Retiring Keeter: I’m not going away

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Phil Keeter may be retiring as president of the Marine Retailers Association of America at the end of this month, but don’t expect him to become one of those people who does nothing but go out for meals with his buddies.

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“I don’t want to be one of the old guys having breakfast on Friday mornings,” he jokes, adding he’d never be a ROMEO — Retired Old Men Eating Out.

Although he doesn’t discuss specifics, Keeter, 74, says he has plans to remain involved in the industry he’s been a part of since the 1950s, when he helped his father-in-law launch Romer Marine, a boat dealership in Oklahoma.

He had no prior boating experience, but the venture would become a lifelong career for Keeter, as well as a passion for him and his family. It was during his dealership days that he and 11 other marine dealers from around the country got together to form what would become the MRAA.

Keeter was named its first — and to date only — president in 1988.

Looking back on his years with the association and in the industry, Keeter admits to mixed feelings about retirement.

“I thought I was going to be more relieved or happy, but it’s a little bit bittersweet. It’s bothering me a little bit,” he says. “I wish I was leaving when the industry was a little bit more on an uptick. It’s not having the uptick that I thought was going to happen. I thought by this time we’d be starting back up the hill, and I think now that with what I see … we’re going to have a few more years of a pretty down industry.”

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Despite his ambivalence about retirement, Keeter says the association is in good hands with its selection of Matt Gruhn as the next president. Gruhn previously served as group publisher and editorial director of the Affinity Trade Group, where he oversaw two business-to-business titles — Boating Industry and Powersports Business — and 17 related products.

He created the Top 100 Dealers program, which Boating Industry administers, and led efforts to reinvent the marine dealer conference, now known as the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo.

“I’m very comfortable with MRAA’s selection of Matt,” says Keeter. “Matt’s young, he’s energetic. He’ll do some things for MRAA that I would have never done. He’ll do some things technology-wise that I would have never done. I think there’s plenty of strength on MRAA’s board that’s been there for a while to help Matt get his feet on the ground, and I’ll be around to help him with that. I’m probably going to do some special projects for MRAA in the next year or so.”

Looking back on his time in the industry, Keeter says the revitalization of the dealer conference into the MDCE is one of the association’s biggest accomplishments during his tenure. Another, he says, is fighting all of the anti-boating legislative initiatives that have popped up through the years, such as former President Jimmy Carter’s proposal to enact a weekend ban on boating.

“When we defeated those, that’s a big hit,” he says.

As for disappointments, Keeter says he’s sorry that “we never did get dealers and manufacturers on an even playing field during my time. I don’t know whether that will ever happen or not. That’s something I feel bad about.”

He hopes the MRAA will continue working on dealer agreements, noting that many industries — such as the auto industry — have them, and they are effective.

Keeter also says he’d like to see the MRAA continue to provide educational opportunities for its more than 900 members.

“I think they’re looking to us for more education now than they did before,” he says, pointing to the association’s new partnership with Dominion Marine Media to create Marine Retail University.

The one-day conferences will include four to five educational sessions focused on regional data and information, dealer principal roundtables and keynote presentations that share best practices, trends and timely strategies. Keeter sees these opportunities as more valuable to dealers than other benefits, such as discounts on car rentals or phone service.

With more dealer attrition expected as the economy continues to struggle, these opportunities are more important than ever, he says.

But beyond the issues that will concern industry leaders, Keeter says he’ll really miss the friendships he has made at the MRAA.

At the recent MDCE in Orlando, Fla., more than 150 people gathered for a roast and dinner in his honor. A 30-page tribute book was filled with well wishes from people representing all sectors of the industry.

“Your vision for the industry, strong leadership, articulate communications and friendship have made you a special person in our industry,” Brunswick Corp. wrote in its message. “Thanks for all that you have done for the industry and congratulations on your many accomplishments.”

“We salute you for your vision and passion for our industry’s marine dealers,” notes a message from the Boating Trades Association of Metropolitan Houston. “You have represented the interests of marine dealers with unprecedented leadership and dedication and we are all better for it.”

“Thank you for your guidance and leadership, skill and passion,” says Larry Tague of Lake Viking Marine. “Above all, thank you for helping to shape the MRAA into what it is today.”

Also at the dinner, Keeter’s longtime friend and colleague Larry Russo Sr., president and CEO of Russo Marine, told the audience the MRAA’s Hall of Fame Award was being renamed the Phil Keeter Retailing Hall of Fame Award. Keeter was presented with a plaque as its first recipient.

“I’ve had a good ride because of all of you all,” a visibly touched Keeter said at his retirement dinner. “I thank you very much.”

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue.

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