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Business Observer Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 2 years ago

Sail tale

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A Southwest Florida boat dealership plans to cash in on the promise of a year-round market.
by: Ted Carter Contributing Writer

A $5 million investment in a new Fort Myers location for family-owned Fish Tale Boats is testament that today Southwest Florida dealers can sell pleasure boats year-round, says Travis Fricke, who co-owns the dealership with brother, Justin, and mother, Diane.

Frickes' faith in a sustained 12-month market has him ready to add a location in Naples by the end of 2017.

“It's a lot less seasonal and has become more year-round,” he says, attributing a big part of the purchasing evolution to middle-class buyers coming back into a market they abandoned during the downturn. Nationally, nearly three out of four buyers of recreational watercraft are middle class with a household income of less than $100,000, the National Marine Manufacturers Association says.

Another key to the recent success: the Frickes' recent decision to buy seven acres on the former Scanlon Acura property at 15581 S. Tamiami Trail, near the corner of U.S. 41 and Briarcliff Road in Fort Myers. The new location gives the dealership 700 feet of U.S. 41 frontage and room to display more than 100 boats from the likes of top-selling boat builders Avalon, Chaparral, Grady-White and Robalo.
The inventory includes basic boats and pontoon watercraft that sell for a little less than $20,000 up to high-ended vessels that sell for $750,000.

Moving to U.S. 41 also enabled the Frickes to add a 14,000-square-foot sales and service center equipped with new technology for boat maintenance and repairs, including a new hydraulic trailer, forklift and hoist capable of lifting boats 38 feet in length. The boat dealer's former neighbor, Bonita Bay Marina, provides the relocated Fish Tales water access.

With the move, Fish Tales grew its workforce 43%, to 40 employees. Staff includes marine technicians specializing in Yamaha engines, Garmin electronics, air conditioning systems, fiberglass, painting and plumbing.

Fricke says the family used its own money to cover the $5 million cost of the new location. That option seemed highly unlikely in October 2010, when family patriarch and Fish Tale owner Bruce Fricke died at age 53.

Travis Fricke, 31, and brother Justin, 29, had been with the business since their teens. The death of Bruce Fricke left the brothers and mother, Diane, to decide whether to keep the business going during the recession or move on to another enterprise. They decided to remain in boats.

“We had a pretty solid functioning crew along with management to help with the transition,” Travis Fricke says.

The challenge was to persuade the banks not to call their loans, he adds.

“When someone is an owner and passes away, the banks want to start fresh,” he says. “It is not a pretty easy thing.”

The banks ultimately stayed with the family. “It wasn't a simple deal,” Travis Fricke notes. “Financials don't look good in the middle of a recession. They were all red.”

The financials look far different today, Fricke says. He declines to provide specific annual revenues, but says sales have more than doubled since 2010. “We've had a few years with 50% sales growth in some brands,” Fricke adds, and last year was the dealership's best sales year since 2005.

Fish Tales gets its customers through a variety of marketing mediums including direct mail, social media, print and radio. “We're working on a TV ad,” Fricke says.

The family also plans to open a small dealership and service center in Naples by the end of the year. They own property there, close to Collier Boulevard on the way to Marco Island. But other locations are getting a look as well, says Fricke.

“For our categories there is quite a lot of opportunity there,” he says, citing data from boat makers who rank Naples among the country's top three markets. “We already service their market and want to be closer there.”

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