Q&A with Ann Baldree - Trade Only Today

Q&A with Ann Baldree

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Ann Baldree, winner of the 2008 Darlene Briggs Marine Woman of the Year award, is the national and international sales manager for Chaparral and Robalo Boats. The boat companies are subsidiaries of Marine Products Corp., which was founded in 2000 and is traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange.

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Baldree directs the activities of a nine-member sales team and acts as the conduit between senior management, sales and the dealer network. She maintains a close working relationship with the financial institutions that carry out the company’s floorplan and repurchase agreements, and works to create incentive programs to bolster sales at the dealer and retail levels. Baldree also is part of the Chaparral Executive Committee.

The 54-year-old sales executive is a member of the American Boatbuilders Association Finance Committee and the GE Manufacturers Council.

A native of Nashville, Ga., where Chaparral is based, Baldree has championed Chaparral’s sponsorship of the American Cancer Society’s annual Relay for Life, and works with the local Hospice Care Unit of the American Cancer Society. She also serves on the Berrien County Chamber of Commerce board of directors and actively raises funds for the local chapter of the Humane Society.

Baldree, who majored in speech and drama at Valdosta State University in Georgia, is very close with her nieces and nephews, one of whom has followed in her footsteps with a career at Chaparral.

“(Ann) is so much more than her title at Chaparral Boats,” her nephew Curry Flowers, who works in the R&D department, wrote in her application for the Briggs Award. “To our family, she has been a symbol of success and accomplishment in a place where a woman has to work extremely hard to achieve her dreams. She is my aunt and has been my woman of the year for nearly 30 years running.”

Q. How did you get into the marine industry?

A. Actually I’ve been with Chaparral since March of 1981. I was working for a local attorney here in Nashville [Ga.] who was the corporate attorney for Chaparral Boats. Nashville’s a very small town, and I actually met Jim Lane, the president here, through my association with the law office.
There were two females who worked in the entire Chaparral corporate office at the time, and one of them decided to leave and go into her family’s furniture business. She called me and said, ‘You know, Ann, I really think that this company might amount to something one day. There’s a limited future as a legal secretary. You should call Jim Lane to interview for the job that I’m going to vacate.’ I thought about it, and I thought working for a boat company sounds exciting, so I called Jim and we set up an interview.
He hired me on a lateral pay move of $4.44 an hour to see if things would work out. Almost 28 years later, I think they did.

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When I started, the company was quite small and there was only one other office staffer. She was the full-time bookkeeper/payroll person. Everything was done manually; there were no computers. I was hired as the receptionist/accounts payable clerk.

We all wore many hats, even back then. You did whatever was necessary. I [was] answering the telephones and talking to dealers when a salesman wasn’t there. Over time, I found I would get involved in troubleshooting whatever problem they had, and I realized I really enjoyed cultivating the relationships.

The sales side of the company, I thought, was really interesting. My involvement evolved over the years as the company grew, and we went from fewer than 100 employees to well over 1,000. Things changed; we added a lot more staff and there were a lot more opportunities to venture off into the area you had the most interest in. For me, it was definitely on the sales-management side. Anytime anything would come up I’d say, ‘I’ll do that, I’ll do that,’ because I wanted to branch out; I wanted to learn everything. I was always very eager to take on projects.

It was [a period of] growth and maturity — for myself and the company. So now I sit in a corporate office with more than 50 staff members. It’s amazing how the company has grown.

Q. You currently serve as the manager for domestic and international sales. Can you talk about the domestic versus international markets; including how the company is doing overseas, and how important that segment is for you?

A. I certainly think that most boat manufacturers, and certainly those who have developed their export business over the last decade, have been the beneficiaries of a lot of the growth we’ve had in the international market and more recently in some of the emerging markets. Up until a year or so ago, with the value of the euro versus the dollar, U.S. boats were certainly a bargain for our international dealers. Many of our core international dealers have been with us over 20 years, in markets such as Spain and the U.K. and Italy. We’ve continued to develop our emphasis on cultivating the relationships with our international dealers, and I think that many companies will tell you that it’s a very integral part of their overall sales plan. We provide our international dealers with services [beyond] the freight-forwarding aspect of it, in-house. We have a regional sales manager and his region is international, or anything outside of North America. We’ve seen that evolve and become very important to us. We have over 50 international dealers now.

Of course, we’ve certainly seen a huge amount of growth on the domestic side, as well. We’re the third largest builder of sterndrive boats in our product segment [18- to 35-foot fiberglass boats].

Certainly we are all operating in a very challenged environment right now for our markets, internationally and domestically, and for our dealers. That’s the case everywhere. I don’t think there’s any business segment in the U.S. that’s insulated from the economic downturn.

Q. In this difficult economy, how can you best help your dealers? What will you do with the money from the Grow Boating program?

A. We think it’s extremely important that our dealers remain healthy and that they not have too much inventory. We have adjusted production and work very closely with our dealers and with the finance companies to ensure that our dealers are able to sell off some of their aged inventory. Probably for the last 12 months, at least, we’ve had almost consecutive, very aggressive retail programs where we provide cash incentives and extended warranties to our dealers in order to assist them with selling their inventory.
It’s proven to be very effective, and our inventory levels are below [what they were] 12 months ago. I think we’ve accomplished what we wanted to do. I think anybody in this climate would like to be selling more boats, but we feel that it’s extremely important to stay in touch with our dealers [and] offer programs that will assist them in moving inventory.

[Money from the Grow Boating program] will be going into enhancing an already very aggressive retail program.

Q. How have the company and your dealerships been affected by the credit crunch, and what do you do to help them with this aspect of the business?

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A. Dealers are absolutely having an extremely difficult time securing retail financing. I think we’re all victims of this credit crunch, and until there is more liquidity out in the financial markets, it will continue to be a challenge. According to what we’ve heard from our government, the bailout should free up money to stimulate consumer lending, so that just needs to happen. I really don’t know as a manufacturer what we can do to change that — to influence consumer lending.

If any source becomes known to us that’s purchasing retail contracts, obviously we share that information with our regional sales managers, who send [it] to the dealers.

On the wholesale lending side, the American Boatbuilders Association, of which we are a member, maintains agreements with GE and Textron [which has since exited floorplan financing] for wholesale floor-planning, and we have found, obviously, some tightening of that credit. We, however, in many ways are fortunate because of the conservative approaches we’ve taken in the past in our selection of dealers. We have, overall, a very healthy dealer network. As a whole, our dealers are still able to secure the floor plan for the boats we need to have delivered for boats shows and to replenish inventory.
We have certainly seen the effects of it, but it hasn’t really impeded our production or our ability to ship boats to our dealers. I think that’s a testament to the financial health of our dealer network.

Q. Does working for a publicly held company present any additional challenges? What are the positives and negatives?

A. It absolutely does [pose additional challenges]. On the positive side, all of our management employees, over 100 strong, are all shareholders in the company, and all have been granted stock options. That’s a major plus. I think anytime you have a work force that has ownership in the company there is a true dedication to quality and to customer service, and I think it makes you a very strong manufacturing unit.

On the negative side, you spend a lot of time with accounting issues and auditors, and always having to have separation of duties. I think it requires you to have additional staff you would not [need] if you weren’t a public company.

Q. In November, you received the Darlene Briggs Marine Woman of the Year award at the Marine Retailers Association of America’s conference in Las Vegas. Can you talk about what that award means to you?

A. It was just absolutely an incredible honor just to be nominated. Of course, it’s always nice to win. When I received the call — and I believe it was on Oct. 1 — I was just absolutely thrilled. I have known the Briggs family personally because they have been a Chaparral dealer through Wayzata Marine in Minnesota for over 20 years. So I have known Gary Briggs and Dave Briggs and I guess that made it especially nice to be honored as a memorial to Darlene Briggs.

Recently on a trip, I met a woman who is still a very integral part of a dealership, and she had won the Darlene Briggs award 17 years ago. She has her trophy in her office — back then, it was a big urn-type trophy. She said —17 years later — it remains the highlight of her career in the marine industry. That speaks volumes about the award.

We are definitely a very male-dominated industry. I cannot tell you the different meetings I have been to where I’m the only woman in the room. It’s second nature [now]; I don’t even give it much thought, but I do think there are just so many talented women I meet in dealerships and with finance companies and other manufacturers that I never see outside of their workplace.

When I accepted my award, I ended my speech with: “In many companies I’ve often heard women acknowledged for their silent strength. But don’t overlook their powerful voice.”

I’ve heard many people say, “We could not run our business without so-and-so; she’s such an integral part of what we do.” But I’ve never seen her out in the industry.

Somebody at the MRAA convention, another woman who’s a Chaparral dealer, mentioned to me we should have a gathering of women in the marine industry, maybe even at the MRAA convention — and have a luncheon or a couple of hours where we get together and mentor and share ideas and just have discussions. It wouldn’t be necessary if there were more women in executive roles in this industry, but because there aren’t, I think it makes it necessary.

Q. What are some of the challenges you’ve faced as a woman in an industry that is largely dominated by men, especially when you first started?

A. I think in my case, I was extremely lucky because of Jim Lane and Buck Pegg, who have been leading our company from the beginning. Buck Pegg was our founder and Jim Lane is our president. I never felt any discrimination here at Chaparral; if anything, they encouraged me. In the beginning, I was very young and somewhat timid to take on those roles that took me outside of my comfort level here at Chaparral — out into the industry. They encouraged me to do that. They were just fantastic mentors, so I think I was very lucky in that respect.

I remember very early on going to meetings where I was the only woman there, and I was conscious of how I conducted myself in that I remained very professional and that I wasn’t there as a woman, I was there as a representative of Chaparral. I always was very conscious of that, and [it] always served me very well. I never tried to be a man in a man’s world, I was a woman in a man’s world and I did not try to be anything else.

If you conduct yourself with professionalism and dignity, that eventually will earn you the respect of your peers.

Q. What are some of the roadblocks of getting more women into the industry, especially in management and leadership positions?

A. I happen to think that sometimes because women also have many of the traditional roles at home — the responsibility of the children and the household and they’re also working outside of the home — they probably, I suspect, don’t have the flexibility to be able to travel and to do the things that are required of you other than from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. I think that still probably inhibits some women from being able to take on those additional roles.

Aside from that, I think that there are just so many sales managers and marketing managers that you meet in companies, and they just always tend to be men. I think the presidents and CEOs of these companies have to encourage and develop the talents of the women that they have in their organization and give them the opportunity and the confidence to step out into those roles. It comes from the top — to be able to promote that and allow it to happen.

Q. What is your outlook for 2009?

A. Our outlook is cautious. No one seems to have the crystal ball on this one, and we are just prepared to work with our dealers. We feel that 2009 is going to be flat. We do know, however, that boats will be sold and we are putting the programs and the training in place. We are in the midst of doing [that] right now, training the salesmen at our dealership levels. We will train over 600 people this month. We think we are providing our dealers with the tools through new products, incentives and training to capture those sales that are going to occur.

We think we’re going to be in a great position to certainly sell our share [of boats]. We feel that we’ve done most of our downsizing this year. Yes, we have laid off and we have downsized and we have adjusted our production and we’re comfortable with the decisions that we’ve made, although no one likes to have to downsize your work force. Those are difficult decisions, but you have to make those decisions that ensure the future health of your company.

People that have this passion for boating are going to continue to boat. Obviously, the economy is going to [make for fewer] buyers out there, but there are people who still can afford to boat and they will purchase boats.

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.

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