The magic with the EcoBoost is that it fits in the smaller, more affordable boats yet provides the power and performance of the larger, more expensive models,” he says. “What we are really doing is broadening our reach. Instead of a market of 12,000 boats, we have a market of 30,000 boats.”
The propulsion and power package can help first-time buyers transition from personal watercraft into larger vessels, Rowe says, because they already understand the propulsion and operating system. There’s a sweet spot between PWC, which can cost less than $10,000, and a $50,000 sterndrive or $85,000 tow boat, Rowe adds.
“There’s a tremendous opportunity to keep nurturing those people up the line, and someday they buy the
$200,000 ski boat,” he says. “We must make an effort as an industry to improve the attrition rate of first-time boat buyers through not only quality and innovation, but along with constantly improving customer ownership experiences through the local dealer.”
As with all companies, Indmar had to adjust when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in early 2020. However, unlike many companies, it largely bypassed the supply-chain issues that caused disruption elsewhere. “I’m bragging just a little bit, but I think we did a tremendous job with supply,” Rowe says. “I think our segment overall, ski and wake, we continue to ramp up the quality of dealers, and we continue to invest in their facilities.”
In the early stages of the pandemic, Indmar saw its dealers close as the economy crashed. On April 1, the company shut down its plant. Salaried workers were asked to continue working remotely, in the office or both, with a 25 percent reduction in pay. Indmar furloughed hourly workers but paid for their health insurance. “Fortunately, this only lasted a month, but the decision to make those types of cuts was extremely difficult,” Rowe says. “There were several sleepless nights leading up to this. We started production back up in May, and gradually, all of our customers reopened.”
In August, the company repaid employees the amount that was deducted in April. For his part, Rowe looked at the crisis as an opportunity to affirm a flexible business strategy.
“No one knows how long the pandemic will last or how the election will affect small businesses in the future,” he says. “We do know that strong, steady leadership and planning is critical to build momentum for whatever the future holds. It ensures our ability to navigate, transform and adapt during and once the crisis abates.”
Beyond adapting during the pandemic, Rowe sees boater access as one of the major challenges facing the industry. During passage of the Clean Air Act, Rowe was part of a team that met with Environmental Protection Agency executives to negotiate realistic goals that engine manufacturers could achieve.
More recently, when the industry sought better alternative fuels than ethanol for marine engines, Rowe offered boats, engines and technical expertise to help with biobutanol testing.
“Many Hall of Fame recipients over the years have done much to grow the marine industry by growing their businesses,” says Rich Kolb, a 50-year veteran of the marine industry and owner of Kolb International Consulting. “Few recipients have contributed so much to the marine industry itself. Through Chuck’s selfless contributions and leadership through the toughest of times, the entire marine industry can consider itself to be grateful to have been blessed with a colleague who has the character and leadership of Chuck Rowe.”
This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue.