‘It Doesn’t Feel Like Work’

Seattle Boat Co.’s training  program grooms workers as they move from junior tech to super tech
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“We wanted to figure out how to grow a person, make them want to stay with us and have a good career.”

“We wanted to figure out how to grow a person, make them want to stay with us and have a good career.”

Kyle Quackenbush was 22 years old and working at a machine shop in Renton, Wash., assembling and disassembling gearboxes for windmill generators. He had studied automotive technology at Renton Technical College and thought he was putting his training to good use.

After about two years, he was laid off. He had friends working in the service department at Seattle Boat Co., a full-service dealership that sells Cobalt, Malibu, Scout and Barletta pontoon boats. They told him the company was hiring. “They had me come in for an interview and it went from there,” says Quackenbush, who is now 28. “It’s always fun here. Everyone gets along really well. Everything moves smoothly.”

Seattle Boat Co. doesn’t necessarily look for experienced technicians to staff its four locations, director of service Chris Olsen says. “It essentially starts off with growing our own technicians from the ground up. We really prefer people that first up have great attitudes and are somewhat mechanically inclined. We’re looking for the backyard mechanic, not someone who is professionally trained.”

Quackenbush had a mechanical background and was comfortable changing starters, alternators and other engine components. As part of Seattle Boat’s training program, he was hired as a junior tech and paired with an experienced employee, which the company calls a “super tech.” Quackenbush spent a couple of weeks following his super tech around the shop and watching him perform various jobs. “I’m a pretty quiet person, so it was a little awkward the first couple of days. But I had friends here, so it went quickly,” Quackenbush says.

The super tech taught him about marine transmissions in Malibu’s wake-sports boats, and sterndrives and outboards on other boats. Quackenbush also took online courses from Volvo Penta, MerCruiser and Indmar. (As technicians advance and the junior designation is removed, Seattle Boat Co. sends them to manufacturers’ schools to keep current with the latest systems.) After about two years, Quackenbush became a technician.

Show Me the Money

Of course, when people work, they like to get paid. And if they perform particularly well, extra compensation can be a motivating factor.

Seattle Boat Co.’s incentive program is based on efficiency and proficiency. Initial pay for a junior tech is $14 an hour. If the partners meet their monthly budgeted efficiency and billable-hour goals, they get a bonus. Let’s say that replacing a gimbal bearing is considered a four-hour job. If the super and junior tech complete the job without problems in two hours, their efficiency rate is 200 percent. That results in a bonus.

With performance bonuses, “super techs” can make $100,000 per year.

With performance bonuses, “super techs” can make $100,000 per year.

Keeping the percentage rate above 100 for the month gets technicians extra money, and it makes the service department more efficient. If a job is done incorrectly and the boat comes back, the work is done for free and the techs lose efficiency points.

Olsen says the average tech makes $19 an hour and gets up to $14.50 an hour more in bonuses. Last year, the company’s 14 technicians, including four super techs and four juniors, averaged 117 percent. “Some of our guys are pulling in a hundred grand a year,” Olsen says. “It’s good for us, and it’s good for them. And the younger techs see that, and it gives them something to work for.”

Meeting Demand

Seattle Boat Co. is in its 35th year under owner Allen Bohling. The company has locations in Seattle, Bellevue, Lake Tapps and Kent. Olsen, who is 45, has been with the company for 25 years. He started as a detailer and after three months moved over to technician. Companywide, he says, many employees have been with Seattle Boat for close to 20 years. Average technician tenure is about a decade.

The junior tech program started in 2006 because of high turnover in the service department. While local vocational schools do offer training, it was focused on outboards.“When we brought in technicians from other dealerships or outside the industry, they didn’t have the same passion,” Olsen says. “They didn’t last, and the turnover was pretty high. We wanted to figure out how could we grow a person, make them want to stay with us and have a good career.”

Since the junior tech program’s inception, Olsen says, only two candidates have failed to complete the work, and 12 have transitioned into full technicians. Their benefits include a 401(k) account, health and dental insurance, and paid vacations and sick leave.

In addition to technicians, Seattle Boat’s service department has detailers, and some junior techs have been pulled from the detailing department. “You can learn a lot about people in other positions,” Olsen says. “It’s not just [that] we’re watching them; they’re interviewing us, as well.”

Detailers are paid a flat rate and have a bonus program. There’s also a certification program that detailers go through after they’ve been with the company for five months. Olsen says that detailing still has a high turnover rate because the department is often made up primarily of seasonal help. Detailers are eligible for the same benefits as all other full-time employees.

When a customer requires service work at Seattle Boat, his or her contact is a service consultant. The company offers valet service, and consultants are incentivized by work orders billed and cash collected.

The majority of Seattle Boat customers are experienced owners and operators. That makes it easier for the consultants to explain why a boat might need a service performed. The company also offers a prepaid, “worry-free” service program that takes care of all scheduled maintenance for three years.

Because the company’s locations are relatively small, there’s not a lot of space to stack up boats in parking lots. Olsen says the goal is to get all boats in and out of service within three days.

For employees, Olsen says, Seattle Boat Co. is a “very transparent company.” An all-hands annual budget meeting is held for two days each year, so workers can see what’s being spent and why. “We keep our people involved with the company and our vision of creating memorable boating experiences,” he says. The company also has a wake-sports boat that employees can use before and after work, as well as other perks.

Quackenbush says he has found his career at Seattle Boat Co. “It’s fun,” he says. “It doesn’t really feel like you’re coming to work.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2019 issue.

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