It’s something of an understatement to say that being out on the water is in W. Brett McGill’s blood. His earliest memories are all to do with boating, swimming, fishing and water skiing. His dad ran a boating business so his family was never far away from a marina or beach.
His four sons, aged between 17 and 21, have inherited their dad’s passion, and Brett, who runs MarineMax, the world’s largest recreational boat and yacht retailer, has achieved astonishing results by passing on that same passion to his thousands of customers.
“I always say that MarineMax doesn’t sell boats, it sells boating.”
“My dad was a boater and started a dealership over 45 years ago from a gas station lot in St Petersburg, Florida,” he tells The CEO Magazine, “so I’ve been around boats since I was a little boy. And now it’s the same for my boys.
“Some of our best experiences have been around wakeboarding, surfing, just being on the water. It’s a pretty infectious thing. I always say that MarineMax doesn’t sell boats, it sells boating.”
It might sound like a subtle nuance, but, for Brett, it’s at the heart of everything the company does, and even informs its slogan: ‘United by Water’. Anyone can sell fancy yachts, but few can offer a complete boating experience that inspires both nervous, first-time owners and veteran enthusiasts alike.
The company grew out of Gulfwind Marine, a network of boat dealerships his father had built up over 20 years, eventually taking it public in 1998. Brett had joined a software firm after graduating college, but his dad persuaded him to join him to spearhead further expansion, and MarineMax was born.
During the last 26 years, Brett has been Director of Information Services, Vice President of IT, Regional President, Vice President of West Operations and Executive Vice President of Operations before taking over as CEO and President in 2018.
The company now has more than 3,200 team members and more than 100 locations worldwide, including 79 retail dealerships and 32 marinas or storage operations. Expansion has been rapid and the company had to navigate through a few economic challenges. The global financial crisis in 2008 led to some decidedly choppy waters as luxury goods markets worldwide collapsed. “Historically, we lived or died by each new boat sale,” Brett reveals. “Even though Wall Street wasn’t super excited about it, we realized that we needed to diversify by owning more real estate, marinas and storage.
“So since then, we’ve been hard at work transforming the company so our dealerships don’t just sell boats, they offer a full menu of service.”
Today, MarineMax service offerings include marinas, financing, insurance, spare parts, storage and even restaurants.
“The capital outlay has been very large because waterfront property is difficult to come by,” Brett shares. “It’s a long-term decision, because if an investor says, ‘Why would you spend US$10 million on a piece of property for a marina?’ we can show them that, over time, it pays off.
“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at what our investors like about us and what they worry about. One concern was that all our eggs were in the new boat sales business so, by diversifying, we have a broader portfolio and stronger margins.”
“Historically, we lived or died by each new boat sale.”
A typical boat dealer usually operates with margins between 21 and 23 per cent, but MarineMax achieves just over 30 per cent.
“That had been our goal for some time,” Brett says. “New and used boat sales aren’t really a high margin business, so we’ve focused more on things like storage, servicing and superyachts. We’ve also invested in some technology companies and a boating app, Boatyard, to enhance our digital offering and make things easier for customers.”
In fact, making things easier has been key to the continual growth Brett has overseen. Boaters cherish a one-stop shop where everything is taken care of, leaving them free to enjoy their time on the water.
“They call and ask, ‘Can you have my boat in the water, and when I’m done, take it out again, check it over, and make sure it’s running good so it’s ready for next weekend?’ So that’s been a huge transformation.”
The growth is also down to a series of tactical acquisitions that have widened the offerings even further.
“In the last three years, we bought Fraser Yachts and Northrop & Johnson, two superyacht companies that give us a global footprint and allow customers who may have bought 70- to 100-foot yachts to go up to 150- to 200-foot yachts, and also have us manage the crew for them.
“We also just bought Cruisers Yachts, so now we’re the first retail boat company that also manufactures,” Brett reveals. “We’re looking at some similar opportunities as well as further superyacht service businesses, but we’ll also grow the core business as we don’t want to be viewed as a company that only grows through acquisition.”
In its early days, MarineMax only sold a couple of boat brands, but the financial crisis persuaded it to introduce more to appeal to a wider customer base. It now carries 28 brands, fewer than many of its rivals, but Brett saw the benefit of restricting the range to ensure extremely high levels of quality and strong, deep relationships with key manufacturers.
It also meant he could secure exclusive distribution deals across the US or all the Americas. In the case of Aquila Yachts, it’s the only distributor in the world.
But the deep relationships aren’t restricted to his suppliers. Customers, too, embark on a voyage of discovery that starts way before they purchase a luxury vessel.
MarineMax developed a program called ‘Getaways and Events’, which is all about getting people to love the experience of boating, not just trying to get them to make a purchase.
“A new boater comes along, sees a great yacht, but inside they’re thinking, ‘Well, geez, how am I going to learn to use it, and where the heck am I going to go?’ They’re nervous, but we take care of everything for them,” he says.
“By diversifying, we have a broader portfolio and stronger margins.”
Taking control of any boat requires training and experience, so MarineMax has courses and programs to give everyone the confidence and knowledge they need.
“We have women on water classes, kids in boating classes; we have a captain at each location, who’ll teach you what you need to know and then book you on one of our events,” he shares. “So maybe on the fourth of July weekend, a family who just bought a boat can meet out at a nice island with 40 other boat owners and their families.”
The enthusiasm in Brett’s voice is testament to the genuine excitement he feels about passing on his lifelong love of the water to others. He really isn’t driven by a desire to sell boats to make profits – he wants as many people as possible to have the chance to make the joyful memories that he and his family treasure so much.
“People ask me who my main competition is,” Brett explains. “And I say it’s the softball field, a brand new swimming pool that somebody’s installing in their backyard, basically other recreations you can do with your family that could pull you away from boating.
“During the pandemic, people were forced to stay close to home and this created a renewed interest in boating. Since then, even with things around the world reopening, the demand for boating continues to bring in a record number of new boaters.”