Strong Cornerstones

How the MRAA and NMMA brought together a fragmented, contentious industry
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The staff size of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas has grown as the group has developed. 

The staff size of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas has grown as the group has developed. 

The term “boating ecosystem” is common today, but less than 20 years ago, rancor existed between dealers and manufacturers. Considering that the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas dates from 1972, and that the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s roots stretch back to 1904, it has been a long road to get to where the industry is today.

“There was a lot of animosity and mistrust between dealers and manufacturers when I came on board in 1999,” says NMMA president Thom Dammrich. He says three things happened to improve those relationships.

One is that NMMA representatives had conversations with dealers about contracts and issues that were causing friction. The second thing to happen was the creation of the MRAA, which dealers Phil Keeter and Don Galey originally helped form to give dealerships a united voice, and which Matt Gruhn took to a new level by helping dealers improve — a change that manufacturers supported. “Matt came in with a whole new attitude and agenda focusing on improving the industry and helping dealers do a better job,” Dammrich says. “That gained support from manufacturers.”

The third milestone was that dealers and manufacturers began working together on Grow Boating. “There’s more interaction and cooperation on things that are important to all of us occurring between manufacturers and dealers today that would’ve been unthinkable 20 years ago,” Dammrich says.

The MRAA became necessary because modern-style boat dealerships didn’t start popping up until after World War II. After 15 or 20 of them were in business, they decided manufacturers weren’t giving them the respect they deserved, says Larry Russo Sr. of Russo Marine, which is now part of MarineMax.

“This was a very young, startup industry,” Russo says. “There were a lot of heavy-handed practices going on in the ’50s with manufacturers. A dealer would make a considerable investment in his market, and then a manufacturer would go set up a dealer down the street to capture the growing, burgeoning industry.

“That antagonism lasted for decades,” he adds, “until Thom Dammrich and Phil Keeter got together.”

The NMMA

The NMMA was formed 40 years ago, when the Boating Industry Association of Chicago and the National Association of Engine and Boat Manufacturers of New York merged. Jeff Napier became the NMMA’s first president, serving an 18-year tenure and laying the groundwork for today’s Grow Boating campaign. He also created a presence on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., to battle the luxury tax and work on other legislative issues.

At its inception, the NMMA had 450 members, two offices and a $3 million budget. It produced four boat shows and managed several other associations, including the Marina Operators Association of America, the PFD Manufacturing Association and the National Sailing Association. By the early 1990s, the NMMA had close to 1,800 members, a budget of more than $30 million, a Washington, D.C., office, state-level lobbyists and more than 20 boat shows that it produced annually.

NMMA staff at the 1999 Miami International Boat Show. President Thom Dammrich (second row, second from left) is credited with bringing dealers “into national conversations” with boatbuilders.

NMMA staff at the 1999 Miami International Boat Show. President Thom Dammrich (second row, second from left) is credited with bringing dealers “into national conversations” with boatbuilders.

When Dammrich came on board in 1999, he and Keeter formed a close relationship. “They spent a decade together until the transition to Matt Gruhn,” Russo says. “And they have a tremendous working relationship. I don’t sense the acrimony anymore between dealers and manufacturers. Thom has done a wonderful job of bringing retailers into national conversations.”

At that time, the NMMA had a budget of about $32 million and 130 staff. Today’s budget is $64 million, and the staff numbers about 96.

In his early days at NMMA, Uniting the Industry For Growth was the big campaign, Dammrich says. It identified problems but couldn’t get funding. Dammrich shelved it for a few years, until then-Sea Ray president Bill Barrington joined the NMMA board and asked to relaunch the initiative.

“It didn’t get done during his term, but we made lot of progress,” Dammrich says. “He challenged us to significantly grow our political action committee. We got up to half a million dollars per election cycle, and then the recession came. The goal is to get back to a half-million dollars per election cycle, and then to a million per election cycle.”

The decision was finally made to fund Grow Boating and Discover Boating with engine assessments, and later with accessories assessments. “These were all decisions that took courage, and it was all able to get done because we had strong industry leaders on our boards,” Dammrich says.

“The antagonism between dealers and manufacturers lasted for decades.” - Larry Russo, MarineMax

“The antagonism between dealers and manufacturers lasted for decades.” - Larry Russo, MarineMax

For the past 15 years, the NMMA has focused on advocacy and market expansion. In the past 18 months, the board took a more offensive advocacy approach. “We hired more state-level and federal staff and are continuing to beef up our advocacy team to pursue a proactive agenda,” Dammrich says.

A recent Coast Guard reauthorization included parts for which the NMMA advocated. The Modern Fish Act and a Georgia boat titling bill have passed — Alabama and Florida are close to passing similar bills — and the Bureau of Economic Analysis established the outdoor recreation’s contribution to the gross domestic product, resulting in the establishment of the Outdoor Recreational Roundtable, Dammrich says.

“Working with all of outdoor recreation, and getting BEA to put a number on overall outdoor recreation’s GDP contribution, has given us a tremendous amount of visibility,” Dammrich says.

Last year’s American Boating Congress had a record 250 participants, and the NMMA expects 300 this year. The group also has expanded its marketing outreach, with Discover Boating efforts and statistical market research. The Boating Statistical Abstract, which was about 100 pages 20 years ago, now is 400 pages.

“We’re doing a lot more work to provide good information about industry to the industry,” Dammrich says.

The MRAA

When Gruhn first came on board, he had just one administrative assistant working out of her Florida home. Today, the MRAA has 12 full-time employees. “It has been a slow growth and evolution over the last several years,” Gruhn says. “Our membership is, as far as dues-paying members go, up 220 percent from where it was in 2012.”

Gruhn says the MRAA’s focus is on providing dealers with tools, resources and educational opportunities. “We’ve doubled down on that by increasing the opportunities we make available through the annual conference,” he says, “by rebranding and relaunching Dealer Week.”

Manufacturers, including Correct Craft, are longtime MRAA supporters, and recently, Nautique engaged with the dealer certification program. “When they saw the template and opportunity the program offers their dealer network, not only did they invest significantly in it, they expanded to other brands [such as] Supreme and Centurion,” Gruhn says.

The NMMA at IMTEC, 1994. The association has made a sea change in the last 25 years, focusing heavily on advocacy and market expansion.

The NMMA at IMTEC, 1994. The association has made a sea change in the last 25 years, focusing heavily on advocacy and market expansion.

Brunswick and Yamaha have taken a similar approach. “Those conversations are happening with many more partners at this moment,” Gruhn says. “We had a manufacturer call the other day to ask, ‘How do we get every one of our 600 dealers involved in dealer certification?’ ”

A recent meeting involving manufacturer participants and the board was the first of its kind, Gruhn says. “This time, we had every one of our participants call three dealers to ask about their businesses,” Gruhn says. “Coming out of that meeting, our strategy responds to their needs. It’s amazing, the level of engagement you get when you just call a dealer and ask how their business is.” 

This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue.

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