This spring, Kevin Williams was on the verge of completing his first year with the National Marine Manufacturers Association. He joined the organization in June 2021, bringing two decades of strategic marketing experience to the boating community.
Williams views his role as helping the recreational marine industry deploy strategies to achieve diversity, and to recognize diversity’s importance to the bottom line. This is particularly true, he says, for connecting with communities that traditionally have been underrepresented at marinas.
Over the years, he has witnessed some cringe-worthy moments, including customer service employees allowing ethnic stereotypes to cloud their minds with negative assumptions about people of color entering a showroom. He has also experienced inspiring milestones, such as a black teen from the Deep South earning a university scholarship in bass fishing.
Williams emphasizes the importance of employee resource groups in the workplace, and says top executives must take direct, personal interest in a companywide commitment to diversity. He also says the NMMA’s Discover Boating initiative can help to attract underrepresented groups to the water.
What was your first professional recognition of the need for diversity, equity and inclusion?
I was born and raised in Chicago, and attended the University of Illinois. I moved around a good bit. I worked for Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola in Atlanta, and was with several ad agencies. On the automotive side, BMW of North America in New Jersey. I am passionate about reading and traveling, and I love cars. I also played sports growing up, and I think all of that has kind of allowed for me to work in team environments and see things through variety of lenses, particularly, as you mentioned, with diversity, equity, inclusion.
I guess from a business perspective, I’ve always been, in my own professional life, one of or the only one in a role. At Procter and working with a group of folks, I was the only African-American in the group. When I worked at Coke, it was a lot different because where Coke is headquartered, in Atlanta, there was a lot of diversity there. However, I was in the corporate strategic marketing group on the global side. When I traveled around the world, I was the only African-American, more than likely, doing work in France or doing work in Tokyo or Taiwan or Taipei or Australia or wherever the world took me.
But several years forward after I left Coke, I worked for a multicultural advertising agency. At that point in time in my career, I didn’t see diversity, equity and inclusion the way that it’s defined today. It was just multicultural marketing. Then the equity and inclusion is a little bit different when you talk about fair opportunities in the workplace.
What did you learn in the consumer and automotive sectors that later can be applied to DEI initiatives?
I’ll speak to Coca-Cola because my role there was a larger role: brand manager.
Sprite was a wonderful brand to work on because Sprite had something called a Sprite 3-on-3 basketball tournament. It was fun, but it turned serious for me. We’re bringing basketball and a passion that we know to these diverse communities. However, we’re trying to get them to drink more soda. You know what I mean? Is that the right thing? Because that was our ultimate goal, to sell soda. We already were going to diverse neighborhoods and communities where there’s a lot of health disparities, and I’m the guy basically saying, “Hey, drink more soda, drink more Sprite, drink more carbonated soft drink.”
When I brought this to the attention of the senior managers, they said, “You have a point. Let’s make sure when we go to these communities moving forward, that we bring a portfolio of beverages, not just the Sprite.” We bring the Minute Maid juices or the waters or what have you. That was one of the things at Coke that I was able to do and make a change here.
Your success at BMW was different because you were able to wear two hats?
I mentioned earlier about multicultural, and I had mentioned diversity, equity and inclusion. Well, I had both jobs at BMW, and that was unique because on one hand, you have the DEI side that’s internal with hiring practices and what’s happening at plants and all of that. Then obviously on the multicultural side, that’s the advertising, that’s the cool stuff where you’re basically showcasing people in cars and showcasing these beautiful cars and how they fit into someone’s life.
Because I oversaw both, it allowed for me to have direct contact with the CEO because he was very involved with the DEI side, which I believe is critical today. If you don’t have your leadership engaged and involved and at the table, it doesn’t matter. It won’t happen. Or you’ll have a challenge with it happening in terms of making a difference within your organization and people basically respecting other individuals or hiring other individuals that don’t look like themselves and being comfortable with that. Having employee resource groups within the organization, so the people that are part of these groups feel like there are some support groups if they find themselves 1 percent of the entire workforce.
What we were able to do there, having the CEO’s voice and ears on the marketing side, we launched programs that targeted the LGBT community in a positive way. We honored women. If you think about BMW, it is testosterone-driven, hard-core, the “ultimate driving machine.” There are women out there who love to drive fast, but there are women out there who just love the nice, cool, great luxury vehicle. We weren’t doing a really good job of speaking to women. We were doing a really good job of speaking to their husbands.
How did that thinking translate into practices?
At our dealerships, and this is the diversity/inclusion side, I was able to bring the two together so that when a woman walked into a BMW dealership, the salesperson didn’t look over her shoulder and ask her, where’s her husband? Because they would get that. I had women tell me, ‘“I want the car,” but it’s so painful. I had a woman actually say this to me: “It’s like getting a root canal. I’ve got to do it. It’s painful, but let’s just get it over with.”
Women walked into our dealerships, and they would basically not have a good experience, but they wanted the car so they just dealt with it. We changed that. We created programs that trained individuals to understand that if an African-American came into a dealership, just because he had dreadlocks or he had Timberland shoes on or whatever, don’t judge that book by its cover. That guy could be an attorney. That guy could be a doctor. That’s just the way he prefers to dress. His style of dress has nothing to do with his intellect, his education or his financial abilities.
It was a beautiful opportunity because I was able to create programs and initiatives that reframe the thinking of the individuals selling cars, the individuals hiring people. We had a program called the Step program. That Step program identified African-American young men who were technical school students, who were perfect for aftermarket, the mechanic areas of dealerships, or even at the plants. A lot of initiatives around that were my focus, and really helping BMW understand the buying power of Latinos. Third-generation Latinos are more likely to be more educated and have higher incomes than first- or second-generation Hispanics. They’re likely to be the first in their families to go to college. We need to basically speak to them with luxury vehicles versus trucks, because some people think of them as blue-collar workers, like they’re only there to work on your roofs and mow your lawns and do all of the dirty work. Well, there is a group that sit in front of Zoom cameras just like the rest of us every day, and they don’t get their hands dirty, and they make a lot of money.
You’ve spent a year looking at the recreational boating industry. What’s the same, and what’s different in this sector?
The target audiences are similar. When you talk about boats, you’re probably looking at your household income, your creditworthiness, all of these different things. That’s one of the things that we saw on the automotive side. I saw an opportunity here where several different audiences were not spoken to. I grew up boating. I grew up fishing. It’s not as though the industry sought you out. You found it on your own. People go on vacations all the time. That’s where a lot of people, particularly minorities, have their experience with boating. They rent a boat. They get a [PWC] while they’re on vacation. Then they come home and they don’t buy a boat.
I think there’s an opportunity within this industry, and the money’s there. The financial, the desire is there, but you don’t know what you don’t know when someone’s not marketed to. If you’re just marketed to as a boater, it’s not the same as what your experience could be with boating. Same thing on the luxury car side. Hispanics and African-Americans basically kept the automotive industry alive during the pandemic. The numbers did not decline with their purchases of new cars. The opposite could be said about the general population. I think there are opportunities within our boat dealerships to basically understand their geographic footprint and who lives within those geographies, and how to speak to those individuals, and then to hire your customer base.
If you live in a geography or a ZIP code where it’s 20 percent African-American, 50 percent white, 10 percent Hispanic, you want to have that diversity within your dealership, as well. You want to represent what’s around you. Obviously, at the NMMA, we don’t control how and whom people hire, but we’re providing best practices where we can share case studies, because at the end of the day, diversity can increase the bottom line.
How can marine employers ensure that new hires are comfortable, have a sense of belonging and have a voice in the organization?
That’s obviously the culture of the organization. It has to start there because once you walk in the door, you know where you’re welcome and where you’re not welcome. You can feel it. People say all the time, “Oh, it felt different. It felt good.” Or, “It felt bad.” You get to create that culture where it’s welcoming and every individual is treated the same.
I see a person who may not look like someone else, but I see that the way that person’s spoken to, I’m spoken to the same. I’m afforded the same opportunities as that person, and there’s an open-door policy relative to me sharing some of what my issues, concerns or thoughts may be based on my desire to advance within the organization. Or an issue that I may be having with someone in the organization, and I have been supported. Creating that culture is something that a lot of folks are working on in the marine industry. I know that firsthand.
How can companies avoid subjecting colleagues and customers to inadvertent prejudices or stereotypes?
At the end of the day, you have to respect someone who’s not the same as you or didn’t come from the same background as you. The example I gave earlier about the African-American young man — and this was actually a true story — he walked into a dealership. He had dreadlocks, and he had on Timberland boots, and not one salesman spoke to the person. He went over to Mercedes across the street and bought an S 500 Mercedes and drove into the BMW parking lot and gave the salesman who ignored him a thumbs-up. That was because that guy was looked upon as, “I don’t know if he’s going to rob me or if he can afford it,” or whatever the case might be.
Those stereotypes, you have to basically remove them in the workplace. I think you have to be respectful of the fact that someone comes from a different community. You don’t know their background. You don’t know their family history. You don’t know what their parents may have gone through in order for them to be where they are today. All of those different things are important.
How does Discover Boating have potential to diversify the customer base?
We want people to discover boating and discover this boating lifestyle. In order to do that, people have to see themselves. They have to see that it’s attainable. What we’re trying to do is to reach people where they live, work and play. Involve them in gaining access to our boat shows, where they can see these boats, talk to people, talk to dealers, talk to manufacturers, and understand that, one, they are affordable, and, two, there are people like me who are on the water boating.
One of the strategies we have at Discover Boating is connecting communities. If you are a person who enjoys fishing, you don’t have to be black, don’t have to be white. You’re thinking, I want to connect with a group of people that fish and just happen to be around the age of 35. We are going to help you find them. Now, if you desire to find a group of
African-American guys and girls around the age of 35 that you want to fish with, we want to help you find them if that’s the group that you’re interested in. If you’re interested in an LGBTQ group, you want to be able to hang out with them. You’ll retain those boaters. That’s an invitation to see you out here.
We’re welcoming people to the water, and that’s not done all the time because sometimes it’s, “You’re not invited out here. Yes, go do that on your vacation, but when you come back, we don’t want you out here because we’re the real boaters.”
We want people to see themselves there. We have a kid, for example, from Louisiana, 19-year-old kid, African-American kid. He’s the first African-American to receive a scholarship for bass fishing in the state of Louisiana, and the first African-American to receive a fishing scholarship to Louisiana State University, and the fourth African-American to receive a scholarship for fishing in America’s history. We’re telling that story. When you think about a 19-year-old kid having a scholarship, and he’s just having a Sprite, and he’s talking to his friends on a Saturday and they go, “So you have a scholarship to LSU. What do you play, football, basketball, baseball?” “Nope, I fish.” We’re telling that story. ESPN loves that story. When he went out fishing with his grandfather and his father, he caught his first fish. He said he fell in love with it, and that’s the only thing he’s ever wanted to do. Stories like that. We tell another story about an LGBTQ couple, a married couple. Those kinds of things, we want to bring that forward so people can see themselves.
How can boating executives and managers send a signal that diversity is a priority?
It’s very important for the CEO, president — whoever that leader may be — to have that role reported into him or her, first and foremost. You can’t farm it out to human resources. That happens in a lot of organizations. If they do not have the role reported to them, at least be an active participant. If it’s a committee, whatever, that leader should be a part of that group. Just like you would look at annual plans, whether those are marketing strategy, sales strategy, results from that, the same rigor should be a part of that diversity effort because diversity also, at the end of the day, touches the bottom line. A diverse workforce is positive for the business. In the case studies you look at, that’s proven over and over and over.
If this work is done right, we won’t have to have a DEI separate division. If this work is done right, if it’s embraced by the organization from supply chain to dealerships to corporate marketing, corporate sales, et cetera, then we’re doing a good job where it’s become commonplace.
What does it look like when the wrong signals are being sent?
I’ve had, yes, some organizations that didn’t embrace it. The chairman did not want to have anything to do with it. The chairman basically said, “Why do we need to do this?” The chairman looked at it here in the U.S. as, this was more about gender and head count. How many women do we have? Did we check that box?
I think time is the other thing. Set aside time to meet these people. I think the CEO should meet these people. A new person should be able to shake the CEO’s hand. Obviously, you can’t do that in every organization, depending on the size of it, but the marine industry, it’s smaller in a big scheme of things with your manufacturers or your brands. You can do it.
What goals can a business owner or manager set that are achievable?
The team you surround yourself with is important, because a lot of the managers that are in roles may not have experienced any of the challenges that the people and the candidates or the employees or the associates experience. Having a team that can help that manager navigate and support and help develop and execute programs. Employee resource group programs, for example. A lot of organizations, they don’t want ERG programs because they feel as though they’re creating all these little groups, and these little groups are creating challenges because their voices are, “I’m not treated fairly as an African-American,” or, “I’m not treated fairly as a Latino; I need Hispanic heritage.” You need people that are part of that group that are sensitive to the needs, the desires, the experiences that some of these groups have had so that you can figure out what kind of programs you want to formalize, but they have to basically take time and be committed to it.
Less is more. I think that’s important. I think a lot of organizations try to do too many diversity things because they feel guilty. They want to celebrate every single day, so no one’s left out. They fall into that trap, and of course you always leave someone out. Rather than that, let the organization know that according to our plans this year, these are the things we’re going to accomplish. This is what you should expect.
You can alleviate that if you’re upfront and transparent with your organization and sharing that out, how you’re meeting those goals and how you’re building momentum for your three-year plan. If you have a three-year plan, we need to accomplish these things first, and we have to hold ourselves accountable, but less is more.
Five years from now, how do you think the diversity landscape will be different from what we see in 2022?
My hope would be that the industry would take the initiative to move in a direction forward where it’s clear that the health of the industry is going to be dependent on the diversification of its customer base. Because if you continue to sell to the same group of people, you’re going to get a diminishing return.
The great news is when you think about the next five years, diversity in America is going to be greater. You’ve got Gen X, and you’ve got millennials. They already live in this diverse world. They see the world a little different than their parents and some of their ancestors. The younger group, I think that there’s a lot of hope there. I think they’re our next generation of buyers, and as we’re connecting with that next generation of buyers who are more diverse than we’ve ever had in this country, I think it’s going to cause a healthier industry.
There’s an opportunity to increase diversity within manufacturing. I think they do a good job of that already. Similar to what the automotive industry’s been able to do. From an innovation standpoint, there’s a lot of education there. It’s not your typical mechanic that he’s all greasy and is sliding up and down under a car. There’s so much technology now with the skill set that’s required to work on and build these kinds of fiberglass boats and these next-generation boats. That comes with a great opportunity for diverse individuals who may not have seen this opportunity as desirable in the past.
I think the other opportunities are within the boat dealerships. There’s a huge opportunity there for people to see themselves when you walk into a dealership. Then, I think another thing is boat shows, as boat shows basically become experiences.
This article was originally published in the June 2022 issue.