Marine Dealer Conference 2008

Reflections from the Marine Dealer Conference:
I have to admit something here. I was preparing for the worst. I had received some feedback from those that attended RVDA that the atmosphere was, well, depressing. The economy was front and center the reason for that. I was secretly preparing for a somber atmosphere at the Marine Dealer Conference and Expo in Las Vegas last week. To my pleasant surprise the tone and mood was as upbeat as possible given the current global economic head winds we are facing. I can say with confidence that the recreational marine industry is facing what will be a challenging 2009 with both an optimistic and practical business attitude.

To be fair to our brethren in the RV industry, their conference took place at a slightly different time. The equity markets had just started their wild gyrations and the election was not over, thus creating a fair amount of political uncertainty. The financial uncertainty is still here, but at least now we know who our next president will be, and regardless of what side of the aisle you sit on most agree that 2009 is going to be tougher than 2008.

I would sum up the theme of the conference like this. “Yes” things are tough – now go out and sell something. Being a salesperson at heart, I loved this message. Many of the panel discussions centered on surviving and thriving in 2009. No punches were pulled; what we got was straight talk from industry experts from both the retail side and the manufacturing and finance side of the business.

Some of the highlights for me were as follows:

John Spader talked a lot about taking an active leadership role in our businesses and “managing enthusiasm”. He suggested that we ask the following questions:

1. Ask your team: “Do you believe that we have the right leadership team to get through these tough times?” If not ask them “why” and “what” would they change. Enlist their involvement.

2. Ask yourself “What am I doing to manage the enthusiasm of my team?” Body language is more powerful than words. Do you walk around moping and frustrated all day? If so that attitude will be reflected by your team as well.

3. “Are you filling sandbags or saving towns”? In other words, does what you do have meaning or are you just punching the clock. Get at the heart of how each and every person in your business feels about what they do. Are they empowered? Do they feel like they are making a difference?

In the “Learning to Thrive” segment: Service – both providing exemplary customer service and servicing customers’ boats profitably was a popular topic this year. Panelists from Pride Marine Group, Sail & Ski Center, Seattle Boat Works and Woodward Marine discussed best practices used in their businesses to help them not only survive but thrive in a difficulty economy. Alan Bohling from Seattle Boats told the group about his daily health reports. These are a series of reports generated from DockMaster that allow him to quickly access sales, utilization, expenses (e.g. special orders) and cash flow. We of course appreciated the mention.

The “Industry Giants” panel is always a popular discussion since it includes leaders from the industry’s primary manufacturers. Irwin Jacobs, Chairman of Genmar believes that the single biggest issue crippling the marine industry is retail financing. He stated that his firm has committed $800M to fund a financing arm of Genmar. Brunswick and Yamaha have also taken similar measures.

As a provider of technology solutions to the marine industry, there were two main takeaways for me:

1. Business management providers and internet service providers must align themselves more closely to provide a complete “end to end” solution for dealers, boatyards and marinas. Retail customers are using the internet more and more to search for products and services as well as transact business. I believe that marine businesses should be able to leverage the internet to search for boats, purchase accessories and parts, select transient slips, request services, rent boats and pay bills. To do this seamlessly and to make sure that customers are receiving relevant content from marine businesses, both internet and back-office providers will need to work more closely to cut down on duplication and double entry.

2. In this economy, business management solution providers will need to offer affordable solutions to marine operators. One way to accomplish this is to provide “web-based” access to business management software. This can be done by utilizing hosting providers who have built businesses around hosting applications for businesses of all sizes. This will keep the recurring cost of maintaining software down for everyone in the supply chain, allowing marine operators to focus on their business and not on computers and networks.