Q&A with Maverick Boat Co. president and founder Scott Deal - Trade Only Today

Q&A with Maverick Boat Co. president and founder Scott Deal

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Maverick Boat Co., celebrating 30 years in the business, is breaking sales records with its four brands — Maverick, Hewes, Pathfinder and Cobia powerboats.

Company founder Scott Deal lives on the water and spends a fair amount of time fishing. Maybe it’s his seasoned fisherman’s approach that helps people understand complex Capitol Hill issues about fisheries management or his sense of humor that gets you laughing about the political process. Or maybe it’s his Princeton education that makes what he’s saying about the way things are currently managed seem obvious, but Deal has spent all three of his decades in the business advocating on behalf of the industry.

Most recently, he and Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris co-chaired a commission that drafted a report (see Page 26) urging changes in saltwater fishing to give recreational anglers a voice at the table.

Deal talks eagerly about his work in Washington, and unabashedly warns that you might be getting a phone call from him soon as he rallies stakeholders around the issues facing the industry.

The Cobia 277 made its debut at the Miami boat show in February.

The Cobia 277 made its debut at the Miami boat show in February.

Q: Thirty years is a big milestone. How did you get started?

A: It’s an interesting story. I was 24 when I found out that this flats boat mold was for sale. It was a boat I’d had, so I ended up, along with my brothers, buying a hull and deck mold for $12,000, and that’s how the company got started. Here we are 30 years later. I don’t know how many boats we’ve built, but I know it’s well over 10,000. We’re ramping up to try to get up over 1,500 boats a year, which is really significant because we don’t build commodity boats. We build sort of the higher-aspirational end of the many sub-niches in which we operate.

Q: When you say you’re ramping up, what do you mean?

A: We’re looking at doing some expansion. We almost bought some additional property, but we basically decided we could do what we wanted for the foreseeable future in our existing footprint. We’d really like to keep the campus we have intact, but for us to build bigger boats, we’re probably going to need to add on to handle some height and large mold-handling capabilities.

Q: You say bigger boats. It seems like everyone is introducing bigger stuff. I know you’ve been asked how big you will go on the center consoles. It seems like so many companies are rolling out 40- to 42-footers right now.

 The Cobia 277 made its debut at the Miami boat show in February.

The Cobia 277 made its debut at the Miami boat show in February.

A: Yeah, you know, a lot of times, when everybody’s running one direction, it’s a good time not to. Certainly there are some really good builders building some really beautiful stuff in the high 30s, 40s and now 50s. Until such time as we feel we can bring something new to that conversation, we probably shouldn’t get involved in it. But it doesn’t mean we won’t roll out of bed one day and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea,’ and the next thing you know, it’s heading to the Bahamas with 15 people.

Q: So what are you proudest of in these 30 years? Where are you headed? What challenges are ahead?

A: Well, I haven’t really given it a lot of thought, but I’d have to say if I was proud of anything, it’s the fact that been I’ve been able to be involved in something that I really love and making products that give great, great memories to people. I mean, what’s more fun than going out on a boat with your friends and family? We get to provide people the platform to do that. That in itself is an incredible gift. But if you couple that with the fact that we provide a good living — with health care and good-quality benefits and profit sharing to 250 employees and their families — that’s pretty incredible. That is truly a blessing.

Q: Maverick announced record sales at the Miami show. Can you talk a little bit about that?

A: We went into Miami feeling pretty good, just in general. Our order bank was already pretty robust. We felt we had new models that the public would like, and you’re always excited to debut new models — especially in a venue like Miami. The number of orders we took really was substantially more than we’ve ever done in the past — an all-time record in our 30-year history. We’re a niche builder. We build four different niches. And I think our product offerings in those niches [enjoy] strong consumer acceptance.

Q: What about these niche products is really speaking to consumers?

A: We’ve struggled with this a bit over the years, but I think we’ve been able to pull off a clear positioning message for each of these brands. I think the most difficult part when you have multiple brands is to avoid the sort of homogenization you see with a lot of larger operations. There’s a temptation to sort of roll all of those together for the sake of efficiency — and we don’t do that. We let each of the brands speak for themselves.

If you’re looking for one of the most technical small boats, that would be our Maverick line of technical poling skiffs. If you really want the penultimate example of a bay boat, I think Pathfinder is pretty clearly identified as filling that niche. Our Hewes ‘We invented the boat that invented the sport’ message resounds well with backcountry-style fishermen with the Hewes Redfisher line; and taking Cobia from where it was upon our purchase to where it is now as a premium family recreational fishing boat line that still has the features for hard-core, that’s finally playing well. That was a lot of heavy lifting, but I think we’re there now.

Q: Remind me what year Cobia was purchased and how has it evolved since.

A: We bought the Cobia, also known as the world’s greatest tooling project, back in 2005. It’s been retooling during difficult times, as we all understand this industry went through. But all the products we build now and offer with the Cobia brand name are MBC products, meaning they’re put together with a clean sheet of paper by the folks here at Maverick Boat Co. They’re all sort of fresh, clean and express our approach to the fundamental problem of mixing tournament-fishing capabilities —because I’m a tournament fishing guy and have been for years — with the realities of being almost 55, and I have a wife and kids and like to sit down every once in a while, too. I think we’ve done a good job at building a product that makes sense to people with that line.

Q: There was a long period during which builders were not allocating as much to R&D. How did MBC handle that period? How do you think that has translated into what sounds like some solid market share growth?

A: Oh, there’s no question we’ve had big market share growth. We made a decision to prioritize new product over other things during the downturn. If you’ve only got a finite amount of capital to deploy, you can spend it on marketing or you can spend it on other things or you can spend it on new product. We basically concentrated all our efforts into generating as much nice, new product as we could.

Q: That seems to be a theme among those who are gaining market share. Do you think that decision will prove pivotal? Will everyone catch up?

A: I think that over the last few years — maybe not last year — business was pretty much a zero-sum game. Meaning, if I sold a boat, you didn’t. The number of buyers was so small. That made the foundation that we were able to build on that much stronger. Now the market seems to be coming back. Certainly in the case of Miami, everybody had a good show. I think it’s less of a zero-sum game than it was a year or two or three or four ago.

Q: Saltwater fishing boats seem to be pretty hot right now. Why are they resonating so well, and is that area getting too crowded?

A: It’s always been crowded. In this business, it is a very rare thing when a brand or a model actually goes away permanently. Companies go out of business, but molds just go into remission. Everybody that was there before the downturn, with a few exceptions, they’re still there. We’ve got the same number of builders, by and large, and the market’s about half what it used to be. So although I wouldn’t characterize the saltwater fishing boat market as hot, I think [sales data] would support roughly single- to low-teen growth over the last couple of years.

Q: Comparatively, it’s doing pretty well as far as segment growth, though.

A: I think our market’s going to continue to grow. It’s very competitive. It has always been and it will continue to be. The pressure on builders to quickly innovate and to bring new products to market will only increase. The time to market for a product — from initial concept to boats burning gas — is really, really a lot faster than it used to be. The ability to generate quality product is a little easier because of the computerization and the milling as a methodology of building tooling, as opposed to a craftsman-oriented approach. So you’re going to continue to see some really cool and innovative designs coming out from those who are willing to spend the money to take the risks. I think those will continue to drive the market.

Q: Do you think companies that didn’t invest in innovation for several years can catch up?

A: That’s a great question. Make no mistake: The builders that are still in business, ourselves included, scaled back. Everybody did. The question is, when they scaled back, what did they do? How did they deploy the capital they had? A lot of companies sat on reserves. Some said, ‘I’m going to invest because I want to continue to build boats even in this down market. I’m going to try to take some share.’ Those companies are better positioned today than those that sat on their capital.

The newly redesigned Maverick HPX also registered some sales in Miami.

The newly redesigned Maverick HPX also registered some sales in Miami.

Q: Do you think independent companies have a competitive advantage?

A: The nice thing about being independent is you can do something just because you think it makes sense. If I get an idea, and I have a concept for something that I think I would like, I’ll run it around the room, of course, talk to sales guys, and mention, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’ And if everybody says, ‘That’s probably a good idea. I’d enjoy a boat like that,’ we just make it. We don’t operate on long, 5-year, 10-year model plans. If we think we can come up with something better, we just do it, and I think that’s an advantage — more so, probably, than in other industries.

Q: Why more in boating than in other industries?

A: Well, when you make a decision to build an outboard motor, for instance, you’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars, I suspect, in capital costs, so buddy, you’d better be right. So they will study, study, improve, improve and study. And while our stuff is not cheap, if I wanted to build a 38-footer and tool it up, recognizing we’re pretty efficient in how we go about doing it, we could bring that product to market probably for $600,000 or $700,000. That’s not a fatal mistake if it doesn’t sell for most boat companies. And you can probably sell enough to generate enough income to get your tooling money back, unless you really completely miss the mark.

So we tend to be much more impetuous, and we make mistakes. We learn from them, but we also tend to lead the market a little bit.

Q: Being an enthusiast, you know what you like. Does that factor in to success?

A: There are different ways of doing things. Properly executed, they all work. If you looked at the individuals that run all of the different boat companies, they all have different strengths and different experience in the market or in boats. In my case, I have two boats behind my house. I live on the water. I’ve fished my entire life. I still fish, and dive, and spearfish. I don’t wakeboard because I’m 55 years old, but I’ve done all that. I have an idea of what works and what doesn’t, and what appeals to me would probably appeal to people with similar perspectives. So I tend to go with what works for me. Other people may do focus groups and spend lot of time documenting consumer trends, … and design their product around that data set. They may come out with a world-beater of a product. It’s just not how we do it. They both work. It’s just the difference between, “OK, we’ll move on and we’ll do it again,” versus losing your job, which is what happens at a lot of bigger companies.

Q: Do you think the middle-class consumer mindset has changed since the recession, and can new product move the dial?

A: I think people who like to fish like to fish. On the new-boat-sales side, you’ve got the hard-core fishing people who maybe have gotten a little softer-core because of demographic changes. You have people who are always looking for that late-model used boat, and you can’t buy it because there were no boats being built from ’08 through ’12. So that’s driving some new-boat sales. I think one of the reasons why the outboard — and we’ll call [them] the saltwater boats, even though we sell them in the Great Lakes and other places — one of the appeals of those boats is the low maintenance aspects compared to other more complicated designs. You can walk by them with a hose and be done. And mission flexibility — you can fish on Saturday and family on Sunday, and everybody’s equally happy. That’s where a lot of our product lines are oriented, with the possible exception of the Mavericks, because those are for the real hammerhead, hard-core, angry-at-the-fish guys.

Q: You do a lot of work on fishing access and advocacy on behalf of the industry. Can you talk a little about that?

A: This is our 30th year in business, and really from the very first year, we started working with what was called at that point FCA, which became the CCA — the Coastal Conservation Association. We were actually their first boat sponsor. We’ve been investing in conservation ever since.

Toward that end I’ve been involved in lot of different efforts, from helping the cause on the net ban in Florida state waters to my latest work on the Morris-Deal Commission, related to the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization. That is not just a privilege, it’s a responsibility that everyone in this industry should shoulder, not just a few. I’ve recently been tapped for the development side of the Center for Coastal Conservation, which is the D.C. arm of CCA, to get more boatbuilders to participate in the cause. It helps to get our stories out because they’re very strong voices. They play very well when people in the right places hear them.

Q: It seems the industry is making progress in getting its voice heard and getting everyone on the same page. What has been accomplished on that front and what still needs to be done?

A: Eileen Sobeck, the assistant administrator for NOAA fisheries, and Russell Dunn, who is national policy adviser on recreational fisheries for NOAA, spoke at the Miami boat show. Now there’s actually a person in NOAA who is titled with recognizing that recreational fishing exists and needs to be dealt with. They’ve heard our message, and you’re starting to see it turn. That’s in his words.

Years ago, NOAA had absolutely zero interest in hearing from recreational fishing. Clearly, we had not made a cogent argument to those people to convince them that we are a real business. And in fact we are the larger of the two entities that are vying for access to a public resource.

That’s sort of where we are with certain aspects of the fisheries. The poster child for that, of course, is red snapper and this continuing effort to try to consolidate a resource that belongs to you, me and your newborn and give it to a small number of fish houses and distributors to profit from. You could write an entire magazine on just the craziness as it relates to the management of our groundfish species, specifically red snapper in the Gulf and South Atlantic fisheries.

Q: Do people do enough in the way of advocating?

A: I tell people that petulance is not effective. (Laughs.) I think that a lot of it is that these issues just seem so enormous and people are busy running their own businesses and think: What effectiveness can I have? The answer is you can be extremely effective with just a few phone calls. Our industry people, we’re job creators. Our administration — the current one and the past one — they’re very interested in protecting American workers and their jobs. As long as you make a jobs argument, we’re on really sound footing.

Q: The Magnuson-Stevens Act is pretty complicated, and it can be challenging for people not to glaze over just at the title.

A: It’s really, really, really complicated. All of this is. For every action, there are unanticipated butterfly effects.

MSA is written very directly; rules are proscribed very narrowly. If X happens, Y must happen. There’s no wiggle room. It’s very inflexible. So back when the red snapper survey was done, the average red snapper in the Gulf was 4 pounds. And they set the quotas based on 4 pounds. If you have a season this long, you’re going to get to the collected total fishing quota in X number of fishing days. It’s a simple mathematical formula, and that’s what sets the season. Well, what people can’t get their head around — and I do not blame them a bit — is as the fishing gets better, and as the fish get bigger, the seasons get shorter because you get that pound quota so much more quickly. So now, there are so many red snapper, and their size has grown so much, that you can catch the limit with just a few days of season. So they shut the season down more quickly because we’re hitting this inflexible quota number. These guys just enforce the laws as written — they don’t rewrite them. That requires Congress.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue.

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