After a 16-year career as a journalist — including work as a sports reporter, then as an editor and publisher for consumer and trade marine publications — Matt Gruhn joined the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas as president in October 2011. He has since overseen its substantial growth in membership and staff. The larger network is an attribute that has been critical in navigating the covid-19 pandemic.
“We already had a very focused strategy, and so it has been natural to double down on our support of dealers when they need us most,” Gruhn says, adding that dealer engagement has been “off the charts.”
A graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, Gruhn has been a member of the Minnesota Outdoor Recreation Task Force and the board of the Outdoor Recreation Roundtable. He is a lifelong outdoorsman who enjoys boating, fishing, hiking, camping and skiing with his wife, Allison, and their two children, Madison and Gabrielle.
How did your background as an editor lead to you working at MRAA?
I was editor and publisher of Boating Industry magazine before I came over to MRAA. I worked in boating-related magazines for about 14 years, the last seven or eight of which were with the trade magazine. We created an awards program at the magazine — the Top 100 — beginning in 2005. Back then, when dealers applied, they would answer the application questions with long essays, process maps, handbooks and business plans, explaining how they created success in different areas of their business. We got to see deep inside the minds and business operations of some of our industry’s top dealer executives, and reading those applications was like reading a few hundred textbooks on how to run the best dealerships in the world.
What we learned, we turned into best-practice-focused educational content for the industry through articles in the magazine, through white papers. And in 2007, we began producing educational courses for MRAA’s annual conference. In 2009, our team was contracted to produce some of the convention on MRAA’s behalf. And then, when my predecessor here at MRAA, Phil Keeter, announced his retirement in 2011, it felt like a natural progression for me to move over to MRAA, to expand my focus on helping dealers be successful.
You joined MRAA post-recession. What did that time period teach you that’s helping during the covid-19 crisis?
When the recession hit in 2008, we responded almost immediately with an intense focus on educational programs aimed at helping dealers survive. We began publishing white papers on topics like surviving a down economy, how to manage your inventory, your service department and so forth. We moved to white papers quickly because the monthly cycle of the magazine business wasn’t conducive to getting information out when dealers needed it most, which of course was “right now.”
At the same time, we shuffled the content of that year’s MRAA convention to focus on how to survive and thrive in a down market, and we wound up doubling attendance. And then we doubled attendance again at the 2009 event, when things seemed like they were just continuing to get worse for the boating market.
I think what we, as a team, learned at that time was that listening to the needs of our dealers and responding with powerful resources was the key to success, and the growth we saw with industry participation underscores that.
The MRAA staff has grown substantially since you took over as president. How big are you now?
It does feel like substantial growth, being up to a dozen team members now. But the truth is, we’re still a small-staff association. To me, that underlines how extraordinary the results the team produces for our industry really are.
How much growth have you seen in active memberships?
Support from both dealers and manufacturers/ suppliers alike has increased significantly over the last few years, more than 250 percent. A lot of what happened there was that dealers recognized the value in what we were providing, from our benefits to the tools and resources in our Resource Center, all the way through to the conference and our Certification Program. And with our manufacturer partners, they’ve really identified that the MRAA of today is collaborative and constructive in helping to strengthen our industry in numerous ways.
Preceding the covid-19 pandemic, what were some of the key issues facing dealers?
Prior to this, almost everything seemed to be related to business operations. It was mostly around keeping pace with growth, adapting to changes in customer expectations, and workforce issues.
Where do issues such as workforce development and environmental considerations stand now?
The workforce issue never goes away. As small-business owners, our dealerships’ No. 1 concern is always about the health and security of their people and their families, so that doesn’t change. The challenge a few months ago was the ability to find additional qualified or better-qualified workers, and today the workforce concerns are more about how we can keep our dealership employees on the payroll. How can we navigate H.R. issues with a sudden pandemic and crisis on our hands? It’s just different workforce issues.
And the key issues facing boaters?
From a legislative standpoint, we were working a lot of issues around boating and fishing access restrictions; environmental issues like aquatic invasive species, harmful algae blooms and ethanol; and recreation-focused infrastructure issues like the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund and flooding resiliency, just to name a few.
They don’t go away because of the pandemic. We are working on issues now related to boating access in various states across the country. We’re working on flooding issues on the St. Lawrence River and in the Great Lakes; we had some great successes on the fishing front in Virginia recently; and we’re always concerned about water quality that impacts fishing, algae blooms and the spread of invasive species. Those topics are still top of mind in our advocacy efforts.
What has moved to the back burner during the pandemic?
We have actually been more aggressive on the advocacy side than ever before. We were fortunate last year to add a rock star of a government relations manager to the MRAA team, Adam Fortier-Brown. Adam’s family owns a dealership in Maine, and he grew up in the business, so not only does he understand the intricacies of our dealers’ challenges, but he’s also incredibly passionate about helping them overcome those challenges through his work. In that regard, we’ve ramped up our advocacy efforts significantly, and Adam has really taken on a leadership role in the industry on behalf of our dealers.
We are definitely advocating for different things today than we were even three or four months ago. Adam has been fighting to ensure the stimulus programs provide adequate small business relief. He’s been working in nearly every state to fight for essential status for our dealerships and marinas.
Most importantly, he’s been setting an incredible example of collaboration, working directly with the many state and regional marine trades associations across our industry. He’s hosting weekly conference calls with them, providing insight into what’s happening in Washington, D.C., listening to what’s taking place in their states, and collaborating to share resources among the group to help everyone navigate these uncertain times as a united team.
Tell me about the online covid-related tool kit you created.
We created a Dealer Action Guide for responding to the covid-19 crisis, and we’ve seen dealer engagement with MRAA on this resource go through the roof. We’ve literally had hundreds of dealers who have never engaged with MRAA before come to us for support and insight through downloads, online courses, discussion forums, our resource center and webinars.
A lot of this happened because we acted quickly to open up our resources to non-members, as well as members, at no charge. At the start of the year, we had set a goal to engage 270 new dealerships in 2020, and we actually engaged more than double that in less than the first 40 days of this crisis. The effort our team put into that was monumental, and we have heard directly from dealers that we’re helping keep them in business.
And the webinars?
It’s a similar story here. We kicked off 2020 planning to do 12 webinars this year. The week that the covid crisis really set in, we decided that webinars would be the No. 1 way we could communicate insights, advice and best practices to our dealers to help them survive. And we wound up producing 13 webinars in a 44-day period, with many more on the schedule for the coming weeks.
How are the MRAA, the NMMA and lending partners addressing boat loan payment relief?
We worked with the manufacturers’ association as well as the lenders’ association to call attention to the fact that we should provide some relief and forgiveness for consumers who will have trouble making boat loan payments during this time. We don’t want to see recent purchases dumped back into the marketplace through repossessions or the sale of preowned boats at ridiculously low prices. That will only drive down the market value of current and next-model-year unit inventory.
But there are also other considerations that we need help on. For example, some dealers have been forced into a work-from-home environment, and they need to conduct virtual closings with e-signatures and so forth. However, there are only a couple marine lenders we’re aware of who allow e-signatures on boat loan documents, so that can make selling boats even more challenging.
Did the pandemic force your organization to pivot from its core mission?
A pivot means to change direction, and that is the last thing that MRAA would consider. The MRAA exists to fuel the success of our boat dealers and, therefore, our entire industry. So rather than pivoting, we doubled down on what we do best to support our industry.
Out of the gate, on Monday, March 16, I told the team that whatever tasks were on their to-do list when they left work on that previous Friday were to be set aside. What’s important now is focusing on the immediate needs of our dealers. We then divided our staff into three teams, to focus on outreach, education and resource delivery, and marketing. We called hundreds of dealers to get a pulse on the market and to ask what they needed. Their answers to those questions were funneled to our education team, who responded by creating an array of resources. Those calls were the genesis of our webinars, our publications, our downloadable resources, and they will continue to be the foundation for everything we produce.
It was the marketing team’s job to get the word out on the availability of those products because if one dealer had specific questions or needs, certainly hundreds if not thousands of other dealers had them as well. At the same time, our strength at MRAA has always been the delivery of our educational programming. We knew that information in those courses could be critical to the survival of our dealers, so we decided to open it up for free to any dealer, no matter if they were an MRAA member or not. Our education and marketing teams then went in and blogged about the takeaways from those courses, and promoted their existence so dealers could maximize the opportunities these resources provide.
Engagement with our online courses is up by more than 190 percent. We are producing, almost daily, best-practice content, as well as critical data that we’ve gathered through polling about the state of our dealerships on a weekly basis.
How is MRAA pushing back against regulations that prohibit or curtail recreation?
I’ve said from the start of this crisis that boating and fishing provide some of the greatest opportunities for people to stay safe and healthy. The outdoors provides ample opportunity for social and physical distancing. When you couple all of that with the fact that most people across North America have been self-isolating inside their homes since early- to mid-March and the weather is finally warming up, it’s no surprise then that dealership website traffic is incredibly high, lakes in Minnesota were busy just days after ice out, and boat ramps in Florida were overloaded, with several-hours-long wait times. We’ve worked to provide states and decision-makers everywhere with insights into how boating can be enjoyed safely and how our industry’s businesses can deliver a safe and enjoyable boating experience.
What have you learned about your team and yourself during the crisis?
What I’ve learned is that leadership means, largely, the same thing during a crisis as it does during the good times, but clarity and communication are the critical ingredients that must be provided more regularly and at a higher level. You’ve got to have a plan. Without a plan, the uncertainty in today’s marketplace leaves you and your team without a direction. And while the truth is that the uncertainty can make your plan irrelevant in a short period of time, having a plan in the first place allows you to adjust confidently. Our team has been building and sharing short-term plans in two-week increments since the week this crisis really kicked in. Then we reassess and establish our next two-week plan. That short-term responsiveness has not only worked well, but it has also helped us grow closer to achieving our long-term plans.
Your plan has to provide hope. Leadership in today’s marketplace must acknowledge the risks and the unknowns that today’s market conditions threaten us with, but at the same time provide hope through a plan that communicates and provides a vision — you must show your team how you will prevail. You need to take quick, decisive action in times of crisis. There’s far less time these days to debate by committee and let decisions drag out until the next meeting, the next day or the next week. The stress over the consequences of decision-making can feel insurmountable and heighten the uncertainty, unless someone steps in and makes the tough decisions with confidence. Your team looks to you for that.
And perhaps most critically, as a leader you have to demonstrate adaptability. Just by the very definition of the word crisis, things are simply not going to go the way you have them planned. There are too many unknowns. It’s probably worth noting that this need for adaptability will be required of everyone on the team, not just the leader, and will be necessary for the foreseeable future. Make sure you communicate that every chance you get.
How have the year’s goals transformed?
As a nonprofit trade association, our goals are always about engagement and delivery of resources. We’ve worked really hard on building a team that lives and breathes our mission, and so we haven’t really needed to transform our goals, but sharpened our focus on helping our dealers through this specific crisis by producing an incredible array of new tools and resources and educational programming.
MRAA’s keystone event, Dealer Week, is scheduled for early December in Austin, Texas.
We are absolutely full-speed ahead with Dealer Week. You used the word keystone, and I think that’s important to understand. You could argue that this period of time represents our dealers’ greatest time of need. There are more challenges and unknowns in our marketplace than any of our dealership leaders have ever experienced in their lifetimes. This is truly the moment for which nonprofit trade associations like MRAA were originally meant to exist — to answer the call in our industry’s greatest time of need. And the MRAA team will step up to that challenge like never before.
Will we be able to host an in-person event with more than 1,000 people in December? As we sit here today, in mid-May, we don’t know the answer to that. But we do have the ability to produce a virtual experience that will not only provide the same level of powerful educational programming that we’re known for delivering, but will also make that education accessible to more dealerships than ever before.
So Dealer Week will take place, no matter what, with an option for us to host a hybrid event — an in-person event with a virtual component for those who can’t make it — or, should we be unable to host the in-person event, the virtual component will welcome our dealers and our partners to a new era of dealer education.
You are a longtime boater. What’s your perfect day on the water?
I got to experience that perfect day on the water last fall. We do quite a bit of boating in our family, but I had never really taken my daughters fishing. What a mistake that has been! While we were in the Florida Keys last fall, my wife and I took them fishing, and we got into quite a few fish. Nothing too big at first, but our youngest daughter, Gabby, landed a good-size fish, and just to see the sheer awe and excitement on her face is a memory I will never forget.
We stayed in the Keys for a few days after that, and both girls were practically begging to go fishing again. Who am I to tell them no? So we went again and had a blast. The only downside of the whole thing is that to this day, my oldest daughter, Maddie, and I still have to fend off the heckling over how many fish Gabby caught compared to how many we caught. I won’t go into the details here, but suffice to say these represent the absolute most perfect days on the water a guy could ask for.
This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue.