Q&A with Chris Drees

Chris Dress, President, Mercury Marine
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Drees (here in the company’s NVH facility) says advances in reduced noise and vibration have helped Mercury gain market share. 

Drees (here in the company’s NVH facility) says advances in reduced noise and vibration have helped Mercury gain market share. 

When Chris Drees took over as president of Mercury Marine in April, it was the culmination of a plan the 51-year-old had when he started with Mercury’s parent company, Brunswick Corp., 20 years ago. He’s the second-youngest of four brothers, and his father founded an electrical contracting and retail appliance business that one of his brothers runs today. “For me, being able to run a company was always my goal,” Drees says.

He’s a loyal, practical guy. Having grown up in Wisconsin, Drees remains a fan of the Green Bay Packers and roots for the University of Wisconsin — most of the time — or for the University of Michigan when the Badgers aren’t playing. He has an older, inboard-powered ski boat that pulls him and his kids on slalom skis, boards or tubes, so there’s no reason to get a new boat. When it’s time to slow down, he and his wife, Amy, like to cruise on Legend Lake in northern Wisconsin on their Harris pontoon that’s powered by, of course, a Mercury outboard.

When he’s not on the water or at work, Drees tries to get away to the golf course. “It’s one of the sports where you can’t think of anything else other than swinging and hitting the ball, so if you can put aside various issues that are happening, there’s only one thing you can focus on at the time, and that’s golf,” Drees says. “It’s also a great time where you can get an hour or two to walk the course.”

The Drees family includes three sons. Zac, 24, recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in chemical engineering, and 21-year-old Adam is a junior at the University of Wisconsin, studying business. (The two schools are sports rivals in the Big 10 conference, and game day can be a rowdy one in the Drees household.) The youngest son, 18-year-old Ben, recently started at Michigan Technological University in the computer science program.

For his own education, Drees stayed close to home, earning his undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and his MBA at Marquette University in Milwaukee, finishing that course of study on evenings and weekends when Zac was a newborn. “My wife was ecstatic when I completed that,” Drees says.

Prior to taking over as president at Mercury, Drees held the same title at the company’s parts and accessories division. He was also vice president of Attwood Corp. for seven years and general manager at Mercury Marine from 2004 to 2007.

What was your professional background before joining Mercury and Brunswick?

My first job out of school, I worked in the food industry at Hormel, in production management. I also worked for Newell Brands in the Milwaukee area. After it was acquired by Rubbermaid, I had a chance to start in operations and purchasing.

You’ve been with Mercury and Brunswick so long — were there any surprises once you took over?

I knew exactly what I was getting into. Being in many different areas and functions within the organization, having that background is extremely valuable. Mercury and Brunswick have robust succession plans in place, so I think it really paid off.

Has there been one challenge that stands out above the rest?

Navigating the tariffs has been interesting because you don’t quite know what’s coming. We like predictability, and not knowing when the tariffs will be increased and/or if more will be added or taken away puts things in question that we’re trying to plan for.

Have tariffs affected sales, either outboards from China or engines going to and from Europe?

They’ve affected U.S. boatbuilders with boats going into Europe. A lot of our competition from Japan doesn’t see any impact from the tariffs. Because we manufacture here, we have to continue to price to market, so a lot of the tariff costs, we have to absorb, and a lot of the tariff increases, our competition doesn’t see.

What do you think is the biggest challenge that Mercury and the boating industry face?

Keeping boating relevant to the new generation of boaters will be critical. The average age of boat owners is increasing while the number of first-time buyers entering the market continues to decline. We need to strive to ensure boating remains the recreational activity of choice for consumers.

What is your greatest long-term goal as Mercury president?

Our focus is to continue innovating, whether it be in products or services or how we go to market. Especially in today’s market, diversity of thought and innovation are key. Secondarily, I think the more collaboration we have with partners, whether it be OEMs or dealers, will be even more important moving forward. As products get more integrated, and as technology increases, I think having good partnerships will help provide a seamless experience and end product to the consumer. If you think about 10 years ago, we were working with significantly fewer builders than today, and our dealer network is larger now than it has ever been. Our mutual success is contingent on how we can work more closely together to improve the overall experience for the consumer.

Prior to the president’s position at Mercury, you performed many roles. Did one in particular prepare you for your current job?

The first job that allowed me to put all the different pieces together was being the president of Attwood. From product development to supply chain and operation, having all those things work in unison, I got my first taste of it, and that was certainly exciting. When I came back to Mercury, having the opportunity to oversee the entire manufacturing process provided insight into every part of the business, from Lean Six Sigma to sales to supply chain and more. I think each step gave me the tools I needed to have the position that I have today — and having the right people around you makes all the difference in the world.

Are there any areas where you feel you need some work?

After reviews with our engineering team, I know there are a lot of things I don’t know. The work they’re doing in fluid dynamics and finite element analysis is amazing.

How do you deliver Mercury’s technology message to the consumer?

There are so many things that engineering does well that communicating the more complicated concepts in layman’s terms becomes the biggest challenge. I think that’s why our products are getting better, because of the depth of technology and the skill sets our engineers are working with.

What is the business plan for Mercury moving forward?

We don’t give out specifics on product plans, but if you look at the general trends in the marketplace, there’s a movement toward connected and integrated products, so certainly that will remain a key focus area for Mercury, as well as for our parts and accessories division. There’s a trend toward higher-horsepower engines. Of course, how we embrace our customers and how we work with them more collaboratively will be critical to our future, as well.

Where are the biggest areas of growth for the company?

Connectivity and technology are key aspects of the growth. So is being able to differentiate yourself in the marketplace.

Horsepower aside, what do you think differentiates Mercury from the competition?

We invest heavily in NVH [noise, vibration and harshness technologies] and in the quality of our engines, from design all the way through to function, so that investment pairs nicely with what we’re doing.

Not everyone wants their engines perfectly quiet though, do they?

One of the best features on some of our engines is the active exhaust feature. I found it interesting that the bass crowd loves the sound of the new Pro XS engines, so the quality of the sound is engineered to be pleasing. That’s how in tune we are to running quality.

The 450R is Mercury’s most powerful outboard, but is there more to the new V-8s than horsepower?

If you look at the way we engineered our engines, out of the same platform we launch a Pro XS for the performance segment, a SeaPro version for commercial, a race version for the go-fast people, and the standard Verado for bluewater boats.That meant a huge amount of work up front, but all the engine families benefit from the technology. The lessons we learn from making the SeaPro for the comercial sector is so robust that we can integrate it into the other products. Going into it with a good product plan was essential for us.

There’s been a lot of investment into Mercury headquarters lately. Is that going to continue?

We announced a new propeller plant expansion that’s set to be operational in April. We just added to our die-cast facility and the NVH lab. Around the globe, we’ve expanded in Mexico in our wiring harness facility. We’re continuing to invest globally in new product development and technology that will help us in the marketplace. There’s no slowdown of investment at Mercury.

Are there any projects at the innovation center that will have a direct impact on Mercury products?

The engineering and R&D teams work collaboratively with Brunswick’s i-Jet Lab at the University of Illinois. We tee up projects for them. A lot of the advanced development work gets done there, so I like to think it as an extension of Mercury, the boat group and our parts and accessories businesses to help bring talented people into the fold and work on some advanced engineering products for us.

Which divisions or physical properties of Mercury will receive the greatest investment in the coming year?

Product capital is spread pretty evenly throughout the organizations, whether it be propulsion, the parts and accessories group. Brunswick and Mercury will continue to invest in those.

Will we continue to see outboards get more powerful?

We have always said that outboards will continue to grow, and they will. A couple years ago, we launched the 350 Verado, which was our biggest outboard — then last Miami the 400 Verado, and then over the summer, the 450R. Looking forward, I see horsepower continuing to grow as consumer demand for these outboards continues to increase.

Do you have introductions planned for the Miami International Boat Show?

We’re always introducing new products. Miami won’t be any different, but there’s no major release like the V-6 and V-8 outboards of previous years.

Do you see outboards continuing to gain market share?

The outboard market has the momentum in the marketplace. Based on the data and the feedback that we’re getting from the marketplace and the dealers, I don’t expect that trend to change in the near term.

What is going on with sterndrives?

Sterndrives are still an important part of our business, and we’ll continue to develop and innovate products in the sterndrive market. There are products we have cued up for it. Mercury is the market leader for sterndrive product, and we’ll make sure to continue that leadership.

Are catalysts still a big challenge for making sterndrives affordable?

Catalysts do add cost to the total package. They’ve been implemented now for some time, so except for normal inflation, it’s not significantly changing the price going forward. But catalysts did add to the overall cost of sterndrives when they were legislated in.

Which technology do you think has had the biggest impact on making boat operation easier?

The biggest piece in innovation for Mercury has been Joystick Piloting. The ability to maneuver a boat around docks and be more comfortable, the joystick just opened up a new level for boating to become easier and for an operator to be more confident.

What technology do you think will make the next big splash?

We’ve already demonstrated our abilities in autonomy and assisted docking. That’s the general progression we’ll see. Anything to get people more comfortable operating boats and make maintenance less of a hassle while ensuring that the reliability of the engine is where we need it — those are key factors to us.

Is that why Mercury acquired companies such as Power Products and CZone?

From joystick piloting to CZone digital switching, it becomes all the more important to work as a partner with the OEMs and dealers to ensure products work seamlessly with the boat. That is why our continued investment in our product-integration teams ensures we put in the work up front with our builder partners to ensure a smooth integration process and not slow down the builder’s production. That work up front will help make sure there are minimal issues once the boat is received at the dealership and, ultimately, by the consumer.

Where are you with the assisted docking system and bringing it to market?

We want to make sure that we pair the technologies and the capabilities and the reliability with the price point to enter and be successful in the marketplace. Once we have those pieces aligned, we’ll head to market with it.

For Mercury, what is the breakdown of domestic versus international sales?

Approximately 70 percent U.S., 30 percent international. The more balanced we are, the better we feel, and this is why some key initiatives outside the U.S. are more commercial in nature. That’s why you saw us focus on our SeaPro commercial product line, which has been doing well for us. The second piece to help grow internationally is that people are moving away from 2-stroke technology, and as they move to 4-stroke, we are positioned to capitalize on that. We’re seeing that in Australia, for example.

Is sustainability important?

It’s a cornerstone. Mercury is rated as the No. 1 company for sustainability efforts in the marketplace. You have to think about that as you’re designing your facilities and your products: how we recover heat, how we reuse water, how we reduce waste and reuse packaging and containers. All that’s in the DNA of who we are. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2020 issue.

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