Q&A with Frank Hugelmeyer

Incoming President, National Marine Manufacturers Association
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Frank Hugelmeyer: 

Incoming President, 
National Marine Manufacturers Association

Frank Hugelmeyer: Incoming President, National Marine Manufacturers Association

At this year’s International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition and Conference, Frank Hugelmeyer will replace Thom Dammrich as president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Dammrich, who joined the association in 1999, has had arguably the greatest impact of any NMMA president, both within and outside the industry, in its 40-year history.

Hugelmeyer had an outsized influence on the Outdoor Industry Association, where he was CEO for 14 years after executive stints at equipment manufacturers Bodyguard Fitness and Lowe Alpine. At OIA, Hugelmeyer turned an unknown association in a fractured industry into a 1,300-member trade group. He also was integral to the success of the semiannual Outdoor Retailer trade show, watching it grow by almost 15 percent over a decade.

Hugelmeyer was one of the first to recognize the economic impact of the outdoor recreational industry on U.S. gross domestic product. Working with multiple associations, including the NMMA, the coalition created the first Outdoor Recreation Report, in 2012, which led to successive reports and recognition of outdoor recreation as a sizable industry that produces 2.2 percent of GDP.

Over the last decade, Hugelmeyer and Dammrich worked with others trying to unite recreational sectors to become a more integrated voice for the outdoor sector. The two were key to establishing the Outdoor Recreational Roundtable, a coalition of the country’s largest outdoor recreation trade associations.

The incoming NMMA president has also been active on volunteer boards. He sits on the boards of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Outdoor Recreational Roundtable, co-founded the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, and when he was at OIA, co-founded the Outdoor Foundation.

As president of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association for the last four years, Hugelmeyer oversaw its Go RVing marketing campaign, along with a new trade show. Living in Washington, D.C., he also led the group’s advocacy efforts.

First question for our new NMMA president: Are you a boater?

I’m a passionate boater and angler — it’s what I do on vacation every year. I grew up on Long Island, and when I was a kid our family used to camp out on Fire Island in a 28-foot Seabird that my father purchased at the New York Boat Show. We stayed in a place called Davis Park, which was a family summer community. My father would commute on the ferry to his dental practice and leave my mother, brothers, sisters and me on the boat. What an incredible way to grow up.

It sounds idyllic.

We had a family armada out there. One set of grandparents owned a Chris-Craft and the other a Pembroke. My aunts and uncles had an Egg Harbor, Robalo, Cobia and Hatteras. When we weren’t at the beach, we were fishing offshore or clamming and crabbing in the Great South Bay. When my brothers and I got older, we’d go offshore in the boat and catch something that my father had never caught. Spending time on the water was such a cherished family tradition. It’s something that continues to this day with Nancy, my wife of 31 years, and my son, Cole.

“It’s vital that we continue to beef up our advocacy efforts so we stay proactive and on the offensive.”
 — Frank Hugelmeyer

“It’s vital that we continue to beef up our advocacy efforts so we stay proactive and on the offensive.” — Frank Hugelmeyer

How do you mean?

Cole is an avid outdoors person, like I am. We both share a passion for sport fishing and fly-fishing. We spend all our vacations boating or fishing.

Did he follow your footsteps in outdoor recreation?

He’s at Princeton University getting his Ph.D. in mathematics. He’s married to his college sweetheart, who works at BlackRock as a data analyst. They’re high performers. He’s a wonderful guy, and I feel lucky to be his dad.

How did you end up in outdoor recreation?

I went to college in upstate New York and became a climber. I spent a lot of time on the Gunks, a big climbing area near New Paltz. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I worked at Paragon Sporting Goods in New York City as a merchandiser for their mountaineering products. Then I got a job at Bodyguard Fitness, which was then part of the world’s largest sport-fitness company. I handled sales and marketing, opening up 10 global markets. That job gave me a great understanding of the retail and manufacturing sides of the business.

You also worked at Lowe Alpine.

I was vice president of sales and marketing for seven years. I oversaw the Americas, and we increased international sales from $25 million to $64 million. We were a privately held manufacturer of rock-climbing gear and apparel, and our management team sold the company in 2000. At that point, I became president and CEO of the Outdoor Industry Association. I held that position for 14 years, at which point I became president of the RV Industry Association.

What were your major achievements at OIA?

Two efforts come to mind. The first was defining the huge outdoor recreation economic impact for the first time ever, and the second was working with Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to establish the first state Office of Outdoor Recreation in the country. Those two campaigns transformed how state and federal policy makers view outdoor recreation. They saw outdoor businesses were no longer just nice to have around, but serious contributors to the economy. Eventually that led to the federal government measuring our impact, and it was stunning how big we are. It was 2.2 percent of GDP. Without the recognition of our economic impact, I don’t think you would’ve seen Sally Jewell, former CEO of REI, become Secretary of Interior in 2013.

The breakthrough work in Utah by our staff led to 15 other states forming state offices based around the economic development of outdoor recreation. They were also the catalysts for my introduction to the NMMA and the team here.

Hugelmeyer bonefishing with Orvis vice chairman Dave Perkins. 

Hugelmeyer bonefishing with Orvis vice chairman Dave Perkins. 

How so?

NMMA was behind our original 2012 report, which started our collaboration with Thom and his team, as well as the Motorcycle Industry Council, American Sportfishing Association, Western Governors Association and others. It was a huge effort that connected the Outdoor Industry Association with the broader outdoor recreation community. It eventually led to the formation of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable three years ago.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing NMMA?

It may be a little early to fully answer that. I’m spending time listening to our members and the staff. Right now, my top priority is to understand our members’ burning issues — what keeps them up at night. We need to make sure this association remains invaluable to them.

We also need to keep pace with the rapidly changing consumer and business landscapes, and the waves of disruption that are coming at every business. Whether new technologies or demographic shifts, consumers are changing outdoor recreation, now and in the future. We need to evolve to stay relevant.

How can the marine industry do that?

For the last few years, we’ve been making great progress with NMMA’s regulatory and legislative efforts. We’re also facing the most unpredictable political environment that I’ve ever been a part of — constantly changing tariffs and constant tweeting are good examples.

I’m a big fan of business predictability because it helps our members plan and grow. Whatever happens, I think it’s vital that we continue to beef up our advocacy efforts to stay proactive and on the offensive. That’s a large part of why I’ll continue to be based in D.C. I feel like I won the job lottery — I get to live in D.C. and visit Chicago often, then go to Florida boat shows in the winter.

How can you apply what you did in the outdoor industry to boating?

I think we learned through our Outdoor Retailer show, which brought many activities together, that you need to look at outdoor recreation not as a single activity, but as a multiactivity lifestyle choice. We did the research to back up that assumption and found that eight out of 10 people who identify as outdoor enthusiasts want to try other activities. That means most people who want to hike or bike also want to try boating. We’re not industries in individual silos, but all connected. The more we all come together, the bigger the pie will become. We brought that mindset to RVIA and the Go RVing team. I think it’ll serve NMMA and Discover Boating to explore it more.

Boating is significantly more expensive than most other outdoor sports.

Cost wasn’t a barrier in the RV industry, where we saw big growth. It’s more about being the vehicle that allows a multiexperience lifestyle. We’re seeing a significant rise in the experience economy. For millennials, the currency we’re selling is a life well-lived. That can be a marketing goal if you tap into it the right way.

In the ’80s and ’90s, the mindset was to do just one activity. That’s not what the consumer is looking for now. Boating is competing with anyone who wants to sell a lifestyle experience. Fortunately, boating offers a menu of experiences for the consumer — think about all the ecosystems you see in boating. People will pay for the value they see in the recreation.

What was it like moving from outdoor recreation to recreational vehicles?

OIA gave me insight into how top global brands operate as organizations in areas of brand-building and corporate sustainability. RVIA gave me insight into the manufacturing side of Middle America, how to run a great consumer show and how to get consumers into the Go RVing lifestyle.

Both industries had wonderful cultures and operated in individual silos. What’s interesting is that they have an amazing unity but don’t know each other at all.

Yet they share the exact same consumers. That separation is not a strategic advantage. It goes back to how the customer sees all outdoor lifestyles as being connected. There’s so much potential in reaching out to other sectors to grow the market. Our competition is not each other.

That’s why I appreciate what NMMA has done to unify the marine industry and work together. I want to keep unifying the boating sector while having a strong seat at the table to unify the entire recreational sector.

Members of the Outdoor Industry Roundtable, including Hugelmeyer (second from left) and Thom Dammrich (far right) meet with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (center). 

Members of the Outdoor Industry Roundtable, including Hugelmeyer (second from left) and Thom Dammrich (far right) meet with U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (center). 

Having overseen Go RVing, how do you see Discover Boating?

It’s a strong, ongoing initiative. I’ll be looking to continue the momentum that Thom, Carl Blackwell and the team have created. I’m a big strategy guy. We have a brand-new, three-year strategic plan. It’s clear what the members and industry are looking for, and it will be clearer for me as I go around with my listening sessions for my own personal understanding.

Obviously, inspiring and motivating the consumer of the future is a major go-forward initiative. The other is strengthening advocacy efforts and political influence at the federal and state levels. I see my time here as a data-driven evolution, not a revolution. There’s a lot of great work being done here. We have a fantastic foundation to build on.

Your RV campaigns did a good job representing diversity. What about boating?

Obviously, I’ve been passionate about boating since childhood, but I’ve also been observing the industry for years. When I say diversity, I’m thinking age, ethnicity, culture and gender. It’s an area where I believe the marine industry is behind other recreational sectors. And the efforts need to go beyond tokenism, whether it’s Discover Boating or industry hiring practices — all the way from a salesperson in a dealership to executive leadership.

We need to reflect not only the face of America, but also the values of that next-generation consumer. I view that as critical to our long-term relevance. No matter what industry you’re in, you have to keep pace with the consumer. Our buyers need to see themselves and their families in our products.

Are you seeing much of that in the marine industry?

We reflect the face and values of modern consumers in our NMMA staff, but I’m not sure we do across the entire industry. It’s a poignant question that the industry needs to keep asking itself and, more than that, act upon.

With Utah Gov. Gary Herbert at the opening of the first state department of outdoor recreation.

With Utah Gov. Gary Herbert at the opening of the first state department of outdoor recreation.

Did you see more of it in the RV industry?

That industry is behind, too. We did a very good job in the Go RVing campaign to reflect that consumer, but the industry itself is far away from where that consumer is now. If your business practices don’t align with the consumer, you’re vulnerable. We don’t want to be followers; we want to be leaders.

Where do you see opportunities?

I see so much potential across the entire organization. Certainly, the 18 consumer shows are a major strategic asset for the industry. In this post-Amazon environment, the consumer has the control. The boat shows are an incredibly valuable outreach arm for consumer acquisition, as well as a laboratory to bring in new consumers. That really excites me.

What else would you like us to know about you?

I’ve spent much of my career volunteering in purpose-driven organizations, and I see the NMMA as a model in that regard. It’s interested in conservation and dealing with issues important to boating. That was key for me in making this shift. I’m excited to spend the latter part of my career in this marine ecosystem. I’ve been fortunate to have my career become a vocation, and it all started with boating. In a way, I look at this as coming home.

This article originally appeared in the September 2019 issue.

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