2020: What We Learned

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As our December issue goes to press, it’s difficult to fathom the number of unforeseen changes we have already absorbed this year. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession, many of us have experienced a major sea change — a great reset — of our personal and professional values.

The last time the boating industry got together truly en masse, at last February’s boat shows in Miami, seems like years ago. Since then, virtual shows have essentially replaced our in-person gatherings, with much success. At the same time, unprecedented sales have propelled the industry forward, and many of us are hopeful that the momentum can keep rolling into 2021 and beyond.

Soundings Trade Only asked a cross-section of industry leaders three questions as a look back on 2020. We wanted to know: 1) what 2020 has taught them; 2) what 2020 has brought them; and 3) what their biggest takeaway is heading into 2021.

Hopefully, their answers provide lessons that will serve as beacons of what’s most important to each of us. (Responses have been edited for space and clarity.)

David Dunn

Director of Marine Sales, Garmin

1. The only theme I could come up with for 2020 was to expect the unexpected. It seems as though there was a surprise at every turn. The most important thing I have learned from all this is how resilient the marine industry is. Through the early days of the pandemic when everything was shut down, it was amazing to see everyone come together and try to figure out ways to weather the storm.

2. Once the original panic subsided, we quickly realized that the marine industry would be one of the few beneficiaries of the pandemic. The focus then quickly turned to see how fast we could ramp up the supply chain and fulfill demand.

3. It is imperative that we retain as many new boaters as possible. This wave, while advantageous right now, could easily be detrimental in a few years if we are unable to keep people engaged. Training and information will be critical to these customers, and engaging them in a way that speaks to them. It has forced us to re-evaluate how we interact our customers.

Michael Conners 

President, Land ’N’ Sea Distributing

1. 2020 will be an exceptional year for Land ’N’ Sea, but that didn’t happen without its challenges and changing the way we do business. Many dealers and vendors had to curtail operations for a short period of time earlier in the year, but once restrictions were lifted, we soon realized that boating was the new and safe way to social-distance with your family and still get out of the house. Summer camps were closed, people were not flying, hotels were at minimum capacity, people were working from home, and boating became the new thing to do.

2. As a leader in the organization, I could not be prouder of a team coming together in a crisis and getting the job done safely.

3. We remain cautiously optimistic, but have not let our guard down at all.

Eric Fetchko

President, Dometic Marine

1. 2020 has taught me that nothing in life — and little in business — is guaranteed.

2. Closer to my business partners, and a clearer path to driving through the diversity associated with this pandemic with the confidence that we can work through anything this world throws at us.

3. The need to prepare and address business continuity, rather than hope the unthinkable will never happen.

Dave Wallace 

Senior Vice President and COO, Scout Boats

1. Even during a global pandemic, our industry has been able to thrive. I have learned more this past year than in my 25 years in the marine industry, that boating indeed brings families together and gives you a sense of security and freedom.

Jay Patton 

President, American Boatbuilders Association

1. To be more flexible.

2. Closer to my family.

3. Patience is a virtue, and fear is the absence of faith.

Bill Stewart 

Owner, W.E. Stewart Sales

1. To have plans in place for all unexpected conditions.

3. Be able to react quickly. Keep reinventing yourself. Be very flexible and always look for new challenges.

Brett McGill 

CEO and President, MarineMax

1. It has been very tough to watch some people and businesses in the communities struggling, but we can find comfort in knowing that boating is providing the stress
relief and family recreation that is so needed these days.

2. How valuable it is to have the right team. I’m very proud of our team’s passion, their ability to think outside the box, and how they supported our customers and their fellow team members. We were indeed united by water.

3. This year, for the most part, stopped everyone in their tracks. In doing so, it allowed us to slow down and focus on what is important in our lives — spending quality time with our families. We will continue to focus on ways to engage boaters so they continue enjoying the boating lifestyle, which can bring that much-needed balance in life.

Matt Peat 

Executive Vice President, Transhield

1. The importance of having a diversified portfolio of customers.

2. How effective good communication can be when dealing with supply-chain disruptions. It really is the people that make all the difference.

3. Always keep an eye on cash flow, and to not get out too far over your head, to be able to ride the wave during challenging times.

Bill Yeargin 

CEO, Correct Craft

1. It would have taken an alien invasion to make 2020 any crazier. A pandemic, social unrest and an election year have made 2020 a challenge for many people. Uncertainty and anxiety have taken residence in the minds of many.

2. While being a little scary at the start, 2020 ended up being a good year for outdoor recreation, a segment of our economy that boating leads. While we as an industry worried with closed factories in the spring, the summer brought people to boat dealerships looking for safe ways to spend time with their families.

3. 2020 reminded me that the world is always changing, and though it’s cliché to say, the one certain thing is change. In the book Black Swan, we learn that highly impactful but hard-to-predict events are common, and though we might not know specifically what they will be, we should always be prepared.

Sara Anghel

President, NMMA Canada and ICOMIA

1. You never know what can happen regardless of how much you plan and forecast.

2. Uncertainty, yes, but also perseverance to make the most of any situation. This year brought some extremely valuable time with my family that I will always cherish.

3. Always consider the opportunity that lies within a challenge. Looking back at the uncertainty in April, including advocating for Canadian marinas to reopen, I didn’t expect to see the surge in boating that came this summer.

Chris Drees 

President, Mercury Marine

1. 2020 has taught me about the importance of being flexible with our business and our employees. As Mercury prepared for the impacts of Covid-19, we focused on measures to protect the health and safety of our employees and their families. It’s not been easy, but our employees have adapted incredibly well. Our thoughts continue to be with everyone affected by the pandemic.

2. 2020 has brought me a lot of pride in our company’s ability to respond to incredible challenges. We have been able to continue operating safely and effectively throughout the pandemic. Keeping new-product development on track while expanding our family of builder and dealer partners has been a tremendous accomplishment. I’m thankful for the hard work of our entire team, in addition to the great support from our business partners.

3. My biggest takeaway from 2020 is how excited I am about the rejuvenation in the boating industry. It’s great to see so many new people get into boating. There are great opportunities for the industry going into 2021 and beyond.

Kris Carroll 

President, Grady-White Boats

1. In my 45 years at Grady-White, business has been threatened by oil embargoes, exceptionally high interest rates, luxury taxes, wars, terrorist attacks, recessions, blizzards, hurricanes, floods and now a pandemic. All those hard-earned lessons have allowed us to create multiple plans and approaches to choose from when a disruption arises. Making it a priority to be prepared for all scenarios has been a successful strategy for us thus far.

3. Having well thought-out strategies, fully understood by every leader at Grady-White, is probably the most significant factor in our success in the good times, and the difficult times. Everyone on our executive team has been with Grady-White more than 30 years. Working together through these ups and downs has built a common perspective, making it easier to collaborate efficiently and effectively.

Anne Dunbar

Show Director, International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference

1. Embrace disruption. Instead of trying to push through with a normal routine as we saw other shows doing, we adapted to the new world reality, which changed weekly. The ability to stay nimble and flexible was difficult but proved to be a rewarding process.

2. The IBEX team learned to understand and appreciate the value and commitment of our members and partners. I cannot say enough about the positive process the IBEX team went through in 2020. Some days were very difficult, and some days there were a lot of laughs, but we all came together in a way that we wouldn’t have if we’d had a normal show cycle year.

3. I’ve learned that while the virtual space is useful in some ways, it will never replace the value that face-to-face events bring to us as individuals and businesses. This experience has also highlighted many of the things we missed most about our face-to-face event, and we know that next year, we will be in a much better position to deliver the best IBEX ever.

Tony Barber 

CEO, SmartPlug Systems

1. 2020 has taught me to be thankful for the little things, to hold the line when difficult challenges arise, and to work through each situation as it presents itself. This is how weconsistently maintain forward momentum.

2. This year has brought me closer to the foundations of God, family and country, which are important not only for personal well-being and strength, but for the ability to lead our company forward.

3. And my biggest takeaway from 2020 is the conviction to remain flexible and focused on what you can control.

Niels Klarenbeek 

Director, Metstrade

1. Not to take anything for granted. Whatever worked pre-Covid-19 may be under discussion in the new situation. It takes flexibility, a creative mind and firm scenario planning to stand out in the unprecedented level of uncertainty. I believe it is essential not to sit and wait for external factors to occur, but to stay focused and anticipative. With timely clarity to the industry about our cancellation, we were able to mitigate the impact to our clients as best as we possibly could.

2. Our team was able to stick together and with our clients, despite the tough times and the highly challenging environment. We have been able to lay the foundations for a successful Metstrade 2021, and executed a pioneering spirit on an exciting new virtual event.

3. There is nothing like meeting in person. The outstanding functionalities of video conferencing can’t take away the desire to physically get out there to meet and network. I am confident that Metstrade will be back with a big bang next year.

Thom Dammrich

Former President, National Marine Manufacturers Association

1. A strong team is critical in good times to propel you forward, but even more critical in difficult times to successfully navigate challenges.

2. A tremendous amount of new learning. Closer to friends and people important to me.

3. As leaders, we need to help people build resilience; how do we teach others to be resilient? Things can always get worse, but they usually improve. I am reminded of wise advice from Kris Carroll: All the problems I ever had have been resolved except the ones I have right now. And they will get resolved, too.

Ben Speciale

President, Yamaha Marine

1. When I look back at 2020, I see how resilient we are as individuals, a nation and an industry. People responded to quarantine by embracing and making the most of the situation. We adapted to working from home, schooling from home and entertaining from home. With many of the usual activities closed and travel restricted, boating was found for the first time or rediscovered by large numbers of people.

2. Covid taught us all about the importance of time with loved ones. As personal priorities shift, boating will continue to be a go-to activity.

3. This reminded me of the importance of access as a means of building our industry. We need access to clean waterways with more and better boat ramps and marinas. We need access to fish, especially in saltwater fisheries. We also need to show the public that boating is worth the time in their lives. As an industry, all of us need to grow advocacy for boaters and anglers to have access to these wonderful public resources.

Nancy Cueroni

Executive director, National Marine Distributors Association

1. When you collaborate with your peers, you can save a lot of time and eliminate duplication of efforts. When you can’t do something the way you used to, there is almost always another way to get the job done. 

2. Collaboration with other associations — both in the marine industry and within the wholesale distribution world — saw a huge improvement. My sense is that many who might have previously seen each other as competitors became compatriots and collaborators, as we were all dealing with the same thing, just in different places. 

3. Watching our distributor members pivot from salespeople stopping by the dealerships and writing orders to figuring out other ways to get the job done — and not just over the phone and internet — was awe-inspiring.

George “Gus” Blakely

Vice President, Suzuki Motor of America

1. The resilience of the company I work for and the marine industry as a whole. With everything the industry faced this year — travel and work restrictions, stay-at-home orders, and economic pressures, to name a few — the boating industry managed to find a way through and even grow. At Suzuki, even while adapting to work-from-home protocols, we never shut down. Heck, we never even slowed down. In the midst of the ongoing Covid crisis, Suzuki introduced new outboards, opened a new Marine Technical Center in Florida, hired new staff and launched an environmental movement to clean microplastics from the world’s oceans. Meeting these challenges has made us a stronger and better company — and the same can be said for the industry.

Broc Tarwacki

Territory Sales Representative, SGL Sales & Marketing

1. That you reap what you sow. I found comfort from the support I received from my customers, vendors and SGL. I feel that this industry resembles a family because of how much the marine industry cares about the well-being of others. In times of great uncertainty, the strong character of this industry goes way beyond just business.

2. Opportunities to serve and service the supply chain for both my customers and vendors. 2020 has brought me the opportunity to go above and beyond the call of duty in an effort to help elevate my vendors so that they can operate as lean as possible, as well as fully understand our customers’ needs. When you go the extra mile for your customer, you are going the extra mile for your vendors, as well.

3. You have the choice to live with purpose. Do the best that you can to make their experience the best it can be. Not every situation is going to be perfect , but you must exercise every effort to do everything you can to achieve the best outcome.

Marty Scott 

Partner, SGL Sales & Marketing

1. 2020 has taught me to expect the unexpected. When Covid-19 hit and the shutdowns occurred, we all expected boatbuilding levels to come back to, at best, 50 percent of what they were before the shutdowns. Little did we know that production would not only come back at pre-Covid-19 levels, but continue to increase as the year has moved on. Consumers were again using their discretionary income on activities that centered around the family and less-populated areas, instead of expensive vacations, as they had done in the past.

Bruce Van Wagoner

Marine group president, Wells Fargo

1. I thought I had experienced all the possible wrinkles that the industry could provide over 40 years, but this pandemic has had incredible consequences. For many businesses, it has been devastating, but for the recreational marine business, it has been an unforeseen blessing.

2. We estimate that more than 30 percent of those purchasing a boat are new industry participants. This brings with it the challenge of serving these customers well, so they stay engaged in the activity.

3. If we fail here, we may see many boats return to be remarketed. If we work hard to keep these customers happy, those families may be the basis for even greater industry growth.

Michael Douglass 

Partner, SGL Sales & Marketing

1. It has taught me to never give up. The Covid-19 pandemic has created several challenges for the SGL team and vendors represented, but we found ways to overcome them. No matter the obstacles, we all need to find ways to get the job done.

2. The year 2020 brought me the realization that our boating industry has become an amazing outlet for family and friends to strengthen relationships. Boating has brought back the family time and values that have gone away over the last several years.

Wanda Kenton Smith 

Kenton Smith Marketing

1. 2020 has reminded me of the importance of flexibility, the need to be highly responsive to changing conditions and the willingness to take risks. The year has also reconfirmed the importance of the customer experience, of being closely connected to and engaged with customers, especially when conditions prevent traditional events and gatherings.

3. My biggest takeaway and aha moment, however, was recognizing the stark reality that our industry must step up and take greater responsibility for boater education and boating safety, especially when selling to a major influx of first-time boaters. 

This article was originally published in the December 2020 issue.

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