Brett McGill

President and CEO, MarineMax
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Brett McGill

Brett McGill

For Brett McGill, stepping into Bill McGill’s shoes this past October could have been overwhelming. After all, the elder McGill was the legendary face of a public company with retail locations in 16 states.

But the younger McGill was prepared for the transition. Brett had worked for — and led — many of MarineMax’s business units since joining the company when it formed 21 years ago. The board had set up a two-year succession plan after naming him president and COO in 2016. After he proved himself in those roles, the board named him CEO.

“Very few companies get that kind of experience,” says Brett, 50, during an interview at MarineMax headquarters in Clearwater, Florida. “We made sure there weren’t any surprises when we changed roles.”

Bill McGill remains closely involved in big-picture decisions as executive chairman, but day-to-day business is Brett’s domain.

“Bill and I brainstorm all the time about strategy,” Brett says. “I talked to him twice today about acquisitions. He gets on a call every week with the executive team. We have him as a sounding board and make full use of his experience. It really couldn’t get any better.”

Growing up, the McGills were a close-knit family that spent Saturdays at water-ski tournaments, with Brett and his two sisters skiing in the junior divisions while his father competed in adult events. The family lived on Lake Keystone, just outside of Tampa, Florida. Brett spent many summer days working at Gulfwind Marine, the Sea Ray dealership his father owned. By the time he went off to the University of Dayton in Ohio, he’d been schooled in the world of boat dealers. After college, he worked with Integrated Dealer Systems, installing computer networks in marine and RV dealerships.

Brett quickly built a reputation as a smart, hardworking systems integrator. He returned to the boating industry in 1996, joining Gulfwind Marine. When MarineMax formed in 1998, Brett joined as director of information services.

“My job was to link all the MarineMax dealerships, as well as gathering data,” Brett says. “We were acquiring a lot of dealers and nearly doubled in size in those early years. For a young guy, it was a really fun and exciting time.”

Today, MarineMax is a much larger, more complex entity, with 19 boat brands, a boatbuilding division, two charter bases and 64 retail locations including marinas. Brett has also spearheaded other new initiatives, including an in-house program that trains technicians for retail locations. He has also helped inject a culture of community service into the company. He led a mission to the British Virgin Islands to reconstruct a school that Hurricane Irma devastated, and MarineMax is building its second Habitat for Humanity home near its headquarters in Pinellas County.

“I take 60 people — including managers from other states — over to the house, and we’ll paint or do other tasks,” Brett says. “We could take them golfing, but I think this community work builds character and bonds our team. Many of those managers start projects in their local communities. I think that sense of service really reflects in our company values. We’re not the prototypical public company.”

When he’s not at work, Brett lives, boats and water-skis with his wife, Vicki, and four sons, William, Jack, Evan and Nathan, on a lake near Tampa.

McGill has been with MarineMax since it formed in 1998, starting as director of information services and working in most other divisions before being named CEO in 2018.

McGill has been with MarineMax since it formed in 1998, starting as director of information services and working in most other divisions before being named CEO in 2018.

Were you always involved with boats, water-skiing and your dad’s dealership?

Yes, yes and yes. My water-skiing events involved trick, slalom and jumping — though I enjoyed trick the most. I took on other sports during high school, but everyone in our family competed in water-ski tournaments on weekends. We skied in the mornings and spent the afternoons together. It involved a lot of practice. At times, it seemed a little bit like torture. But once you step back, it was pretty cool. Very few families get that kind of time together.

You also worked at your father’s dealership?

I started helping out there when I was 12, washing boats and mowing the lawn. I’d go to work with Dad on weekends and during summer vacation. It seemed like we all worked a little harder than the average family. But that was our life, as it is with any boat dealer. We had a lot of fun, too.

I’ve carried on the yachting tradition with my family. My wife, sons and I have delivered boats directly from the Sea Ray factory on the east coast of Florida down to Fort Lauderdale and all the way up to Baltimore. That Baltimore trip was a life experience for the kids and a family trip we’ll always cherish.

What was it like working in the computer business after college?

It was great. My dad had always taught me to be goal-oriented. He taught me when you’re afforded an opportunity, you give it your best to actually exceed the goal. Then when the next opportunity comes, it’ll be yours without having to ask for it. He often demonstrated leadership skills by doing the job, rather than talking about it. That’s how I’ve always tried to pursue my career.

When MarineMax formed, it had 26 locations — and grew to 50 during the next few years. Were there any unsuccessful acquisitions in those early years?

Not really. We had a strong team and were merging with seasoned Sea Ray dealers we’d known, so they weren’t culturally much different from our business. Customer satisfaction was at the top of everyone’s list. We didn’t want to be a consolidator. Every acquisition had to be additive. We looked for strategic locations around the country with dealers who thought the same as we did.

Nobody has followed the MarineMax model. Why?

A few others came out early, like Travis Boating Center, but nobody had quite the scale we did or the business model. We also had a reason for doing it. Our idea was that if someone bought a boat in Boston and took it to Florida, we could take care of them in both places, with the same level of service. That was Bill’s vision, and I think the payoff was even greater than he’d expected.

How so?

It created more synergy for customers than we realized. For instance, we have customers from our Lake of the Ozarks location that bring their boats to Florida in the winter. At the same time, a group of those folks have also gone to the BVI and chartered our Getaways boats. We’re talking 20 boats. We’ve seen the same things happen with our new Bahamas charter location, and we’ve even done trips to Italy with our Azimut customers. There’s a type of bond we can pass on through these experiences. I don’t think any of us saw how deep or wide those bonds would go.

Had you always wanted to be CEO?

If Bill had stayed with Gulfwind Marine, it would’ve made sense for me to take over from him. But [since MarineMax is] a public company, the rules are very different. I didn’t honestly think about being CEO, but knew my job was to excel in whatever I was doing. I worked my way through different areas of the business and, as I kept escalating, there came a point where I said, “I’d like to do that job.”

So, there was no pressure to take over from your dad?

Just the opposite. He has always been very-hands off. He didn’t try to stop me when I went to work for someone else. He never said I had to work at Gulfwind — or even that he wanted me to. Even when he invited me to work at Gulfwind, it was never like, “You need to come back.” He was very low key. But I knew I had to prove myself. Even when I moved into the president’s role in 2016, the CEO job still wasn’t guaranteed. I had to perform.

Passing the torch: Bill and Brett McGill still speak daily about MarineMax strategy.

Passing the torch: Bill and Brett McGill still speak daily about MarineMax strategy.

Has anything surprised you as CEO?

Not really, because of the years I’ve spent in the business. It’s really a question of performing and surrounding yourself with an excellent team. When you do that, great things will come.

You’ve seen the first growth years, the downturn and the latest upturn. The downturn must’ve been tougher on MarineMax than many dealers.

It wasn’t for the faint of heart. We had more risk than most, but the strength of our company, strong partnerships with our manufacturers, and our sales reach brought us through. We had financial strength and good agreements with banks. During that time, we also generated a ton of cash and paid off almost all our mortgages.

But as we noted at a recent investor conference, we’re more than 60 percent stronger than before the recession.

How so?

We have no mortgages on any of our properties, and our balance sheet is solid. We also have a cycle-tested management team. Mike McLamb, our chief financial officer, and Chuck Cashman, our chief revenue officer, have been with us since the beginning. We also have many team members in our dealerships that make the difference.

Can you elaborate on that?

We’ve always believed from the beginning that you have to have boaters as team members. The passion for the water has to start there because it shows our credibility as boating enthusiasts. We also knew that we had to teach our customers how to operate the boat, where they can use it, and organize events to get them out on the water. Many of our stores plan trips and events to create opportunities for our customers to enjoy the boating lifestyle with other boaters. We teach them and show them how to have fun on the water, and provide real-time service if needed. If we’re doing a trip to South Seas Plantation, we’ll have a technician with us for any mechanical problems. Our salespeople also attend, so it shows customers that it’s about more than a sale: They’re now part of our boating family.

Do you have a corporate mission statement?

We do. Our most important value is taking care of our team members. That’s not just a sign we put up. We constantly prove to them that we want to do what’s right for them. That can be tough with a lot of Wall Street-type constraints, but we never lose sight that we’re in the retail business. If our team doesn’t believe in what we do, our customers will see that. It’s all about people, from technicians to greeters. In our Clearwater store, for instance, a team member like Capt. Keith plays a vital role. He teaches our customers how to use their boats, and that knowledge keeps them in the MarineMax family. It’s a job that might get overlooked in other dealerships, but we see it as critical.

MarineMax emerged as a different company after the downturn, right?

In the early days, there were many more exclusive dealers, but the world has changed. Now, all successful dealers have multiple lines. You just can’t go to one manufacturer and get all the boat types you need. Ten years ago, a saltwater dealer would never have considered carrying a pontoon. That has been critical to our expansion. Most of our manufacturers get that as long as their brands are performing.

You must have serious clout with your boatbuilders.

Most good manufacturers listen to the voice of the customer, and we happen to be one of them. We value our manufacturers as partners. We really do. There always has to be give and take for it to work. It can’t be a one-way or it will be short term.

MarineMax is building its second Habitat for Humanity home in Pinellas County, Fla.

MarineMax is building its second Habitat for Humanity home in Pinellas County, Fla.

How did Sea Ray halting yacht production affect your business?

Fortunately, when Sea Ray made the decision, our other partners, Galeon and Azimut, stepped up production. Of course, when you spend your whole life selling one brand to a customer, it’s not that easy to turn around and sell them another brand. Especially when they’ve been loyal to that brand for many years. Having said that, it’s going very well — though it was tough spending the marketing dollars and training the staff to sell those lines.

Azimut is a known quantity, but was Galeon difficult to adopt?

They’re one of the greatest success stories in the marine industry. They probably have more state-of-the-art equipment in their facilities in Poland than any builder I know: laser cutters and advanced composites. We took them on when Brunswick dropped the Meridian line. We’d sold the heck out of Meridian, and its absence left a huge void we had to fill.

Is Galeon also helping with the absence of larger Sea Rays?

Demand is so strong that their production has more than doubled. We were nervous about that increase, but quality hasn’t suffered one bit. It’s been a great relationship.

How is the Aquila brand that MarineMax builds?

This brand has been very successful. We build these yachts for our charter locations in the BVI and Bahamas, and for private owners all over the world. Our private sales have exceeded our expectations. We now have several models, from 28 to 70 feet.

Why do you think the Aquila boats have exceeded expectations?

We designed them as a power cat, rather than converting a sailing cat design. We built them with a specific customer in mind. The good thing is that the Aquila brand doesn’t touch anything else we do. Every time we add a new boat brand or model, we want them to be additive. We don’t want them to take away from anything we already have.

How is your charter business?

It’s going very well. Besides the BVI, we just opened another base at Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour Marina in the Bahamas. It gives owners the ability to buy a boat in the BVI charter fleet but spend one of their free weeks in the Abacos.

The McGills spend many weekends together on the family boat.

The McGills spend many weekends together on the family boat.

Can you ever see a MarineMax dealership being outside the United States?

We’re always looking at everything. We’ve never approached acquisitions by putting dots on the map. If a place comes up that makes sense, we’ll pursue it. You’ve seen us grow more recently with marinas. We like the idea of a one-stop shop that might have a good restaurant and dry stack, a place where we can host customer events. If the business softens, these locations allow us to focus more on service.

How does MarineMax keep customer service a priority?

We send out surveys three times in the first year after a customer buys a boat. I read every one. I might circle something and send a comment back to one of our managers for follow-up. Service involves big money. We constantly remind our manufacturers that what we submit in warranty is nothing compared to what we spend to service people. Then there are serious expenses associated with marketing, boat shows and Getaways. But if you pursue service as a primary goal, it is well worth it. If you don’t have it, things would get wobbly quickly.

How can you keep up with those kinds of elevated expectations?

If you make sure that the experience of a customer aligns with their expectations, they’ll be happy. That’s all they want. Our job is to have customers say: “MarineMax gives me a better experience than anything else in my life.” If we can do that, we’ve done our job. 

This article originally appeared in the May 2019 issue.

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