Small to midsize marine suppliers not only have had to endure the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also face competition from publicly traded companies with bigger, more dynamic networks and behemoth spending power. North American suppliers Defender Marine, Western Marine and Fisheries Supply not only have survived in that environment, but have thrived in the past year by sticking to their business plans, knowing when to pivot and ensuring that they’re prepared for a continued onslaught of increased business.
Connecticut-based Defender Marine has been a supply source in New England for more than 80 years. The company supplies clients in the boating, commercial marine, government, architecture and medicine segments, and has customers in more than 130 countries. “Defender Marine was founded during the Great Depression,” says owner and president Stephan Lance. “We have navigated many downturns before.”
The company’s annual Defender Marine Buyers’ Guide went digital for the first time in 2020. Defender also increased sanitization efforts and modified work spaces to accommodate social distancing while keeping all of its approximately 150 employees.
“Unlike most businesses that immediately responded to the Covid crisis by looking for ways to cut costs and preserve cash, Defender aggressively ramped up its inventory position in April, placing the largest order book in its history,” Lance says, adding that the result has been an ongoing plus-99 percent fill rate on orders.
The switch to a digital buyers’ guide followed Defender’s move in the fourth quarter of 2019 to expand marketing programs. That move included adding digital content. “As we entered 2020, Defender already had begun extensive improvements to core functional systems, as well as website enhancements,” he says.
A setback was the cancellation of the 2020 Defender Annual Warehouse Sale, which was scheduled to take place in March of last year. According to Lance, the event typically draws around 10,000 boaters and more than 100 manufacturers. Defender switched to a 10-day, online event about a week before the original event’s dates. “That took some fancy footwork,” Lance says.
Overall, Lance says Defender is smartly positioned going into 2021, especially if high consumer demand continues. “We are well aware of the tremendous increase in interest in boating as a safe, socially distanced activity for friends and families, and we are prepared for the challenges.”
Western Marine Co.
Alan Stovell, director of Western Marine in Vancouver, British Columbia, says the company is the nation’s largest independent distributor. With Ontario-based subsidiary TranSat Marine, Western Marine primarily services the Canadian market.
Stovell says that despite the pandemic, the company retained its staff of around 65, plus seven salespeople. One change was that the usual summer seasonal warehouse workers were not hired; staffers absorbed that workload instead. “We had to work long days to get it done, but we did get it done,” Stovell says.
Business exploded in June and boomed throughout the winter. “With that comes demand for parts and refits,” Stovell says. “There have been a few bumps with regards to inventory, but we’ve done our best to keep up.”
Western continually ordered products. There were international supply-chain interruptions involving Asia and the United States, “but by and large, it’s been OK,” he says.
For this summer, seasonal warehouse staff are expected to return, and the company may hire more permanent staff to keep up with demand. Because of the higher Covid-19 infection rates in the United States, he expects Canada to keep its border closed to Americans, hurting tourist-based boating. At the same time, he sees general demand for boating remaining high. “People have figured out that boating is a good thing to do when isolated with your family or tightening up your social circle,” Stovell says. “I suspect that’ll continue through 2021 and 2022. The challenge for us is to keep those new boaters.”
Seattle-based Fisheries Supply, founded in 1928, is now a marine wholesale and retail supplier for the commercial and recreational segments, with around 120 employees. Most of the company’s customers are in the western United States, including Washington, Alaska, Oregon, California and Idaho.
“I am part of the third generation of Sutters at the business,” says president Alex Sutter. “My father, Carl Sutter, serves as chairman, and my brother leads our marketing department.”
The company’s location is near the spot of the first confirmed death from Covid-19 on U.S. soil. “During the first few months of the initial lockdown, many of our customers were not able to remain open, and we saw a significant decline in our business as a result,” Sutter says. “We were fortunate to be in a strong inventory position at the time and were able to weather through that period until about June, when volume returned to normal levels.”
Fisheries Supply retained all of its employees and found itself organized for many of the digital needs the pandemic created. “Prior to the pandemic, we had moved almost all of our IT systems, including our phone system, to a cloud-based infrastructure,” Sutter says. “So long as an employee had an Internet connection at home, we could easily set up home offices for these employees.”
Fisheries Supply also had launched a mobile-friendly website before the pandemic hit. That, plus improvements to warehouse efficiencies, helped to keep product moving. “In terms of challenges, the biggest one is the supply chain that remains unreliable due to the pandemic,” Sutter says. “We are optimistic but plan to run the businesses cautiously, given how the last 12 months have unfolded.”
This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.