My Memories of the Past 50 Years: Time Flies When You’re Having Fun

Ben H. Sherwood

When I learned that Boat and Motor Dealer magazine’s 50th anniversary was in 2008, it made me realize that I have been involved with this industry just a few months shy of 50 years. Time flies when you are having fun. Actually time flies by even if you are not having fun. Much of the almost 50 years I have been involved in this industry were great fun – but there were times when it wasn’t so much fun. But it seems to me that each year time seems to fly by faster than the year before.

In reminiscing about my experiences over the past 50 years, I recall being newly released from active duty as an Air Force officer in February 1959 after a year of flight school and three years on active duty. After hanging up my uniform (it still fits) I started to work for OMC as a sales trainee, then as a District Sales Manager selling outboard motors. It was a different industry back then. Much different! Dealers in those days thought of themselves as Evinrude, Johnson, or Mercury outboard motor dealers, not as dealers of a specific brand or brands of boats. Often when a prospective dealer contacted a boat company about handling their boats, the first question they would be asked was, “What outboard motor line do you have?” If the prospect didn’t have one of the big three name brands, the boat builder usually lost interest. That identity with an outboard brand has certainly changed over the years and many dealers now handle multiple engine lines.

In the 50’s and 60’s, I saw a lot of outboard motor brands come and go. Brands like Scott-Atwater and Oliver entered the market but were short lived. Unknown to many in the industry today, a Division of OMC named Gale Products, Galesburg Illinois was at one time the world’s largest manufacturer of outboard motors, selling over 100,000 outboard units in one year. Most of this volume was generated by a pent up demand after WWII. In those years Gale manufactured smaller hp engines including a 1 1/2, 3, 5, and 12 hp units. Later they added a 25, 35 and then a 60 hp V-4 model. Gale Product’s unit volume gradually dropped to the 50,000-unit range into the early 60’s. Primarily Gale made private label branded outboards like the Montgomery Wards Sea King, Gambles chain store’s Hiawatha, the Atlas outboard, which was a brand of Standard Oil’s Tires, Batteries and Accessories group, Goodyear Sea Bee, Federated Department stores Fedway engines, and the Brooklure marketed in Spiegel’s catalog. Most of these large retailers dropped out of the private label outboard business and by 1960, Gale was building only the Ward’s Sea King plus the Gale Buccaneer outboards that were first marketed through distributors then, from about 1959 through 1963, direct to dealers. In 1963 OMC decided to drop both lines with the assumption that Johnson and Evinrude would pick up the lost volume. That never happened. Other brands that came and went were Clinton, Eska, Elgin, Martin, Champion, Homelight, West Bend that was bought out by Chrysler and given that name and then was bought out again by Bayliner and re-named Force, and a few other brands I don’t recall.

In the 50’s and 60’s, most boat builders were pretty much regional and in some cases very local. I remember calling on a prospect who I learned was building a few boats in his garage and wanted to retail them with an outboard motor. In my early years in the industry, lapstrake wood boats, molded plywood and aluminum boats were the only recreational boats that were available. Lapstrake boats included well-known brands like Lyman, Thompson, Penn Yan, and Cruisers. I always thought the wood lapstrake boats were beautiful and I used to drool over them at shows and in dealer showrooms. Shell Lake and Larson boats started out making cedar strip, canvas covered boats. But in the 60’s, they and many other builders switched over to manufacturing fiberglass boats. Wood boats gradually dropped out of the picture as the popularity of fiberglass boats grew..

In the 1960’s there were a lot of new dealers getting into the business. In the outboard business we always had a lot of prospects. There seemed to be a lot of opportunity for start up dealers. I called on many prospective dealers in those days and helped many of them get started with an OMC outboard line. Many of the new dealer start-ups were technicians for established dealers who decided to leave their jobs and start their own businesses. This was the case with the very first dealer that I signed up on my very first day on the road as a DSM. Jack Greathouse had been a technician for a nearby dealer and wanted to start his own business. So I signed Jack’s Harbor Marine, Hannibal, Missouri. Jack’s son is still running the business with his Dad still involved in the dealership. Often a new dealer’s wife ran the business and bookkeeping while he handled service and sales. I recall many dealers who would come up front from the shop wiping grease from their hands to wait on customers who came in to shop for a boat or motor. A lot of these dealers became very successful over the years and have grown their businesses to where they are major marine retailers today.

Until the advent of boat packaging, dealers made their best deal with outboard manufacturers, boat builders and trailer companies then did their own rigging. Although the packages today offer dealers more convenience and eliminate the hassle of having to do rigging, many long time dealers have told me that they made better margins when they rigged the packages themselves. For example, they say they made 40% or more on the accessories they installed on boats they rigged for customers whereas they might make only 18% overall on a package today including the accessories the come installed on the boat.

Another anniversary in 2008 is the introduction of the V-4 outboards by Johnson and Evinrude 50 years ago. In 1958 both brands introduced the 50 hp V- 4 which soon was nicknamed the “Fat Fifty.” A year later the hp rating of these new V-4 engines was boosted to 75. And the hp race was on over the next 50 years with several outboard brands now offering models over 300hp. Co-incidentally, 2008 is also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Evinrude outboards by Ole Evinrude.

The life style of the average American family has also changed considerably over the past 50 years. When I first got involved in the marine business, most families had only one car and most homes had just a one-car garage. Because Dad took the family car to work, Mom was stuck in the house raising the kids. I also think most families had more leisure time fifty years ago and fewer choices on how to spend.their recreational dollars. Today there are choices for ways to spend recreational dollars that didn’t even exist 50 years ago. And boats were cheaper to buy years ago, requiring a smaller percent of a household’s budget as compared to today’s high boat prices. (I have written in previous columns about the need today for more entry level priced boats.) In the 1970’s I saw a big shift in the workforce with increasing numbers of women choosing careers over being stay at home Moms. More and more families had two cars and birth control pills gave women more freedom to choose when they would start a family. The trend to two career families resulted in a reduction of available leisure time and also eroded family time. Also the number of single parent households was growing, which resulted in less leisure time as the single moms or dads had to spend much of their weekends doing chores, grocery shopping, taking kids to soccer practice and more.

The mid 1980’s saw a huge bidding war between OMC and Brunswick who were battling each other to buy what they felt were the best boat brands from independent builders. As a result, both corporations ended up with a large stable of boat brands that they probably paid more for than they should have. But despite the fears of many in the industry, a lot of remaining independent builders managed to stay in business and compete successfully against these giants.

One of the really sad things that happened over the past 50 years was the demise of IMTEC. What a wonderful trade show that was, centrally located in Chicago right on Lake Michigan at McCormick Place. Dealers could come to IMTEC, see all the new lines, make decisions on new lines, attend good meetings and seminars, interface with other dealers and industry people, and learn a lot, while being able to write off the trip. Why did the IMTEC die? I think a major cause was because so many boat builders started having summer dealer meetings to try to get a step ahead of their competitors. I have never been able to figure out why builders wanted to have their dealers leave their stores in the heat of the selling season to come to dealer meetings when they could have had these sessions right before, during, or after IMTEC or at least sometime in the off season.

After a few years of heading up outboard sales for OMC, I retired and bought a Chevrolet dealership in central Illinois that I operated for a few years. But I still stayed in touch with the industry. And after accepting an offer for the dealership that I couldn’t refuse, I came back into the industry as a consultant and columnist, which I have been doing ever since. Some of my consulting, after selling my dealership, was with OMC. After successful board chairman Charlie Strang retired, it saddened me deeply to see the company end up in a downward spiral from a revolving door of less than sterling top managers. They managed to take OMC’s 56% market share when Strang was there all the way down to bankruptcy at the end of 2000.. How do you take a 56% market share into bankruptcy? That is a long story for another time.

Over the almost 50 years I have been involved in this business, I have seen good times and bad times. Economic downturns have happened every few years. But the industry survived them. And two energy crises caused fuel shortages and long lines at the gas pumps. But the industry survived them also. And I believe that this industry will survive the tough times it has been going through in 2007 and into 2008. It is a fun business, and as I said at the opening of this column, “Time flies when you’re having fun.”

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About Ben H. Sherwood

Ben H. Sherwood is a marine industry veteran and a marketing consultant who operates Sherwood Marine Marketing in Pleasant Prairie, Wis. For more info, click About on the main menu.

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