About 10,000 baby boomers retire every day, research shows, a trend that is opening the door for more young people and millennials to fill those roles.
The boating industry, recognizing this demographic shift, finally is welcoming young people, doing so with groups such as the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas’ Young Leaders Advisory Council and the Marine Millennials program launched by the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference.
Some of that embrace could be born of necessity as industry veterans look for succession plans. Or it could come from an increasing understanding of younger generations — historically each generational newcomer to the workforce has had to battle negative stereotypes from elders, who need time to learn that different doesn’t mean worse. It could also be that as the average age of boat owners continues to rise, manufacturers and dealers are looking to tap youthful vision to draw other young people into boating.
Many suspect that a combination of factors is leading working boomers to start welcoming their millennial counterparts.
We did a Q&A with four millennials to discern their views of the overall industry, discuss what they think they have to offer and learn and ask where they see the industry heading.
Rachel Timko, project manager of consumer and trade events for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and Warren McCrickard, sales vice president for Infinity Woven Products, are involved in the Marine Millennials program launched at IBEX.
Q: Can you start by giving me some personal background?
Timko: Before starting at the NMMA I was working for a Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Chicago. I wanted to dive full time into events and planning, and that’s how I happened upon the NMMA. I was hired to assist with the Chicago Boat Show, and from there my role has changed. Now I manage the industry awards program that the NMMA hosts, and I’ve gotten involved with millennials at shows, both trade and consumer. I love it. The opportunities are there, and working with the NMMA I get to work in all different areas — Discover Boating, event planning, government relations — I’m learning a ton all the time, which keeps me interested and engaged.
McCrickard: I came from the film industry in L.A. and moved to Chattanooga to be closer to family. I wound up at Infinity, leading their marketing effort, and launched into a greater role doing sales, marketing and design.
I think the marine industry has a lot of opportunity. You can find a lane and really grow into it. It doesn’t seem to be as bound as many other industries, where you get stuck in a rut and can’t advance. There’s a lot of open water, so it’s all about figuring out where your calling is and jumping into it.
Timko: The challenge would be getting your face in front of the senior-level staff and saying, ‘Hey, we’re interested in learning and we want to become more involved.’ That’s sort of a segue into why we have formed the Marine Millennials group — to provide networking opportunities with peers our age and open channels to learn and grow within the industry, especially with senior-level staff.
Q: Do you think having younger people representing the industry will help draw younger people into boating?
Timko: The Discover Boating campaign is to get people in the water, and all the marketing and promotion of the shows is geared to the industry as a whole. It is driving people to be educated, so we’re trending toward making as many resources available as possible so that can become a reality. The shows are well attended; there’s something for everyone, whether it’s a child or adult or senior.
McCrickard: I think it’s important for people to see people who are similar to them, who have similar experiences. If I’m going to a boat show, I’m a millennial, I want to see people who can speak to me in my terms — not just to sell me a boat, but be represented in various roles and have solid knowledge of the industry. For me, the more we can continue to bring in millennials front-facing, as well as within the industry, it really allows other millennials to understand that experience and relate to it.
Q: What is your experience in the industry from the perspective of someone much younger than many of your colleagues?
McCrickard: Looking at workforce development, the industry is craving youth. A lot of industry professionals are aging out and seeking young talent that has a lot of drive and motivation for physically demanding jobs, as well as creative and sales jobs. But they’re looking to have people step up and help shape the industry.
This industry is based on recreation, so it’s not only in workforce, but also participation. I think some of the younger people in the industry are asking, when will I be able to enjoy this experience, and when will I be able to afford to buy a boat? In the film industry, one encouraged the other. I love to watch movies, so that fed my love of creating movies, and vice versa. That’s similar to the boating industry. You get to be a participant and continue to make that experience better for yourself and others around you.
Q: Are you seeing more young folks joining the industry?
Timko: I would say absolutely. Currently we’re seeing it with our signup for the Marine Millennials — and it’s only been around for two years.
McCrickard: 2015 was the launch, and I would say we’re up to 400. That’s a good accomplishment when it’s just a few email blasts and small events.
Timko: It’s interesting. Warren just set up a Facebook page for our group, and we just went through basic introductions and we’re seeing where the fellow millennials are within the industry. The range of jobs they have are all over, which is great. It’s exciting to actually be making contact and think how we can logistically get everyone together or figure out what we can do to provide networking opportunities for the group.
Q: Millennials have a unique perspective and are often focused on experiences. What do you think they have to offer, especially to an industry that has sometimes lacked diversity?
Timko: This generation is very social. Just getting people out on the water is great, whether it’s through the Freedom Boat Club or rentals. That helps engage them with the industry.
From a work perspective, when you talk to people about what you do, people light up and are interested. They’ll say, ‘Wow, you work for the marine industry? Tell me about it.’
McCrickard: I think one of the things that sets our generation apart is we have a great deal of ambition, but we also have a little bit of the intolerance for talk without action. We want to be ambitious, find a place where we fit and see results.
A downside to our generation sometimes is that while we have ambition, we do expect at least some things be handed to us because there is so much information given to us so frequently with phones and the Internet. What we have to overcome about ourselves is we still need that ability to interact face to face. What millennials can hopefully do is not just rely on a Facebook group, even though we have one, but also try to figure out ways that we can engage face to face. That’s the communication this older generation is good at — storytelling and face-to-face interaction. If we can bring our generation to understand that, it will serve them well in maximizing ambition and productivity.
Timko: I think when you say experience, yeah, that’s what millennials want, so there must be a way to market to them and expose them to the industry in a different way than people have done in the past. I don’t think that the industry was ever meant to be exclusive, and we’re moving in the right direction to make it accessible and inform various demographics and invite them to participate in the industry.
McCrickard: I think your initial question was what can older generations glean from millennials, and how that ties into diversity. Some of my greatest mentors in the industry have been women. In some ways I feel like the female leadership in the industry is able to progressively embrace change. They look at this younger generation, and what they do glean is that it’s much more of a diverse landscape.
The other thing is the marine industry’s willingness to recognize how technology-driven we are. We know how to use faster ways to get information out, so they are starting to embrace what we know and glean from our various backgrounds. I think technology is definitely a gateway into greater jobs for people our age in most of the industry. That’s where we have a strength that they might consider a weakness, or an opportunity, for them.
Eric Smith, operations manager of the Colorado Boat Center, and his sister Ashley, 37, are in the process of executing a five-year succession plan and have taken over operational control of the dealership. Eric was a member of the Young Leaders Advisory Council, a group the MRAA created in 2009 to help develop future leaders to grow the industry.
Q: What is it like taking so much responsibility at the family dealership?
Smith: It’s a challenge, but it’s been a long time in the making. I’ve been in the business for 13 years and Ashley has been in for 12. I’ve gone through virtually every role here in the store, and Ashley has mostly maintained a sales track. The unique thing about our family and how we work is, we’re four very different personalities. Through what we do at the store we’re able to focus on what each of us does best.
Tom, my dad, started the business, and I think the hard part for him is piecing off bits of control to each of us. Nancy, my mom, was taking care of operations for many years. Ashley is in full control of the sales department.
A lot of good comes from us being so different; we’re able to see things from different perspectives. This allows you to step back and really see each other for the qualities they bring in. I think it helps broaden the scope, and it’s a cliche, but not look at everything with blinders.
Q: It seems as if the industry has been more willing to embrace the younger people coming in, in part maybe because they feel it can help diversify. What are your thoughts on that?
Smith: We are the industry of the white-haired male right now, and it has been that way for years. I have seen strides being taken, with YLAC for sure on the MRAA side, but also it’s nice to see how the MRAA has embraced and brought in younger people. It’s been neat to see changes on the board and see them taking on some of those concepts. I think now you’re starting to see that happen with a lot of dealerships, too.
We’re still an industry of mom-and-pops, where the majority of the dealerships are controlled by families. I think a lot of them are looking to transition into the next generation. Some have the availability to do that. Some don’t. I’ve seen firsthand with several colleagues where the transition hasn’t gone smoothly. There hasn’t been a thoroughly thought-out process, and I think it’s going to hurt our industry quite a bit.
The generation ahead of us, they’re more hands-on and they’ve worked hard. I’ve had the opportunity to go out and get an education, test out other industries and come back here with a clean set of eyes. It’s not to say that everything we [as millennials] think of is correct, but there are thoughts on technologies and processes that may be improved just by opening up to younger generations.
Q: Where do you see those opportunities?
Smith: First, technology. The industry as a whole lags behind some other industries we’re compared to, whether it’s the RV or the auto industry. They’ve embraced technology and social media, and I think it’s definitely still something our industry is sitting behind the eight ball on. You see that the dealers doing very well in these aspects have kind of handed off some of those aspects to a younger generation because A, they don’t want the headache, and B, they don’t understand it. It’s given us a piece of the puzzle through them not wanting to do it, by de facto.
By being able to do that we’re able to bring some business in through different channels and show some engagement and excitement in ways that maybe the prior generation hadn’t thought of or had time or energy to work on. We do some engagement and we’re not even at the pace of some of our colleague dealers, like Buckeye Marine. We have not had great success through our Twitter engagement, so that’s kind of dormant. But we do video blogs and monthly newsletter blasts. We work with Lighthouse Media on a lot of our engagement, as well.
Q: Do you think having young people in the dealership encourages younger buyers?
Smith: We don’t try to specifically say we’re here, we’re young, we’re proud. Customers do see us when they come into the store and see how active we are. Through the channels that we’re using on social media we’re going to come off as having a younger voice.
The problem is, the millennial and Generation X customer is just such a small component of our customer base. Our customer is getting older and older. But what you do see with those customers, they might be someone my parents’ age and they come in with their kids and grandkids. The younger generations are making the buying decisions, but the grandparents are purchasing the boats. Which is unusual, but they’re the ones with disposable income and they want to bring their families together.
Q: Millennials have a reputation for being more interested in experiences; I always wonder if dealerships have opportunities to bring in new types of events to draw in younger potential boaters.
Smith: We do events, and mostly they are geared as educational at the moment. We do boating classes every month in the summer. We do wakeboard and water-skiing clinics.
One of our big things is we’re putting up a new building that will hopefully be operational in two weeks. It’s more of an experiential concept with the building. Yes, product will be there, but we want it to be more of a base to offer experiences, versus a product showroom. It’s a similar concept you see in the higher-end car dealerships. Customers are coming and getting that experience. Our generation is looking for that experience when they walk into a store. It’s not just about the sales process.
Instead of being completely departmentalized, the layout is going to have a lot of things mixed in together. We want to run some special events, and Colorado is a big brewery Mecca, so we want to have beer tastings, food trucks on Saturdays. Just things to bring people in, and through those types of channels make it a gathering spot. Hopefully at some point that will bleed over into sales.
Our industry can no longer be a yard and a shed and a salesperson with a desk. We’ve got to create an environment where people are excited to go. Somewhere where they want to stay around for a little while. We need to create a community. Millennials are a very loyal demographic once you get them in. We’re all about community, and being around family and friends. I think that’s why boat clubs have kind of taken off.
Ben Dorton, co-founder of Heyday Boats, teamed with his industry veteran father, John Dorton, to create a wake boat that would be completely designed by and for millennials. The design had to hit a price point (under $40,000), be small enough to trailer and easily store and bypass frills so it could take a beating. That’s because younger generations are less about polishing their boats in driveways than are they are about using them as vehicles for social experiences, Dorton says.
Brunswick Corp. brand Bayliner bought the company last August.
Q: How is it being one of the youngest people in the industry?
Dorton: Obviously anyone who has worked a while in the marine industry has worked with older white males, so you get used to how they react to things and what their thought processes might be. That allows you to adjust your communications to where you’re able to put what you want to do in their terms. That’s what I think is most important for a young person in this industry. It’s not to say, ‘Hey, I’m this young person and I’ve got ideas,’ and then drop the mic. It’s more of, how do you respect the older gentlemen in the room? Because they do have the experience and have really good vision. How do you add to the conversation in the room as a young person without losing everyone?
That’s the tough part about it when it comes down to it — being able to put yourself in both sets of shoes at the same time. You have to relate to everyone even though you might be the only twenty-something person in the conference room. That comes from respecting the elders and listening to them at the same time you’re approaching with anything that you’re trying to implement. It’s how you give them the value proposition of what you’re conveying. Number one, especially at Brunswick, there’s a lot of experience and talent there, so understanding that in the first place when you come in the room is critical. And then you can try to add that cherry on top.
Q: It’s got to be quite a change to move from co-founding a company to corporate life.
Dorton: One thing I would say is, corporations on the marine side have become more nimble than they were before, as all the various divisions have really focused on being as efficient as possible and using only what they need. So it is a longer chain of command. But for the size, it’s a very efficient group and very well educated on the marine side. We don’t really have many auto guys, or other guys coming in from other industries, just really well experienced team members in the Brunswick Boat Group.
That’s good for me because I’ve got young ideas, but now I get the experience of being in meetings with guys in the industry for 35 years. I’m starting on page one and they’re about on page 200. It’s a great opportunity to learn how they’re thinking and why they’re thinking what they’re thinking.
Q: What do you think they learn from you?
Dorton: That’s where the balance is. I’m almost our own focus group. I enjoy the water, wakeboarding, wakesurfing, I love fishing — so there’s a few different areas that I’ve enjoyed ever since I was in diapers. At the same time I’m just starting my career path, I’m just now married, I’m just now buying a new house, so I’m going through those things a lot of young boaters are going through. But I also understand what the marine industry’s going through at the same time, and putting those two pieces together is good. The fact that you don’t have to go out and do extensive R&D — we do ask our dealer network and do focus groups — but it helps having members on the team who understand on a day-to-day basis who our customer really is. It’s like having a foot in the customers’ door and in manufacturers’ door. It comes naturally for me and a lot of the Bayliner team because several are younger individuals. That’s really the key to my success so far — being a very active customer at the same time as being a very active part of the manufacturing process.
With what you guys [at Soundings Trade Only] have done with valuing the millennial a little more, it’s been good for me to have conversations with people at Brunswick, with them valuing my opinions and me valuing theirs. At the end of the day it comes down to young and older people respecting each other and listening to where they see their segments going. When you really win is whenever you take the mature decision maker and he’s able to consult the young guy and meet somewhere in the middle.
Q: Do you think having more young people within the industry will help draw younger people to boating, and more diversity in general?
Dorton: It better, or we’re in trouble. I think you know that because I’ve seen you do several articles on this. Let’s face it, demographics are changing. We need to be embracing different races and cultures, but if you can imagine how hard it is to be a citizen of this country, get established in this economy and to buy a boat, imagine how hard it is for someone who is not an established citizen.
It comes down to how do we make boating more accessible not only in price, but also with being able to use the boat? We need it to be more intuitive and extend the education of boating to not only young American boaters, but also Hispanic, Asian and everyone else. There’s a big barrier there that’s hard to swallow as a young American, even having grown up in the marine industry.
It’s all about making it more accessible financially and making education more accessible. I guarantee you if you googled how to drive a car you’d have three to four times more YouTube videos than if you googled how to drive a boat. Imagine how hard it is for young Americans to get established with a boat. If we keep on playing to the 1 percenters, we’re going to run out of landing strip.
I was a biology major in school, and I studied lot of ecology. Species always find a niche. Certain brands will always play at the 1 percent level, but there’s a lot of opportunity there, and that’s why I was proud to join Bayliner and Heyday — to bring some value products on the entry-level side. I feel like some of the industry has adjusted, but they are still making the customer come to them by marketing an elaborate, almost unrealistic lifestyle that is represented by their boat.
With regard to diversity, it just comes with generational shifts. They’re going to be more naturally used to diversity than people 20 years ago. It becomes more a part of life. I think as the industry becomes younger, that will come hand in hand.
This article originally appeared in the June 2017 issue.