Indmar Products Co. president Chuck Rowe is a handshake guy. Nothing is quite as important to Rowe, who joined the family business in 1973, as industry partnerships. They even come before his passion for innovation.
Indmar was born when Chuck’s father, Dick, and his wife, Donna, decided to establish a small industrial and marine supply distributorship. Among their early products were industrial and irrigation pumps based on V-8 automobile engines.
Then came a few custom marinized inboard engines for jetboat manufacturers. At first, this was a matter of bolting off-the-shelf parts. But soon Dick Rowe started making his own major subcomponents to meet his quality and durability standards. Thus began the engine business.
Chuck Rowe was recently inducted into the National Marine Manufacturers Association Hall of Fame. Under his leadership Indmar has received five patents; 17 Customer Satisfaction Index awards (every year that they have been given in the industry); seven Innovation Awards; five environmental honors; and three top-product awards and has delivered 14 technologies that changed the marine industry. The company was the first to incorporate catalytic converters in inboard engines.
At last year’s Miami International Boat Show, Indmar announced its entry into the modern jet and cruiser segment with its Ford-based inboard marine engines. Also in February 2017, Indmar completed the 25,000-square-foot expansion of its world headquarters in Millington, Tenn.
Yet Chuck Rowe is more concerned about partnerships and giving back to the industry than he is with accolades. We talked with Rowe about where the industry is today, his influence on towboats and inboard engines and his role in industry advocacy.
Q: Can you give us some of your background?
A: My family has been boaters as far back as I can remember. I was born in Minneapolis, which isn’t great in the wintertime for boating, but obviously in the summertime it’s wonderful. When they were dating, they were sailing. I can’t remember not water skiing, and it being a passion. As a family we’ve been very blessed to be passionate about boating and make a living doing it. A lot of people aren’t that fortunate. That is a part that’s really important to us because it is a lifestyle. It’s great for children and raising families. My kids’ friends all liked us because we had boats and we water-skied.
I think sometimes we just get too preoccupied with the stuff of boating and forget how simple and enjoyable boating can be. To be able to enjoy it and make my career out of it is kind of a dream come true.
My professional background is actually in aviation. I flew for a number of years. Then, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, flying wasn’t real lucrative. Those of us old enough to have lived through Vietnam … there was a great group of pilots that came out of there, and the airlines were inundated with applicants.
My mother and dad had dreamed of having their own business. He was a retired U.S. Marine, and I give him the credit for having the courage to start the business in 1971. The business was founded on $30,000 and three partners. Just a dream and a vision, and a lot of hard work and a lot of opportunity for those of us that followed.
Q: I like what you said about how we get caught up in the “stuff” of boating and forget how simple it can be. That’s maybe one of the struggles the industry has now with trying to figure out how to make it more accessible to more people.
A: I think we’ve gotten so carried away on costs. I look at our segment, the tow-sports segment, and the cost of the boats concerns me. We move a lot of people out of our tow sportboats. I think price of entry and ease of entry is a continued problem. All these years we’ve had our industry groups ask, ‘What are the issues?’ The issues never change. It’s accessibility, government regulations, and then, quite frankly, the demographics of it. How do we involve more people? How do we get different people involved in this? Because it’s a wonderful lifestyle. It’s good for kids; it keeps them out of trouble.
Q: Regulations have certainly added cost to engines.
A: Yes, and there’s some disparity in that, though I’m not here to throw any segment under the bus. Catalysts were a huge expense for the industry and a large learning curve for all of us. But today, all the inboard sterndrive builders are four-star certified with the federal government, whereas outboards are three-star. So there is some price disparity between outboards and inboards. Of course, we know outboards are growing; they are surpassing sterndrives and inboards as far as popularity. We have to remember that our stuff is still a little bit cleaner and greener.
Q: I think Indmar is one of the companies that helped work on biobutanol as an alternative to ethanol as a fuel additive. Is that right?
A: My father actually started working with [NMMA government relations senior vice president] John McKnight back in 1986 on regulations with catalysts, and it went forward from there. We’ve all seen the horror stories of ethanol, from fuel tanks to damaged hoses, so there was an opportunity to look at biobutanol.
We continue to lobby for biobutanol today. We tested it as an industry and reported back to the EPA. And now, what it’s in the middle of is you’re actually fighting the ethanol lobby.
From our standpoint, it’s a safer alternative than ethanol because it has less alcohol, which, as you know, holds water. That presents a problem for us in our engines. The real problem is the consumer’s not aware of it. The government’s not doing a good job of informing the consumer about ethanol and the effects of ethanol on older products.
Q: I read that Indmar was the first to deliver fuel-injected, custom-calibrated inboard engines and the first to produce an inboard engine with a catalyzed exhaust, which is now the industry standard. Can you talk about that?
A: The culture at Indmar is: We like technology. The fuel-injection thing came as a natural progression of how we improve the experience for the consumer, and how we improved fuel efficiency. The experience of the boater and the skier is much nicer with the fuel-injected engine. At that time we were working with General Motors, and they helped us bring the LT1 with fuel injection to the industry probably 12 to 18 months before anybody else came with it. We’ve got a bunch of inquisitive people working with us, and we don’t mind pushing the envelope. We don’t like to take chances, but we don’t mind pushing the envelope.
It was the same with catalysts. We brought catalysts out a year before it was due. Through that effort, Margo Oge, who was the head of the EPA at that time, made a presentation to us in Washington. Margo came and gave us the award, which is somewhat unheard of for the EPA to give the industry an award like that. But they recognized us, as did the Coast Guard.
Q: Not everyone has the foresight to see some of the benefits of those changes, but it sounds like Indmar felt it would pay off.
A: If you go through the calculation of it, it does add cost, but what is the value of that? I don’t view catalysts as a restriction. You probably remember cars before catalytic converters. I play around with a bunch of old cars, and my wife hates to ride in them because they stink. Now you get in the car and you don’t smell anything. The experience is much better, so I think you have to balance all that out.
Q: You’ve earned a lot of accolades in the marine industry, most recently having been inducted into the Hall of Fame at IBEX. What was that like?
A: Thom Dammrich is a good friend, and I’ve got to tell you, this industry is more than blessed with the leadership we have at the NMMA. I’ve been past chairman there; I’ve worked with Thom and John. I don’t want to say I’m an expert, but I’ve got to say we are just blessed with the talented group of people helping us with that association.
In 2004 they recognized my father with the same award. For me to get the same award — we’re the first father and son in the history of the NMMA to both be brought into the Hall of Fame — that’s very humbling.
As I look at the people who recommended me for the award, and some of the folks who voted for me to be inducted, it is very humbling. It was very special to look at my competitors voting for me to be recognized in the industry. That’s putting all our competitive juices aside and recognizing people that have spent the time. It opened my eyes. For them to come over and shake hands and say it’s well deserved, it makes you feel real special.
That’s really what it is — spending time in the seat. When NMMA asks for help, you raise your hand. Our company has participated from 1986 to now. We’ve traveled the world and continue to do that. Our head of engineering still goes over to ICOMIA, and we’re involved in all the engine emission regulations. That’s the least that we can do. We don’t have the deep pockets that some have, but we can still participate.
Q: We’ve been seeing some shifting in all aspects of the industry, including the towboat side. It seems like there’s some increased competition among engine manufacturers.
A: There’s a lot of us fighting over the same boat now. The industry’s consolidating, but we’ve seen that in the past. You can look back at the late years of Chicago, when OMC and Brunswick started buying transoms. We’ve got some of that going on today, and some people question the value some of us bring to the product. They feel they can do some of that themselves — and only time will tell on that. We’re a 46-year-old business here, and there’s a lot of black magic that goes into it. We believe in our product; we think we’ve got a good reputation. We try to put our customers first, we always try to do the right thing and we feel strongly that as long as we continue to do that the industry will continue to be good to us.
Q: At least on the outboard side, I think there used to be more exclusive OEM agreements than there are today. How is that on the tow side?
A: Indmar is a family business, so we’re a little bit of an anomaly. The people at Indmar are happier with the spirit of an agreement or the shaking of a hand than we are nailing down some exclusive agreement. We have confidence in our product, we have confidence in the dealer network that supports our products and we’re not real big about long-term agreements. There’s not an agreement in my mind that’s been written that can’t be broken if somebody wants to break it.
Our business is very personal. Most of our customers, we know very well. We spend a lot of time with them. We have people in their factories every day. The consolidation I’ve seen is people buying each other. We’re more of a handshake kind of company, and that tends to be our segment historically. That’s changed a little bit with MasterCraft and Malibu being public companies. We know who we’re doing business with, and a verbal commitment and shake of a hand, we’re pretty happy with that.
Q: That’s what this industry is sort of known for, isn’t it?
A: Absolutely, and it cycles back to that. We go through all this big corporate culture, but having been in it so long, it ebbs and flows. Our industry’s about relationships. Our segment’s successful because our dealers have relationships with their customers. It’s all about lifestyle. We want to do business with good people, do business with people who have integrity, and their word means something. I don’t have shareholders. We’re family-owned, so we sit around the Thanksgiving table and have board meetings.
Q: What about new products? Do you have anything planned for Miami?
A: You’re going to see some new product, not this year at Miami, but probably late fall, and certainly Miami next year. You’ll see some diversification or some entry into some different areas by Indmar. That’s really to grow our base a little bit. Our base is concentrated on 25 to 30 manufacturers in our segment. Going forward it’d be nice to have a little broader base.
Q: I figure since you were purposely vague about new product, it wouldn’t do me much good to follow up on that?
A: (Laughs) Just like everybody else, it’s never soon enough, but we want to make sure it’s right and do our due diligence to make sure we put the right testing hours on everything that we release. It’s not going to be something that will be surprising; it will just be a progression of and improvement on what’s out there now. It will be something evolutionary.
We’re going to continue to marinize automotive engines. That’s what we do. If you look at outboards, 80 percent of the big outboards are all automotive engines, too, so we’re all doing the same thing.
We’re just going to continue to try to expand our base. We have a presence in jet drives now. We had a history of jet drives, but we’re back in that segment as far as the river boats go. That continues to grow. Our current customers continue to grow. The segment as a whole is growing high single digits, which is nice, manageable growth for all of us.
Q: Has workforce been a challenge at Indmar?
A: We need blue-collar trades. We don’t need accountants. We need machinists and technical people. We’ve partnered with some of our local trade schools.
We try to keep one or two interns on staff, whether it be electrical mechanical, or whatever engineers are going through their sophomore or junior year of school, and bring those people in. A lot of those younger people are really good with exposure to the [technology, engineering and design] programs and computer programs that we all run today. We’ve done the same thing with our trade schools.
In fact, it was really interesting. We do a Christmas dinner at noon on the last day of work before the holiday. One of our employees — and I’m embarrassed to say this, but I really didn’t know the young man that well — but he walked up and handed me a Christmas card. It was through our relationship with the trade school up at Covington, Tenn., that he came to work for us. This is probably a 20-year-old kid that’s going through machinist training. His mother wrote me a thank-you note for what we were doing and what we had done for her son. Those things make it awful special when you take the time to try to reach out and help people. It really blew me away that she took the time to write that for us.
Q: Can you talk about Indmar’s partnership with Ford?
A: Most of us have done business with Ford or General Motors. Our current relationship with Ford is remarkable. The opportunities they afford us, the product they build is the right product for our segment. If you look at our segment, when you say tow-sport segments, we have to have something with torque. It’s not about horsepower; it’s about torque.
We went through an exercise six or seven years ago when GM said they were going to direct injection. That technology added more cost to the product, which of course goes down to the consumer. The current product we buy from Ford, instead of direct injection, the chambers are different and we run two spark plugs to achieve some of the same benefits.
It gave us a fresh look at the engines. We hired an outside consulting firm and spent 12 to 18 months looking at every engine we could find, and the Ford product just looked like the right product for us. It’s certainly proving out. It’s been a stellar product for us.
Q: Can you talk to me about the size of Indmar, and the facilities?
A: I’d prefer not to talk about quantity of engines, but we’ve got about 150 employees. We have our manufacturing plant; we’re real proud of it. We started an expansion three years ago and added 5,000 feet to the front office and a 20,000-foot addition on the warehouse. We’ve probably got somewhere around 140,000 square feet of warehouse and manufacturing in Millington. We have satellite operations in Knoxville [Tenn.], Abilene [Texas], Merced, [Calif.], and we have technical reps that are in our customers’ factories every day. We have another one in Lewiston, Idaho, for the jet boat segment. We have an outlet in Australia. We have 912 dealerships in 123 countries. For a small business, that’s not too shabby.
Q: With such a large footprint, it must be very impactful when you go up to the Hill or talk to local legislators about challenges.
A: As many NMMA members, we’re truly a small business. I know that we’ve been invited to the Hill on more than one occasion, because we are a small business, to talk about how things impact us. We don’t get into this offshore money. We’re a small company that employs 150 people in the United States. We pay good, living wages and take care of our people. So I think it does resonate up there.
When we do go up to the Hill, we put together meaningful packets. We don’t just go in and blubber to a representative about something we don’t like. We go in with a message, and do people listen? Absolutely. It’s rewarding to go up there and feel like you’re able to move the ball. It takes time sometimes, but I would encourage anybody, certainly within our industry, to get involved because you can make a difference. It’s not hard; you just have to put in the time.
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue.