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Q&A for Eric Kufel

CEO, West Marine
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West Marine’s new chief executive officer, Eric Kufel, has salt water in his veins. Growing up in rural Alaska, Kufel spent his days “fishing and exploring 80 miles of river every afternoon.” He paid his way through college as a deckhand on a commerical fishing boat out of Bristol Bay.

“When we weren’t working, we took skiffs up the Egegik River for some of the best trout fishing in the world,” Kufel tells Soundings Trade Only. He returned to the area five years ago to break ground on a family retreat. “It’s my true north kind of place.”

Kufel has spent more than two decades in leadership roles. As CEO of CorePower Yoga, he oversaw the company’s transition to the country’s largest studio operator. His more recent role was as executive director of Leslie’s, which became the largest omnichannel brand for pool and spa care in the country under his leadership.

Now, as the head of West Marine, he says, “As we look to the future, I couldn’t be more energized to lead the company as we work together to capitalize on these opportunities,” citing the retailer’s “unbelievable brand and legacy,” its dedicated staff and national footprint as a solid foundation for growth.

How big a part did boating and fishing play in your life growing up in Alaska?

I’m very proud of the fact that I was born and raised in Alaska. My first memory of life is actually on our boat in Resurrection Bay, which is out of Seward. For me, it just harkens back to the memories of trolling for salmon and crab and shrimp pots, going to the beach. And then we moved from that boat in Seward and we built a log cabin on an island on the Kenai River from scratch on a place with no power. Hand-hewed every log. I had to work every morning, and then in the afternoon, I had a little 12-foot skiff and a 20-horse Johnson, and I got to go fishing every day. And that was the reward coming off of that. So for me, the highlights of my life are always on the water.

I put myself through college working on commercial fishing boats in a little place called Igiugig, which is in Bristol Bay. You [may] see on the TV shows — the 20- to 30-foot waves. I lived in that every day. Taught me the value of hard work and a work ethic. And five years ago, we bought an old lodge on the river that I grew up on as a child. And we go back there and spend meaningful time every summer with the family and the kids, fishing on a daily basis. I’m also a partner in a charter business up there for halibut and saltwater salmon species that we troll for. So kind of across the board for me, this job is really a dream come true in the sense of it’s my greatest passion. There’s nothing that makes me happier than being on the water, and to have an opportunity to lead a great team of people who are focused on helping other people enjoy the water is just sort of the perfect marriage for me.

You recently relocated to South Florida. That’s quite a departure from Alaska. How’s it going?

It is. And I will tell you that I’m unbelievably excited to learn a new ecosystem, to learn a new fishery. To me, from a life perspective, there’s nothing better than learning something new. I’ve tried to be a lifelong learner, and the dynamic of that … having that opportunity here, is just really exciting to me. Actually, two of my best fishing-guide friends in Alaska come down here to fish in the spring — they’re very excited about having me come out with them. Also, through the West Marine partnerships, there’s just so many opportunities to work.

And I think the key for me is this isn’t a job. It’s a way of life. There’s a dynamic to that. I really want to try to bring as much of that as possible to West Marine. We may not have been in sync with that as much as we perhaps could have been for the last five to 10 years. We really want to bring that authenticity back of having folks who are truly passionate about what we do be at the center of the universe for West Marine.

Your previous executive roles include stints in the fitness and spa/pool business segments. How have they prepared you for the CEO position at West Marine?

There’s a number of similarities. One is each of those businesses were owned by L Catterton with the same team. And so there’s a real continuity of partnership. Each of those businesses has grown considerably­— I had 16,000 people working for me in those businesses — with the primary driver of creating an environment and a culture where great people want to come to work every day. Ultimately for me, the similarities — what prepares you for any role — having first and foremost to focus on people and what that means is a huge part of that.

On the pool side of the business … having experts who know an industry, being able to train, develop and retain a knowledgeable base of people who understand a market very, very closely, and having true national scale. Leslie’s Poolmart had a thousand stores, Pure Barre yoga had over 200 locations and this dynamic of a mission- and puropse-driven business. And then the whole dynamic of both of those businesses — we invested significantly in technology to be able to better serve the customer. Our supply chains, our technology pieces, our investment in people and talent really transformed those businesses. [I] believe that a lot of that is really going to enable us to help West Marine do a
better job serving customers.

What did you know about West Marine before you joined the company?

Being born and raised in Alaska, there was a West Marine store on Dimond Boulevard [in Anchorage] that I grew up going to. West Marine has always represented all things boating. When the opportunity came up, it’s just so near and dear to my heart because I’ve been a customer for as long as I can remember. A boat store is one of my happy places; that’s been an integral part of my life. I went to college in Spokane, Wash. There’s a store in Spokane. Everywhere I’ve been, there’s been a [West Marine] store.

What attracted you to the chief executive position at West Marine?

The opportunity to work in a business where you have so much passion for what we do, but passion isn’t everything. There’s a dynamic of the experiences around scaling large national businesses and taking businesses that perhaps haven’t grown as much as they should over the last five to 10 years because they haven’t been invested in or led in a way that brings out the best in people. What I love is having a dynamic where there’s an unbelievable brand and legacy that’s been built by so much effort over the history — I never want to lose that effort, but balance it with [the workforce].

How do you continue to innovate and how do you not lose the spirit of an organization, yet bring out what’s best in it and continue to grow from there? [That] dynamic gets me very excited about having a business. You’re passionate about people you really enjoy working with [with a shared] strong opportunity to win. I saw all three of those in West Marine, and I really enjoy transforming businesses and helping businesses that have been incredibly successful evolve into a next generation.

West Marine’s Seattle  superstore has electronics and rigging departments more than double the size  of its regular locations.

West Marine’s Seattle superstore has electronics and rigging departments more than double the size of its regular locations.

You’ve been with West Marine for about two and a half months. What has surprised you most?

We’ve been doing a lot of work to deeply understand the customer and the market. One of the biggest surprises is the opportunity available in boating from increasing the size of the market from a demographic perspective. There’s such a narrow demographic in boating — I believe there’s just such an opportunity for us to broaden the appeal. For me, the personal benefit of boating is so high. I want more people to experience that. You’re going to hear me talk a lot about West Marine wanting to drive growth of the industry through broadening the demographic appeal of boating and sailing.

What are some of West Marine’s greatest strengths?

The legacy that founder Randy [Repass] created when he built the business that’s centered around a true passion. That’s something that can’t be lost. There are still a very significant number of crewmembers who have been with us for a very long time that have that passion. And we’re not going to lose that piece.

The other element is we have great people. It really is the people that make this business and the merchandising teams. We also have a national footprint, and quite a nice, growing e-commerce business, as well. Being able to serve customers in the way in which they would like to purchase is a real strength for West Marine to move forward.

Where does the retailer need improvement?

We have not invested significantly or sufficiently in technology over the course of the last five to 10 years. In terms of the new ownership group and myself, we made sure we had a really strong commitment. And that was another similarity to the two prior companies [I was with]. We made very significant investments into new systems that allow us to … leapfrog to where we want to be now and five years from now. It’s all centered on best serving the customer, and we want to make sure people have what they want when they want it at a fair price, in the modality for shipment that they would like. Technology really enables that. And we’re really excited about driving that improved technology for the company.

Having women in the industry taking on bigger roles is a key priority at West Marine. Please elaborate.

This is an area that I think is so important, but it’s the right thing to do to make sure that we drive significant diversity through the industry. And at West Marine, we tend to have that be one of our key priorities going forward, not just for our talent strategy but for the business. I think it goes hand in hand with our ability to be an industry that attracts more consumers into the fold. We want to be very involved from an industry perspective in terms of being a leader, to not only help West Marine, but to help others with the resources to be able to drive greater diversity across the industry.

Let’s talk about the private labeling program. How important is that to the business model?

Private label is an important part of the business [and] will continue to be an important part of the business, but we’re going to find a balance of what is best for consumers. I’m not going to say we’re going to be leaning more aggressively into private label, but we want to be smart and thoughtful around using private label as one of the core facets of our business. Our vendor partners are essential to us, and we want to make sure that for our success, we believe our vendor success needs to be paramount. We’re really spending a lot of time talking about how we build stronger win-win partnerships so everyone can win in the industry together. I’m a huge believer in creating a win-win environment.

We are facing a sea change in how customers shop. How significant is the challenge from online retail?

One of the benefits that a lot of people may not know is that West Marine actually has quite a meaningful digital business today. That being said, there’s an opportunity for us to significantly improve upon that. One of the benefits of working with an ownership group like we have now is we’ve put considerable energy into deeply understanding not only the West Marine consumer, but the opportunities for the broader consumer base.

For us, the level of sophistication in and around marketing and being able to bring new consumers into a category however they want to shop, and have a clear understanding of those who want to purchase in a digital environment, to have all of the tools, information, expertise and frictionless transaction, as well as if you want to come in and have the experience — no one has the number of stores that we have today in combination with that.

So you have this combination of experience plus content strategy across the board. For me, there are many ways to look at things. And as we come into the business, we see so much opportunity to both help build the category and make sure West Marine continues to be the strong leader in the industry that it is. We’re very excited about building on that.

Our business has done incredibly well over the course of the past two years [considering] the supply-chain challenges that are an issue for everyone in the industry. We intend to continue to see and deliver upon strong growth on the digital side, but that’s incremental to the base of the stores, and that’s really what we’re seeing. That’s really the dynamic of what we’ve learned about the different demographics and how the different demographics are shopping.

We want to make sure that we can meet people where they’re at and provide the right [product and service] offerings for them. That’s where we get pretty excited about the future of the industry.

Where do you see your best opportunities? Is it in stores? Wholesale? E-commerce? A combination?

There’s opportunity everywhere. With the growth in the industry — and it’s still so highly fragmented that I think, there again, I just continue to believe there’s an opportunity in each of those. It’s less about how we think about a channel and more about how we best serve the customer. And we have modalities to help that customer buy from us in different ways. And by the way, that purchase shifts depending on what the need is. We’ve done work on a customer journey that I don’t know has been done to this depth yet in the industry. And that’s part of the benefit of having an owner that has [more than] 200 consumer companies and depth and breadth of knowledge around how to approach that.

But still again, never lose sight of the fact that it’s the individual in the store with the expertise that really makes that difference for a connection, driving that local experience in each of the markets that we serve.

In addition to its brick-and-mortar locations, West Marine has a growing e-commerce side to satisfy customers’ purchasing preferences.

In addition to its brick-and-mortar locations, West Marine has a growing e-commerce side to satisfy customers’ purchasing preferences.

How are your relationships with vendors evolving?

I have been thrilled at the warm welcome from the vendors. Vendors want West Marine to succeed. They want West Marine to continue to be the leader in the industry and to help drive the industry. And frankly, they want us to be more vocal and active in the industry. And we intend to do that.

That’s a difference I’ve heard loud and clear over the course of my first 60 days. I’ve been out; I’ve met with all of our top vendors; all I’ve done has been together with people for the last 75 days, listening and learning. And that dynamic of West Marine is the leader, but we want West Marine to continue to build upon its presence, to drive positive and responsible leadership for the category. And again, for me, because this is a category that I have such personal passion for, I’m really excited about being on board.

Are there any plans in the works to open new locations, maybe flagship stores?

Yes. It may surprise people, right? Given the dynamic of industry across the board, we believe there’s opportunity to open a meaningful number of stores over the next five years. I’m not going to go into specifics around where or what, but I will tell you we’re working on building pipeline for these stores right now.

In what ways has the supply-chain dilemma affected business? Has West Marine explored local and near sourcing?

It’s a great question. As I’ve talked to vendors, everyone is dealing with in-stock rates that are not where any of us want them to be. The key right now for us is how we work to communicate and collaborate as effectively as possible. What I will tell you, as you work through this, there’s a dynamic. You could have a certain type of product in stock, but from our perspective, if it’s not sufficient quality, we’re not going to bring it into a West Marine store.

So yes, we are working with a variety of different vendors to try to make sure we have key items in stock, but never at the expense of quality working through that. And from our perspective, that’s been one of the biggest challenges for the industry. We’re still seeing the growth. What’s interesting is what it could be.

It goes beyond the supply chain of the vendors to warehouse workers and truckers, doesn’t it? It’s like the perfect storm right now.

That’s exactly right. I’m on the board of a couple of other businesses with L Catterton. One is called Truck Hero [aftermarket parts for trucks and Jeeps], and the other is Leslie’s Poolmart, and that dynamic is across all industries. The supply chain is a significant challenge, and it is the labor issue, as well. We want to be an employer of choice. It’s my intention that we’re going to act and operate in a way where we hopefully get a disproportionate share of folks who want to come work for us versus other opportunities.

You’ve mentioned L Catterton, which in April took controlling interest in West Marine ownership. Are you using L Catterton’s deep well of outdoor consumer brands and digital expertise?

It starts with the dynamic of understanding the consumer. L Catterton has an internal team of experts in each of these spaces that have worked across a multitude of industries, not the least of which has been a deep experience in the RV industry, which is a very similar type of industry to marine. Many of the suppliers and vendors overlap with one another, so there are preexisting relationships with a number of our vendors as a result of that. And in environments like the pool business, [the] very similar dynamic of a combination of brick and mortar with really strong e-commerce.

[We are] building this team of folks who have deep expertise in that space on supply chain, on technology, on talent and recruiting, on consumer, on marketing and digital activation. These are some of the best in the world at this who have done this work at Restoration Hardware, Peloton and Leslie’s Poolmart. It’s really fun bringing that level of sophistication into a business that, again, has been very strong but, frankly, has lacked that.

A lifelong angler, Kufel is also a partner in a charter outfit in Alaska.

A lifelong angler, Kufel is also a partner in a charter outfit in Alaska.

When there’s that much change going on, the opportunity to see things through in the way that you want them to, it just doesn’t occur.

Exactly, and from my perspective, therein lies the opportunity. Some people may see all that change and say, “Wow, there’s all this turnover that creates uncertainty.” Each of the businesses that I’ve run prior have not been too dissimilar from this scenario. And that’s why I spend so much time talking about culture. My average tenure in a business is seven years. I don’t come in for a year or two. It’s really important to me that as we start talking about having those discussions, that people know, and what I hope you see here, is that this is the last company I’m going to run. I intend to be here for a long time, and I’m trying to build the relationships in the right way, to have a meaningful impact and be a positive partner to folks, and I want it to be a positive environment for everyone.

Despite logistical challenges, the industry has been experiencing a huge boom. How long do you see that lasting?

I took this opportunity because I’m incredibly bullish on the long term, and truly the long-term benefit of this category going forward. From my perspective, I took this role in terms of thinking about the category itself, in the sense of there’s so much opportunity for us from a demographic perspective. There’s this element of, we know what the historical demographic of this industry has been, but we’re seeing that shift. That’s where we did a lot of work before we came in and acquired West Marine, and we saw what’s taking place.

The number of women purchasing boats, the number of women purchasing in our stores, the breadth of diversity coming into the category, the growth of fishing as a category on top of that — there’s so much opportunity. There’s always going to be peaks and valleys when there are unusual events like what’s taking place today. Our perspective is where are we going to be five to 10 years from now? Our work today is, how do we survive and work through these difficult times? But the bigger picture is, how are we laying the foundation to win long term? And what’s the work that we’re doing to make sure this category continues to grow? We have to change behaviors to make sure that we are appealing to a broader universe of consumers as we move forward. And that’s something that is well underway right now at West Marine that we’re really excited about.

In terms of what we sell, we don’t sell products. We sell the opportunity to have that incredible experience, and we want to make that as simple for people as we possibly can so they can enjoy that.

Tell us about your ideal day on the water.

Any day on the water is an ideal day on the water, but ultimately, being born and raised in Alaska, being on Resurrection Bay, which literally formed my first memories. I’ll never forget being on the back of this boat with my mom and my dad and my brother and my sister. I go back to this particular bay every year. There’s some yurts stuck in the side of the hill, and we camp in the yurts, and we kayak, and we troll for salmon, and we go to the beach and have a bonfire with the family. Being on the water is about memories with family and friends. And so, for me, the benefit of boating is, throw your phone in the water, get away from all the nonsense and be able to truly be present. 

This article was originally published in the January 2022 issue.

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