Imagine a marine conference filled with boatbuilders and suppliers talking about business strategy, not boatbuilding, and no one trying to sell anything. Such is the ambiance over the past 15 years at the annual three-day Marine Leadership Alliance (MLA) meeting, where corporate members and their invited guests enjoy one another’s company and speakers who provide market updates, economic forecasts, and topical business issues for discussion.
MLA President Ned Trigg, Executive VP of Dometic’s Marine Division, explains that the C-suite members of the nonprofit group—now 13 marine supply companies—pay dues to cover costs of the annual conference and expenses (except for travel) for members and invited guests. Solicitation is forbidden, so the more than 120 attendees can interact as colleagues to address mutual concerns and market issues.
Trigg: “We have a good recipe. It’s a united investment in our businesses as ‘a rising tide lifts all boats.’”
The 2022 Marine Leadership Alliance Conference at the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa (May 1–3), planned for two years, brought together a group ready to absorb market reactions to the COVID-19 pandemic and tactics for navigating the thriving industry and an uncertain economic future. One of the event’s early speakers, Cam Marston—who has expertise in generational change and its impact on the marketplace and workforce—also served as the MC for the event. Over the next two days, he introduced economist and author Dr. Bill Conerly; NMMA President Frank Hugelmeyer; author and consultant Scot Hunsaker; economist Lauren Saidel-Baker of ITR Economics; author and investment specialist Zane Tarence; and social media marketing expert Leah Williams. Collectively, they established a useful informational foundation all attendees could apply to the radically changing marine marketplace. They did not address technical trends and material innovations of the industry. MLA is all business, not boatbuilding.
Leading the Marine Leadership Alliance conference was business consultant Scot Hunsaker of Ardent Group, who spoke on the importance of succession: “Turning Your Employees into Owners.” He pointed out that 73% of businesses do not have a succession plan, and 66% close when the founder leaves. He stressed the importance of having a personal as well as a professional vision, developing future leaders and giving them the latitude to take things to the next level. “Get the best people. Let them do the best job, and get out of the way,” he said. Hunsaker also outlined practical ways to enroll employees in ownership, providing a smooth exit plan for business owners.
Frank Hugelmeyer, the only marine industry speaker, addressed the current market, cautioning that a slowdown was imminent, given consumers’ pent-up interest in travel and their shift from purchasing durable goods to the service sector. His main message to boatbuilders was the need to diversify marketing. “Look at this room,” he directed the largely middle-aged white-male audience, stating that it was not the face of our cities, recruits, hires, or market. He encouraged builders to educate dealers to develop a more diverse market and change the traditional marketing approach to focus on a broader range of cultures, nationalities, races, and ages. He credited the sporting goods, tech, and auto industries with leading the way and claimed that Discover Boating has made great strides in steering the boating industry toward younger, diverse buyers, and trying to make consumer boat shows relevant to more people.
Hugelmeyer noted the trend to remote work does not apply to most of the marine industry, where people work on-site to build or service boats, a point appreciated by attendees struggling to bolster their workforces. He added that builders’ inability to deliver boats on order due to supply-chain and labor difficulties is pushing some owners to buy used boats.
Zane Tarence of the consultant Founders Advisors explained to his audience of boating industry owners and managers why “lifestyle” companies promoting family employees, distributions, and personalized policies/procedures are less attractive to investors than “growth equity companies” that hire professional managers, limit perks, and use “best practices” for policies and procedures.
His detailed action plan profiled the best leader as one with intellectual curiosity who was self-aware and coachable, who could focus on cash flow, grow revenue and market share, hire well, and retain talent. “Innovate or retire,” he advised.
The financial forecast from economist Lauren Saidel-Baker of the economic research and consulting company ITR Economics said that while a recession was not predicted in the 10-month forward indicators, the recent 7.4% fast growth that had caused product problems would slow. She said “disinflation” not “deflation” was occurring and that we should “throw out the playbook of the past decade.”
Saidel-Baker noted that while the U.S. economy is predicted to grow, international and domestic business-production cycles would vary, with distortion from the war in Ukraine. She listed myriad influential factors: the stock market, gasoline prices, population growth/movement, supply/demand issues, interest rates, labor shortages, spending, savings, inflation and wages. She advised, “Don’t get caught up on data; look at direction—it tells a clear and compelling story. It’s not what you hear in headlines.” She cautioned that a depression is ahead in approximately 2029, based on demographics, rising healthcare costs, entitlements, inflation, and the U.S. national debt. While delivering those sobering words, she remained optimistic, saying painful depressions also “represent incredible wealth-generating events.” She urged leaders to trumpet competitive advantages, adopt automation because labor shortages will continue, build relationships, gain market share, and build margins during good times.
Continuing the ominous economic outlook, consultant economist Dr. Bill Conerly’s “Survive the Next Recession, Thrive in the Next Boom” emphasized flexibility as the antidote to uncertainties from possible changes that could occur in civil rights, politics/government, competition, and economies. He defined “Flexible Stance Strategies” as including thorough downside contingency plans; upside contingency plans; evaluating everyday decisions (rent or buy? hire or outsource? debt or equity?); and strategy over cycles, such as strengthening finances when times are good, or acquiring assets when times are bad and prices are low. His practical guide was strong on planning, because “we don’t make good decisions in a panic,” he said. He also cited supply chain and labor as the biggest factors, because the 3.8% unemployment rate does not solve the problem of unfilled jobs while we are facing the lowest staffing age through 2030 since the Civil War. Again, sobering figures for the marine industry that’s built on a strong labor force.
Marketing strategist Leah Williams of 1929 Social Media spoke about “The Power of Influencers,” citing the number of followers influencers have to categorize: Nano (1k–10k), Micro (10k–100k), Macro (100k–1m), and Celebrities. She encouraged businesses to engage the right influencers to help build audiences through their posts about brands, making the case that influencer marketing attracts new audiences, engages current customers, converts credibility to action, retains community involvement, and advocates a shared experience. In addition, influencer marketing can address diversity by engaging people of different ages, sexes, sexual orientation, socioeconomic and geographic location, thus helping address the boating diversity challenge that Hugelmeyer identified.
Marston concluded the Marine Leadership Alliance with an in-depth look at the different mindsets and management styles of Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials, iGen, and Gen Z staff. And while most corporate management teams are work-ethic-driven Boomers, they struggle to understand younger generations. Marston supplied some tools to help them relate to new hires and staff in more personable ways that may be taxing on employers but worthwhile in the long run for retention. His propositions were perplexing to some attendees, who claimed the time and monetary investment was too great, while others countered that they couldn’t afford not to make the investment.