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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 15, 2019 8 months ago

RIsing tide floats Fish Tale Boats to new heights

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The success of the family-owned boat dealership and service center is no fish tale. Rather than having to lament the one that got away, it has cast its net to land even more business by, ironically, moving away from the water.
by: Andrew Warfield Lee-Collier Editor

While many people who move to Southwest Florida to take advantage of the lifestyle would like to own a boat, nobody actually needs one.

That’s the lesson the Fricke family, owners of Fish Tale Boats, learned during the recession, a time when they also endured the loss of the family patriarch, Bruce Fricke.

But good times have been rolling the past five years or so, prompting brothers Travis and Justin, and their mother, Diane, to broaden the company’s opportunities. First, they relocated inland in 2017, from Fort Myers Beach to a 7-acre former car dealership on Tamiami Trail in Fort Myers. In early 2018, they opened a new showroom in Naples.

In January, Fish Tale Boats was on the move again, relocating its Naples presence to a larger location at 2540 Davis Blvd. This site provides a showroom and lot on nearly three-fourths of an acre, where it can display 24 boats.

“We’ve had some really good, solid growth,” says Travis Fricke at his Tamiami Trail office. “Since we moved to this property, we’ve done better than ever."

Fricke adds that while there are more people with disposable income, it's not "really all affluent buyers." There are middle-class buyers, he says, and more people in general with disposable income.

Travis Fricke

Fricke, 33, brought his accounting background to the family business in 2001. After working in the industry since the late 1970s, his father had purchased Fish Tale Boats in 1996. He died unexpectedly in 2010, leaving his survivors to weather the recession in a disposable income business. As the economy gradually improved through the decade, the Frickes saw greater opportunity inland.

“We only had 2 acres at the beach,” says Travis Fricke. “We made it work.”

They also made their previously leased showroom in Naples work, even without outdoor display space for inventory. “The showroom could house only nine boats,” Fricke says. “We had to deconstruct them to get them inside, then reconstruct them.”

Now with 7 acres in Fort Myers where some 150 boats are on display, and 24 more on the Naples lot, Fish Tale is poised to capitalize on continued Southwest Florida growth. 

“Both Lee and Collier (counties) are identified as growing markets, and many people coming here are at that point in their lives when they want to take advantage of their opportunities and enjoy themselves,” Fricke says. “Being on the water is a big part of that.”

“We have a high-end image, top quality, and brands thats are second to none That's our competitive advantage.” Travis Fricke

As the rising tide lifts all boats, their own market share is rising, Fricke says. That is in part thanks to a location with greater visibility on a thoroughfare that sees some 65,000 vehicles per day. The 14,000-square-foot Fort Myers service center includes a forklift and hoist capable of lifting boats as long as 38 feet. Skilled marine technicians specialize in Yamaha engines, Garmin electronics, air conditioning systems, fiberglass, painting and plumbing.

Year-over-year gains are solid, Fricke says, declining to disclose specific revenue figures.

The inventory, according to Fricke, draws buyers to premium labels Grady-White, Robalo and Chaparral. “Robalo has been a powerhouse for market share gains,” he says. 

Fish Tale employs more than 40 full time including service technicians and salespeople. It’s a casual, fun environment that attracts quality employees and keeps them. Some have worked at Fish Tale for more than two decades and others over 15 years.

“Boating is an especially service-oriented business,” Fricke says. “It’s a relationship with the customer from start to finish, and it’s the same with employees. We treat them well, compensate them well, and we have a good benefits package. The work environment matters. It’s not a corporate setting, and people who come to work here see that. They want to perform, and it's a little different from having to meet a measure.”

And, the bosses wear shorts and polo shirts.

“That's our culture. We've always been that way,” Fricke says. "Customers are coming here to have fun, and you have to project a fun environment.”

The most expensive boat Fish Tale ever sold? It’s a 45-foot, 14-foot wide, 34,000-pound Grady-White yacht that went for $1.3 million. It was delivered Feb. 8 and, following some final touches, will be trucked to the Gulf for launch.

The move inland that contributed to Fish Tale Boats’ visibility and reputation contributed to that sale, says Fricke, adding things are "pretty darn nice."

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