Joan Maxwell seems to do it all. She and her husband, Owen, have spent 27 years building Regulator Marine in Edenton, N.C., thriving through some of the industry’s toughest times.
Not only does she manage every component of the company, apart from design, she is also involved in every aspect of the industry, including chairing the board of directors of the National Marine Manufacturers Association — the first woman to hold the position.
The company is on the verge of rolling out the Regulator 41, which was teased at the Miami International Boat Show. Designed by the same team that has been together since the inception of Regulator, led by naval architect Lou Codega, the Regulator 41 is intended to marry fit, finish and ride with fishing and liveaboard amenities.
When we caught up with Maxwell, she was about to embark on her first fly-fishing trip ever — to Ireland. The North Carolina native is such a part of her town that when the town doctor fell ill and was dying, he began giving some of his most precious belongings away. An avid fly fisherman, he bequeathed some fly rods to Joan and wanted to teach her to use them before he passed away, but didn’t get the chance.
“I’m going to go up to the attic and take one of those fly rods with me to Ireland,” Maxwell said. “This is my first time ever fly fishing. I’m very excited. I think he would like that.”
Q: Can you tell me a bit about your background? Are you a North Carolina native, and did you grow up boating?
A: I am a North Carolina native. I grew up about 60 miles from where I live now, and I grew up with water all around me. I did not really boat. My dad had a small boat that he did some shrimping on. But it was his solitude. He would go out on his little boat, and that was his way of ending his day. He was a forester. It was his way of escaping from work and, I think, from kids, too. I really didn’t start boating until I met and married Owen. I started going out fishing with him, and we just had a great time on the water. It was really on the water that he asked me to marry him, on the hook at Cape Lookout. We’ve been married almost 30 years, and we’ve spent a lot of time since then on the water. There’s no better place to be. It’s relaxing. All the spiel that we all know is true.
Q: Building boats is not a small undertaking. How did you and Owen come to embark on that?
A: (Laughing.) No, it isn’t a small undertaking. It is a small undertaking when you’re young and naive. We were 28 and 30 years old when we started Regulator. You don’t think you can’t climb any mountain at that age. The idea of the boat itself was Owen’s, and my part of the process was understanding how to make a company run and how to really take care of customers.
As the company has grown, what we’ve done is we’ve divided things differently. Owen is focused day in and day out on design. Everything else reports to me, including manufacturing. I love process, so making sure we’ve got repeatability in everything we do here is very important to me.
If we want to build our business long-term, which obviously we do, then we want to take care of the customer. He paid for and deserves the best experience possible. That means everything — from how latches are attached to the hardware they’re made from.
Q: Can you reflect on the 27 years of building Regulators and how the company has evolved, and where you might be heading?
A: What we have seen through the years is that the quality of products being built today is far better than it was when we started in 1988. There were some pretty poor-quality things out there. People were being asked to pay a large amount of money for what we believed were inferior-quality products.
That was one of our reasons to start Regulator and choose that name. But thanks to things like certification of boats by the NMMA, the bar has been raised for all boats. So what we’ve seen in our own business and in the industry as a whole is that the quality has improved.
We’ve also seen, I think, a real change in the customer. They don’t have as much time. They’re much more savvy; they’ve done their research on the Internet long before they’ve come into a dealership or contacted us. So they are much more savvy.
But also what we’ve seen is, because that window of time gets shorter, many of them have not grown up with as much boating experience. Our customer, as you know, is getting older. The average age of the boater is getting older, so we have to work with that younger crowd that has less experience boating. And we have to be making sure what we design in a boat and the training dealers get will help to bring that younger boater up to speed a bit faster. Things like Helm Master [Yamaha’s integrated control system] are so important. That type of maneuverability is so important for the customer to have confidence.
We’ve seen changes in engine technology. We’ve seen the ability to build larger boats because there’s more horsepower available in outboards, particularly. We’ve seen customers shift from inboard- and inboard/outboard-powered boats to outboards because they’re easier to operate. Get in and turn the key. I don’t have to learn to check systems. I don’t have to turn on blowers. I don’t have to do all those things that an operator of an inboard or I/O does.
Q: Did you ever imagine that you and Regulator would be where you are today? How did things look when you started?
A: We started in old A&P grocery store. It had another life after it was the A&P grocery store; it had been a snack food company. They had been making a Cheetos-type product. The first time we turned the heat on, it smelled like Cheetos.
We moved into where we are today in the fall of 1990. We’ve built this part of the facility, 13,200 square feet, and that includes the office piece. That was a tiny little place and there was only one model being built, so it felt huge at that point. But we didn’t really imagine what Regulator would grow into. We’ve been very blessed in many, many ways with good dealers, certainly good employees, and good customers who spread the word.
Q: Every time I say a segment has rebounded, people always jump in to say, “Yeah, but it’s still only half what it was.” So, that said, the offshore fishing segment seems to be doing better than some others. What is motivating people to buy those boats?
A: I think it’s primarily that people are going to fish. The recreational piece of what they do with our products is what drives the sales of them. We have larger outboards, which allows us to build larger boats to put them on. So customers can grow through a line of boats, whether it’s ours or someone else’s. They can grow through that because the systems are similar. Once I learn how to operate it, I can feel confident to go to the next level. The technology allows customers to do that.
More things are also simplified. We’ve seen the evolution in outboards from 2-stroke to 4-stroke. That technology that allows us to get in, turn the key and go is probably one of the largest parts of expanding the user-friendliness of the boats.
As far as fishing, again, that’s a recreation. People are going to do it. Our sector typically does rebound very quickly.
Q: And it seems some of the electronic technology has made bigger and better fishing more accessible.
A: Oh, yes, the electronics that are available now, with the accuracy that people can go out, find the fish, mark the fish, stay on the fish — I mean, Mercury has a steering system that actually allows people to stay on the fish a little bit better. The electronics now are like your phone — touch it. You don’t have to be an expert.
They are very intuitive — and all brands, not just one. We happen to use Raymarine here. The fact that products are very intuitive makes it easier for the customer to jump on board and go. That does not mean he doesn’t [need] some experience in boat handling. Certainly he does, especially if he’s running offshore.
Q: Can you talk about Regulators and their fishing function, and have they shifted so they accommodate different functions?
A: Absolutely. We have seen a shift in people wanting a boat that has a broader appeal, not just all the big fishboxes, no place for you to sit down. Our customers have wanted more creature comforts, so you will see more things like cup-holders and more seats, those types of things.
Q: Do you think that’s lingering from the recession? Do you think people have fundamentally changed or that they want one boat to serve many needs?
A: I’m not sure I’d say they’ve fundamentally changed. We sort of saw this trend coming, probably in the early 2000s. We’ve seen people shift more gradually. First of all, this is not a small purchase. It needs to be versatile enough to meet the needs of the entire family. So I really wouldn’t say it’s shifted since the recession, more that it’s been a growing trend.
Q: Do you think buyers operate differently after the recession in other ways?
A: I’m a little bit insulated from that because we don’t sell directly to the consumer. We’re selling to the dealer. The dealer has the hardest job of anybody because they are truly frontline with every customer.
They hear what every customer wants, and we get pieces passed back to us. We get some information that flows directly to us when we contact the customer to ask how the delivery process was, how the boat is doing. We make those calls with each customer. So we get some of that, but it’s really after a customer gets out and uses a boat for a little while that you truly get that information coming back in.
As far as what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, are they doing it differently than before the recession? At least in our brand, I don’t believe they are.
Q: I’ve asked you about this before, but hopefully you’ll humor me. I know from talking to other women in the industry that you have been a role model and someone they’ve looked to. Can you talk about being a woman where you sit?
A: It’s interesting. I don’t often think about being a woman where I sit. What I appreciate most is being recognized by my peers — both female and male. That’s very humbling. I’m just grateful they believe I have value to add.
One of the things I’m most excited about is I am mentoring a young woman with the NMMA [vice president of interactive marketing for Discover Boating Armida Markarova]. I’m enjoying that part of it. It’s helping someone else to grow in this industry.
Q: You see few women at the helm in boating advertising. Harley-Davidson does a good job with this, showing women actually driving bikes — not in the back seat. What would initiate that shift in boating?
A: Some of the things that would help are hands-on training at boat shows, and at our dealerships. People don’t ride on a motorcycle if they’re not confident riding it. We get that confidence simply by doing it. The more we promote that in our literature, where we show people running boats, we promote training at shows or at dealerships.
Q: OK, this is my last question about this, but I just have to ask it. Recently someone told me I knew a lot about engines — for a woman. It sounds awful, but I know he meant it as a compliment and I genuinely wasn’t offended. I kind of was amused. But I have to wonder: Does someone at your level still encounter that?
A: (Laughs.) Oh, absolutely!
Q: And how do you handle it?
A: I think part of that is aging and giving somebody a break when they do something like that. This still happens today. If Owen and I are standing together, the question will always be asked to Owen.
He very kindly will say, ‘Well, Joan, what do you think?’ or he’ll pause long enough for me to answer the question, so we sort of have this little thing we’ve worked out. But I can be standing there wearing a Regulator shirt, next to a man who may have walked into the booth just to ask questions, and another customer will walk in and look at the man and ask him a question.
As frustrating as it is sometimes, it’s also kind of comical if we can look at it as just ignorance in action. I can’t change that perception. But the one thing I can change is my reaction to it. Sometimes I just tell them straight up, ‘I’m happy to help you, I’ll answer the question, depending on what it is.’ And if they say, “Well, who owns this company?” I’ll say, “Well, I do!” And then I’ll say, “and my husband,” maybe, sometimes, but sometimes I don’t. This system that we live in has been around thousands of years, so our change is going to come slowly, but it will come if we continue to respond in a positive way to it.
Q: I love that response. And I’d love to see someone’s face when you say, “I build these boats.”
A: You know, sometimes I’ll pause, almost embarrassed to say that because it feels like you’re tooting your own horn, and I don’t like to do that. I almost feel like I’m in a corner when I come up with that one. But again, we can’t control what other people do. We only can control how we respond to it.
Q: I know you’re very vocal about advocacy and the American Boating Congress. How did it go this year? Did you see some good momentum?
A: I did. I thought ABC was really well attended and I really liked the team’s approach this year. Not everybody has passion for the same issues. So there were about seven core issues, and they gave an opportunity for if you were more interested in fishing issues, tax issues or other issues, you could go sit in sessions and get information before the Hill visits. I thought that was a nice approach.
There was excitement on the Hill. It’s hard not to go to Washington and not feel just the hum of being in that environment. Whenever I go, I travel with the Grady-White folks, and we see the same representatives from North Carolina. We saw a new representative that isn’t in either of our districts, but we wanted him to know that boating is important to North Carolina.
We were able to really talk about something that is very important — the Magnuson-Stevens Act. Because fishing stocks matter, and the right review, the scientific review of those numbers matters. How much of the take is recreational versus how much of the take is commercial, how much is economic impact of recreational fishing versus the economic impact of commercial — those are important things for legislators to know.
After we came back from D.C., a couple of amendments were added [to the bill to reauthorize Magnuson-Stevens]. One amendment was added by one of our congressmen — one of the guys we sat down and talked with. The folks from Grady-White Boats were doing the same thing. We were kind of all attacking from that angle, if you will.
Q: The industry seems to have come a long way in its ability to speak cohesively about issues like Magnuson-Stevens reform —much more unified in its messaging. Is that making a difference, and is everyone participating in the way you’d like?
A: I think that if we go back a few years, we see a couple of things. Really the NMMA board and Thom Dammrich took a really strong focus on pulling the industry together and uniting that voice. It started with good leadership.
At the same time, we’ve begun to really think differently. Instead of thinking we are a National Marine Manufacturers Association, we are more thinking that we are an industry, and that industry encompasses a much broader group than just our manufacturers.
So I think we’ve gained a lot of ground, and when we came to D.C., we had people from the South Florida Yacht Association with us. We had the MRAA, and we had dealers. We had people with the Center for Coastal Conservation with us. We had a lot of different groups that were represented — the Boy Scouts of America — I mean, all kinds of people because now we’re speaking with one voice.
There is always work to be done. We have not arrived, but I tell you we’re a lot farther down that road, thanks to the vision of prior boards and Thom Dammrich.
Q: Any exciting plans for Regulator models or expansion?
A: In Miami we introduced the fact that we were coming with a 41. We didn’t actually have the boat ready. We had a model. We had a press event to say, “It is coming; let us tell you what this boat’s going to be about,” and the boat is nearing completion here.
We will run it in early July, which we’re very, very excited about. It is 41 feet and it is massive. I mean, it is massive. I was just out on it yesterday on the floor, and like, wow, I thought it was big until they put the console on it, and then I thought it went from big to huge.
We’ve also got our 34 model, which has had two configurations. One was more of a family-style seating. We called it the SS — starboard seating; it had wrap seating that went around the front of the console. And we had a second version of that, a center console. That had a berth down below, but it did not have a huge fishbox. So we’ve really taken that boat now, and in 2016 you will see a lot more fishing features added to it.
Q: How many dealers are in Regulator’s network now?
A: We have 18 dealers, and that seems like not that many, but they have multiple locations, so we’ve got good coverage on the East Coast. We’ve got a few holes that we’re still looking for in the Gulf, looking for holes in the Great Lakes, over into Texas and more really focusing on some international growth. We’ve just had someone over at the Brisbane Boat Show, and now he’s on his way to Panama to the show there.
Q: If I remember correctly, Regulator had a presence in Cartagena, Colombia, at the boat show last year.
Q: How do you see some of those emerging markets?
A: We see those as that — emerging. What we view is that we are going to have to invest for several years before we really expect to see a payback, but we’re taking that longer-term approach. If we do that, we think we’ll see results. Certainly Australia’s not emerging, but Panama and Cartagena are, so we’re just keeping on making contacts and putting our foot out there.
Q: Is there anything you would like to add?
A: I think the one thing I want to get out is, get involved. Don’t wait to be called. Call us at the NMMA and say, I would like to be involved on a committee, I would like to be entertained for a seat on the board. Really contact us, and more than that, be involved on a local level. If you’re not manufacturers, get involved with your local marine trade association. Bottom line, be involved. We change things by being involved.
This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.