NAPLES — A wild, tumultuous economic ride looks to be coming upon smoother waters for several Southwest Florida boat brokers and salesmen.
No one is willing to say they have completely weathered the storm, but collaboration, creativity and just plain hunkering down while the economy recovers are keeping many marine businesses afloat, leaders report.
“There are no bragging rights, but there is an improving trend,” said Frank Perrucci, president of the Marine Industries Association of Collier County.
Pete Peterson, owner of Naples Yacht Brokerage, has been in the business for more than 25 years and said 2008 and the first two quarters of 2009 were the worst economic times he’s ever seen. However, he endured them.
“You just have to adapt,” Peterson said. “All you can do is keep yourself lean and mean.”
Similar to many others in marine sales, Peterson sold his commercial real estate and became a renter again.
Overhead costs are cut and advertising is nil, he said.
A flood of repossessed boats drew buyers to national liquidators based as close as Fort Lauderdale beginning in early 2008, several dealers said. In summer 2009, that trend slowly began to dwindle away.
“We’re not out of it, but that was just enough to keep us alive,” Peterson said.
During the tough times for the U.S. and Florida economy, Peterson focused more on overseas sales, which also kept the business afloat.
Recent marine dealer roundtables held among business members from Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties, as well as several east coast dealers, indicates a new collaborative spirit in the industry, reported John Good, who handles members services for the Southwest Florida Marine Industry Association, which supports businesses and recreational boaters’ rights.
There is an uptick in sales in the past 60 days and business owners are collaborating to keep all of their heads above water, Good reported.
“Business isn’t booming,” Good said. “But the trend is up.”
Times were so difficult for one area businessmen, Mark Wolcott, owner of Wolcott Marine in Naples, that even the catastrophic oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in late April had no impact on business compared to what he’d weathered in recent years.
Wolcott, who prided himself on remembering everyone’s name since he started his business more than 25 years ago, suffered a stroke in 2005.
No longer able to quickly rattle off numbers and greet old customers by name, Wolcott’s involvement in his own business dropped off as he recovered. By the time he was back to greeting regulars by name, an economic crisis had struck.
He attributes the business’ survival to his general manager, Chris Judd, wife Kathleen Zachmann, and son Dan Wolcott.
“After I had my stroke, I lost it all, but I couldn’t kick these guys out on the street,” Wolcott said of his staff.
Health concerns, a troubled economy, an ailing real estate market and an industry with specific challenges slammed the family business, Wolcott said.
His property near Woods Edge Parkway on U.S. 41 in Bonita Springs sits vacant now and is threatened by foreclosure. He’s moved to a rental with Bay Marina on River Point Drive in Naples.
“It seems like every year something unforeseen happened,” he said. “An oil spill in the Gulf, that’s not a normal thing obviously. But very few businesses would go through what we’d been through in the past five years.”
“We’re going forward no matter what’s going to hit. It doesn’t matter anymore,” Wolcott said.
That meant moving from his large piece of commercial real estate in Bonita Springs to a smaller rental space in Naples earlier this month. It’s just across Naples Bay from where Wolcott opened his first store 26 years earlier.
“Bigger is not necessarily better,” he said.
Wolcott revised his business plan and found more collaboration between his peers, or competitors, than he had in the decades prior, he said.
Wolcott Marine manager Judd witnessed the same trend.
“In 18 years of doing this, there was a time when competitors were just nasty. They might take pleasure in seeing others fail,” Judd said. “Now, we know, if one fails, it’s just an increased possibility that another is going to fail.”
Wolcott is among several dealers that temporarily got out of new boat sales as manufacturers sank and financial institutions froze loans.
“It’s gut-wrenching to say no right now, but we just can’t,” Wolcott said of the sales. “We’re going back to our roots.”
For now, Wolcott Marine is focusing on used sales, consignments and service.
Before they’ve even made it into the clear, the businessmen said they’re ready to give back.
“People are looking to keep businesses up and running. It’s even leaking into the customer base,” Judd said. “We want to see everyone survive. We want to see everyone successful.”