In 1968, when Randy Repass started selling rope from his garage in Sunnyvale, Calif., he had no idea that his side business would become the world’s largest equipment and accessories retailer.
Repass, who studied electrical engineering at Duke University, had moved to Silicon Valley to work as an integrated circuit engineer for Fairchild Semiconductor two years earlier. Married and with two kids, he grew up sailing in Scituate, Mass., on the south shore of Boston.
In the mid-1960s, his father started a business called New England Ropes, so Repass opened a California branch called West Coast Ropes to sell top-quality rope via mail order from his garage. “We saw an opportunity there because San Francisco Bay was an exceptional sailing area,” he says.
West Coast Ropes was initially a side business. In 1975, after Repass got shoddy service in local marine stores when restoring a beat-up Flying Junior sailboat, he decided to open his own store in Palo Alto. “We were very customer focused from the beginning for several reasons,” he says. “I knew how I wanted to be treated as a customer, and we had bills to pay for the merchandise, so we needed the sales.”
The early days were challenging. Some days would go by with no customers. Repass persisted. “We had a great selection of rope, of course, and added just the basics that included fenders, life jackets, fire extinguishers, anchors and more,” Repass says. “We started out with about 500 SKUs. We kept a list of requested items at the front counter and added to our stock.”
After about a year, Geoff Eisenberg, who would hold many positions over the years, including CEO, joined the company. “Hiring Geoff was one of the best decisions I made,” Repass says. “He was a key player from day one and, over the next several decades, in the growth of the company. We had similar values and work ethics.”
Repass and Eisenberg worked around a “customer is always right” philosophy. “That meant having what the customer wants, with knowledgeable service and good prices,” Repass says. “At the time, we had a no-hassle return policy, which was pretty radical. The customer focus was part of our mission statement and one of the keys to our early and ongoing success.”
A Volkswagen Repair Shop
Eisenberg recalls long days and hard work, with Repass keeping the mood upbeat in the store. “It had been a Volkswagen repair shop, so conditions weren’t ideal,” says Eisenberg, who remembers faint gasoline vapors in the building. “Randy and I would often work until midnight and then sleep behind the counter in sleeping bags.”
Repass says team members were always involved in the decision making. “It was a very collaborative environment,” he says.
In 1977, the startup acquired the West Products mail-order catalog and saw its offerings and client base grow. Its name changed from West Coast Ropes to West Marine Products (which remains the legal name), but “Products” was soon dropped from everyday use. “It was too long to present it graphically on a catalog,” Eisenberg says. “But that small catalog was the forerunner of our annual catalog that became the industry’s bible for marine accessories.”
Repass and Eisenberg added the mail-order business in 1979. West Marine expanded to several stores around the San Francisco Bay area. The company also began to buy local competitors and started a wholesale business, now known as West Marine Pro.
“When we acquired Captain’s Locker in 1982, our stores went from four to 11 in one day,” Eisenberg says.
By 1989, the store count had grown to 15. That year was a turning point. Repass took three months off to build a house, spend time with his family and determine the next stage of the company. He decided that West Marine needed to grow or it could go away. Increasing product selection and expanding to the East Coast would increase the customer base. In 1990, the company opened its first East Coast stores and continued to acquire other chains while setting up its own stores.
In 1994, West Marine went public. Sales were $124.4 million, up 44 percent from the previous year. West Marine had 17 store openings that year alone. Its initial stock of 600 items had ballooned to 19,000 SKUs. The mail-order catalog, now 900 pages, was sent to 3 million people.
The Roaring ’90s
The 1990s proved to be the company’s strongest decade, and the effects weren’t all good. “We grew 30 percent for almost seven straight years, and that nearly put us out of business,” Repass says. “It strained all our human resources, merchandising, warehousing and stores. It’s hard to manage that kind of growth. Without the efforts of our whole team, we would have failed.”
Even so, Eisenberg, who helped write West’s first mission statement in the ’70s, says corporate values didn’t change much throughout the years. “It was really about the best ways of treating customers — what Randy had learned from the semiconductor business,” he says. “Even during the growth years of the ’80s and ’90s, the culture stayed the same. Our objective was to have quality products and give good advice, with policies that were both associate and customer focused. It was a fun period because we were trying to make the boating world better.”
Many of the managers — who were typically sailors — had been with the company during its early years. They remained committed to the mission of helping boaters enjoy their time on the water. “Our competitors were focused on low prices, but we were focused on providing information and customer service,” Eisenberg says.
After the company acquired E&B Marine in 1996, growing overnight from 65 to 135 stores, it was three times as large as its closest competitor.
“We always had an upside-down-type structure where the customer came first, then the associates and the CEO was at the bottom,” Repass says. “It was sometimes hard to translate that to our acquired stores, especially if they had a different culture like E&B.”
Repass says going public also had its ups and downs. “It took some pressure off me because before that, I had to finance everything, including having to put my house for collateral,” he says. “On the other hand, being public reduces your flexibility because you’re always worried about the bottom line. There is always pressure on earnings. It worked out fine, but in hindsight, it might’ve been more fun if we hadn’t gone public.”
Growth slowed in the 2000s because, by then, the company dominated many marine markets across the country. By 2005, it had about 4,500 employees.
Eisenberg, who had left West Marine but remained on its board of directors, was asked to return and take over the CEO slot in 2007, just before the recession.
“It was at that point that we started the superstores,” he says. “We followed REI and Home Depot because of their success. Going from our standard 25,000-square-foot footprint to the 50,000-square-foot flagship store in Fort Lauderdale let us invest in more education and product lines.”
The plan, however, wasn’t just about thinking big, Eisenberg says. It was also about fitting the right stores to specific markets. The goal was create a chain with stores ranging from 50,000 down to 2,000 square feet. Stores were opened and closed based not only on performance, but also on whether a larger single store made more sense than two smaller ones in the same area.
“If we created the best environment for each market, it gave us the chance to serve our customer better,” Eisenberg says. “The larger stores got all the press, but the goal was to maximize our presence in every market.”
Hardest Part of the Job
Eisenberg says the most difficult part of his job was having to lay off employees during the recession. “It was beyond terrible — way worse than what the bottom line was doing,” he says. “It was the worst part of my career.”
In 2012, Matt Hyde, an executive at REI, took over the CEO position from Eisenberg, attempting to give West Marine a wider appeal, with more mainstream outdoor clothing lines and accessories, along with more aggressive online sales.
The company was sold in 2017 for $338 million in cash to Monomoy Capital Partners. Repass and Eisenberg have high regard for the new owners and the recently installed CEO, Ken Seipel. The company has 247 stores, with about 110,000 SKUs.
Repass is sailing around the world a few months each year with his wife, Sally-Christine, and son on their 65-foot custom sailboat, Convergence. He is proud of the environmental work, initiated by Sally-Christine in the ’90s, that West Marine accomplished. Its BlueFuture foundation has provided millions of dollars in grants over the years to marine-based nonprofits. Repass and his wife are active in restoring salmon in California through the Golden State Salmon Association. He is also on the board of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative.
As for his business legacy, Repass still marvels about the company’s growth. “We went from the world’s smallest marine retailer to the world’s largest,” he says. “There were many challenges, no question. But it was really exciting that our team accomplished what it did. We worked with a lot of good people and had a lot of fun.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue.