There are almost as many Fortune 500 company CEOs named John as there are female CEOs, despite the fact that women make up more than half the population and men named John comprise just 3.3 percent, according to The New York Times. And the male-dominated leadership may be hindering growth and returns: Companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are also more likely to have financial returns above their industry medians, according to McKinsey and Co.
The recreational marine industry, like so many other industries, has long been heavy on male leadership. But as more baby boomers retire and leave their marine businesses to their children, more women are taking leadership roles, especially at dealerships and in professional associations.
“The industry has gotten a bazillion times better than it was in terms of age, and I think there are more and more women involved,” says Stacy Greenwood, who took over for her father 15 years ago as owner and general manager of Cleveland Boat Center in Tennessee. Back then, she was one of two women at the dealership. Today, it is split 50-50 with men and women — and at age 46, Greenwood is the second-oldest person there.
Matt Gruhn, president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, says the marine industry’s shift toward younger leadership likely would have happened at least a decade ago if not for the Great Recession. “Prior to the recession, we had a lot of people who had been running dealerships for a long, long time and were nearing, or were past, your typical retirement age,” Gruhn says. “They had kids in the business looking to take over and were being groomed, but then the recession hit. When it wiped out the money people would use in retirement to sustain their lifestyles, you had a lot of people who all of a sudden were not just scrambling to survive and sustain their business but were working also to rebuild their retirement nest eggs.”
As the effects of the recession dissipated, patriarchs began leaving their businesses en masse, Gruhn says, creating the opportunities that younger generations are seizing now, as they take over their family companies.
Chuck Cashman, chief revenue officer and executive vice president of MarineMax, says that having younger and female staff members likely will be key to sales growth in the not-too-distant future. “There is a generation coming behind us, and I might not be the person to speak to them,” Cashman says, adding that millennials are likely to want a different sales experience. “I don’t know that the 55-year-old white male sales force is the one to be able to speak to them.”
After taking over Colorado Boat Center from their father, Eric and Ashley Smith created an environment that attracts younger workers. Of the 14 employees, eight are younger than 30, and five are women — comprising a third of the staff, in roles that include sales and service. “I believe that within our industry, gender diversity is something that is slowly being incorporated,” Eric Smith says. “I do still believe it’s an old boys’ network, but it’s also evolutionary. We’re an industry built up on mom-and-pop businesses, so it is the next generation that’s coming through.”
Managing younger workers takes a different mindset, he says. For example, he can’t overschedule millennials because “younger guys seem like they burn out a little bit quicker,” he says. “They’ve got personal ambitions, as well; they’re not defining themselves by their jobs anymore.”
Greenwood agrees that the millennial mindset is a more difficult one to manage. “Male or female, nobody wants to work at a location,” Greenwood says. “Everyone wants to work on-the-fly or from home, and I can’t figure out how to make that work with our business and industry. You can’t service a boat from your house.”
Even so, Greenwood adds, there are benefits to having more women and young people as staff members. “Including more young people and women opens the door to connect with more people and to sell more boats,” Greenwood says. “You’re widening your connection base. We need more women to actually boat, and the more women are employed in the industry, the more likely we are to get some boating.”
Tech-savvy millennials also are critical in delivering messages to people in new ways, several industry veterans say. “If you go into a meeting and everyone’s of the same mind and same opinion, you don’t need a meeting, do you?” Cashman asks. “It’s important to have people who have ideas that make you think, That’s not what I’d do, and listening to it and coming up with a solution. Our in-house marketing team is actually very young and diverse, and I think it pays off.”
Volvo Penta says its staff is half female. Female executives include Valerie Harriell, Volvo Penta of the Americas’ human resources vice president — one of very few African-American women in prominent industry roles. She was among the honorees of the Women’s STEP Ahead Awards for expertise in science, technology, engineering and production.
Harriell has championed diversity in the corporate workforce. Over the years, she initiated a Volvo Penta Professional Women’s Network, organized the Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Training classes for management teams, expanded the company’s summer internship program to include student mentoring and community outreach, and provided engagement training to company managers.
“We have a diversity week with all of Volvo,” Harriell says. “We have a map, and each employee puts a marker where they were born. It’s really a conversation piece and showcases our diversity. It creates a dialogue and helps people get to know each other. That’s key to our ability to work together, and I think that helps with our passion overall.”
Brunswick Corp. has also seen a marked increase in female employees across its rank-and-file workforce and up into its C-Suite. Mercury Marine’s assembly facility in Fond du Lac, Wis., has 20 percent more female workers than five years ago. Women on the factory floor account for 49 percent of that section’s workforce.
Ernie Anderson, general plant manager of assembly operations at Mercury, says the addition of robotic and other labor-reducing equipment has helped transform the assembly floor for men and women. “We’ve been trying to eliminate hand-loading across the facility and reduce wasted movement at every job station,” Anderson says. “At the end of the day, we want our workers to leave work feeling as good as when they came in.”
During a recent visit to the Mercury facility, women were at every station — assembling outboards with pneumatic tools, driving forklifts, performing diagnostics. “The goal is to make men and women interchangeable in all jobs,” Anderson says.
Brunswick’s C-Suite also has seen an influx of female executives in the last five years. The list includes chief information officer Danielle Brown, chief financial officer Neha Clark, Brunswick Boat Group chief marketing officer Lauren Beckstedt, Mercury Marine chief marketing officer Michelle Dauchy, and Judy Zelisko, Brunswick’s vice president of tax.
Brenna Preisser, longtime chief human resources officer and president of Brunswick’s Business Acceleration unit, is a good example of a younger female executive impacting the industry. Preisser started with the Brunswick Boat Group in 2004 as human resources manager, holding positions of increasing responsibility before being named president of the Business Acceleration unit after it launched late last year.
Business Acceleration groups Brunswick’s relatively recent startups, such as OnBoard, Nautic-On and i-Jet, with longer, established businesses such as Brunswick Acceptance Co., Brunswick Dealer Advantage and the recently acquired Freedom Boat Club. “The unit was formed with a few main priorities,” Preisser says. “We’re particularly focused on marine participation, especially engaging the next generation.”
Many of the businesses have the goal of reaching a younger, more diverse demographic than the traditional profile of a middle-aged, male boater. “I’m very passionate about our ability to be relevant with millennials,” Preisser says. “We intend to lead the industry and set the stage to get the next generation engaged.”
This article originally appeared in the July 2019 issue.