When a Dewey’s Cook Inlet customer finally got approved for a loan on an engine — after saving two years for a down payment — she was thrilled.
“She was so ecstatic because she could go pick berries for the first time in three years,” says Dustin Knight, a co-owner who purchased the dealership in 2010. “The clientele in Alaska is a whole different clientele. It’s not just pleasure boats for guys in cities. It’s also the guys in the bush, and boats are more for getting around and the subsistence lifestyle. We’ve got a lot of hunters, and the best way to get to the game is to be on the river.”
Dealers across the country have different challenges, and like Dewey’s Cook Inlet, many have thrived for decades despite them. While some dealers face seasonal concerns about weather, short boating seasons and inventory, others wrestle with the ratio of sales and service to parts and experience, and with government-imposed regulations and taxes.
In places such as Omaha, Neb., seasons can vary so wildly that it’s a struggle knowing what to order. “Some summers have been as short as 10 days, and some are as long as 90 days,” says Omaha Marine Center owner Paul Davis. “It’s a bit stressful to have all this product ready and available. You don’t want to run out too early, and you don’t want to have too much.” Davis is the second generation owner of his current dealership.
Knight bought Dewey’s Cook Inlet with his partner after working there since 1999. “Everyone has different styles of running it,” Knight says, adding that when the rivers are closed to salmon fishing, he sells more offshore boats, further complicating orders. “The former owner went for more volume sales; I do more based on customer service.”
It took a few years for the approach to catch on, but by 2015 — with a little boost from Mother Nature — Dewey’s Cook Inlet had a record year. “In 2015 and 2016, we had no snow in the wintertime, so we were actually boating in February,” Knight says.
Nauset Marine on Cape Cod, Mass., has been in the same family since 1961, when president Todd Walker’s father purchased a gas station with his grandfather and uncle. “As the Cape grew over the years from the late ’70s and ’80s, this business grew along with it,” Walker says. “A lot of second homes went up, and a lot of people came to this area who’d never been here before.”
The biggest challenge for the dealership is that there are fewer young families around. Many people leave for college and don’t return. “We turn away service work because we can’t expand and hire people we need,” Walker says. “Finding local talent to stay on the Cape and make a career here and live here has become problematic. It’s a reversal of what we saw 20 or 30 years ago.”
At Captain’s Marine in Kalispell, Mont., owner Randell Seyfert not only has to deal with snowstorms at the end of April, but he also has to balance his inventory among clientele. “There are two different customers that we recognize,” Seyfert says. “Our local is more of a professional. The main customer, especially for our expensive Cobalts or MasterCrafts, they’re second-home owners.”
Because the Montana boating season is so short, Seyfert relies heavily on his service department. “We store a bunch of boats, and we take care of them from spring to fall,” he says. “We constantly hear that people would buy a boat, or a bigger boat, if there were just a longer window.”
Seyfert grew up in the business with his dad, who had a dealership until 1993. Seyfert bought Captain’s Marine in 2003. He started in a 2,000-square-foot building, and just opened another 14,000-square-foot facility.
“I think that probably the biggest challenge is, you’re losing money for such a long period of time,” Seyfert says. “This year during the boat show, we had a blizzard, and it was cold through March. All the lakes were frozen over, and we’re just starting to catch up. Those first four to six months of not gaining are stressful. The business all happens in three months, and then you’re just watching it all dry up again.”
Brett McGill is the second- generation president and CEO at MarineMax, the nation’s largest boat dealership, with 67 locations. McGill grew up at Gulfwind Marine, which his dad, Bill McGill, began decades ago. “Bill literally took over a gas station lot in St. Pete and sold Sea Rays, and it kind of grew from there,” Brett says.
Bill McGill became one of the larger independent dealers in the country. In 1998, he joined with other dealers to form MarineMax and went public, first with parts and accessories and later adding getaways and events. “It was not just about having a great boat package,” Brett says. “We see that in other parts of the economy, as well. People are more about experiences now, rather than just what they’re purchasing. My dad pioneered that by becoming an experience-based dealer, and many dealers do it now.”
Independent dealers still have a personal-touch advantage, says Bob Petzold, president of Petzold’s Marine Center in Portland, Conn., which has been in business since his grandparents started it in 1945. “Two of my children are working here every day full time, and I assume they will take over once my brother, Ken, and I decide to depart,” he says.
One of the largest struggles Petzold’s has faced was the luxury tax, followed by the recession. “I’m not sure the state of Connecticut has ever gotten out of the recession,” Petzold says. “We still see our state in an economic slump, and then I chitchat with other dealers across the country who have done very well.”
The industry got a boost when Connecticut dropped the sales tax on boats from 6.35 percent to 2.99 percent, making it more on par with neighboring states such as Rhode Island, which eliminated its boat tax. “We certainly have the paperwork to back us up in that fight,” Petzold says. “We took in more sales tax at 2.99 percent than we did at 6.35 percent.”
The company started out selling small boats and moved into larger boats until the financial crunch of 2008, “when several of our manufacturers basically went out of business,” he says. A shift to smaller dayboats in his region prompted the dealership to take on Regal, and it brought on EdgeWater to fill the demand for outboards. “Just this past year we took on pontoon boats,” he says.
Times have changed, Petzold says, not only in terms of the boats being sold, but also in general from when many of today’s legacy dealers started — after the Depression or World War II, usually with nothing in their pockets. “I don’t know if that’s possible today, to start with nothing and grow into the business it is today,” he says. “When I look around, people starting a business — I don’t care if it’s barbershop — they’ve got to have at least $100,000 in the bank with taxes and insurance and regulations. I think it’s unique to be able to start with nothing in their basement, fixing up engines, and turn it into a business.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.