Boat business catches a positive wave

Published online: Jan 25, 2012 News Rick Barrett of the Journal Sentinel
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The boating industry is in a little calmer water these days, with modest sales gains expected this year after coming out of the worst period in recent history.

Mostly, the steep decline in boat sales from the recession has leveled off and is inching upward.

That's important in Wisconsin, where outboard engine makers Mercury Marine and BRP USA employ several thousand people, along with yacht builders Cruisers, Carver, Marquis, Palmer Johnson and Burger.

The industry isn't going to measure against 2006 and 2007, which were boom years, but recreational boat sales were up 5% in 2011 from 2010, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

Sales should be up another 6% this year if the economy continues to improve, said NMMA President Thomas Dammrich.

Most of the increase has come from purchases of aluminum fishing boats, pontoon boats, and fiberglass ski boats. The category that's lagged has been fiberglass boats from 30 to 60 feet in length.

Sales of boats starting at a price of about $150,000 remain sluggish.

"Those buyers have not come back yet," Dammrich said, but there have been signs of life at winter boat shows and a turnaround could happen this year.

Brunswick Corp., the parent of Fond du Lac-based Mercury Marine, is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter earnings on Thursday.

In its recent quarter, Brunswick said Mercury's sales were up 9% from the third quarter of 2010. International sales represented 39% of the division's revenue.

Locally, some boat dealerships have added new product lines and cleared out old inventory.

The pipeline for discounted late-model boats is nothing like it was a couple of years ago when dealerships and lenders had parking lot sales to clear out unsold and repossessed inventory. Now, boat manufacturers are building much closer to market demand, said Betsey Arvai, marketing manager for Illinois-based Skipper Bud's, which has a Pewaukee dealership.

This weekend, the Milwaukee Boat Show continues at Wisconsin Expo Center at State Fair Park.

Attendance at the recent Chicago Boat Show was its highest in several years, according to Arvai.

"There were several deals where people paid cash. It's something that hasn't happened in a while," she said.

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