Winter means business for Niantic boatseller

Don MacKenzie stands at the wheel of a 25-foot Grady-White powerboat Tuesday at his business, Boats, Inc., in Niantic.
Don MacKenzie stands at the wheel of a 25-foot Grady-White powerboat Tuesday at his business, Boats, Inc., in Niantic. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

East Lyme - Don MacKenzie may be best known nationally for buying the freedom of Larry the Lobster two summers ago, but locally his job is to sell boats.

MacKenzie, vice president of sales for Boats Inc. on the Niantic River, sells boats in the 20- to 35-foot range, mostly, and this - despite all the snow this winter - is his busiest time of the year. January through March is when people looking to buy a new vessel find the best deals, he said, while also ensuring that the boats can be outfitted in time for the key Memorial Day weekend, when the fishing season starts to heat up.

"I got lucky," MacKenzie said. "When we bought the place in the '80s we never thought in 2014 we would have something so special. ... A boat, service and marina - you can't buy that on Amazon."

Still, MacKenzie's job has changed radically over the past three decades. What was once mostly a walk-in business is now driven largely by the Internet, and competition and the current economic climate have forced him to keep prices stable for the past six years, he said.

Sales may be down compared with a few years ago, he said, but the business has survived and continues to be profitable, keeping up to 30 people employed, including seven technicians. Many similar businesses have gone under in the past few years, he said, but Boats Inc. continually has invested in a trained staff and new facilities, including an in-ground pool for families staying overnight at the marina.

Instead of cutting prices to remain competitive, MacKenzie said, Boats Inc. decided to update its offerings, installing a new 186-slip marina while also providing wifi, cable TV, fresh water and electricity to every slip.

"What was perceived as a fishing dock is now a family dock," he said.

A video of the marina taken last summer shows row after row of mostly modest-looking boats ready for day trips to Block Island and Greenport.

"There's no Donald Trumps here," MacKenzie said. "There's no Thurston Howells."

Boats Inc. is the exclusive dealer for Grady-White boats in eastern Connecticut, and it also brokers the sale of used vessels.

"Every person who walks in the door doesn't buy a $50,000 boat," MacKenzie said.

But it's important, he added, to get people in the door because often those looking for a used boat wind up buying new after realizing the lower interest and insurance rates can sometimes make that the preferable option. He said sales of boats continues to account for between 65 percent and 70 percent of Boats Inc.'s business.

"Most of the business is word of mouth," he said. "We have a great reputation."

Last year, Boats Inc. earned the Gold Anchor Customer Satisfaction Award from Grady-White after winning the highest customer rating among the company's more than 50 worldwide dealers.

One of the hallmarks of Boats Inc., MacKenzie said, is that both he and vice president Peter Rothman, who is in charge of the service and marina side of the business, have offices within steps of the businesses' two entrances.

"This is where the fish are," MacKenzie said, referring to the nearby waters of Long Island Sound.

But while fishing may be responsible for his livelihood, MacKenzie proved to be a soft touch in the summer of 2012 when it came to Larry, a huge 80-year-old lobster that had been destined for a dinner plate until he shelled out the cash to arrange his release.

"He made it this far in life," MacKenzie said at the time. "He deserves to live."

MacKenzie chuckles at the memory, saying he spent $100 to get $200,000 worth of publicity when the story went around the world after being picked up by the Associated Press.

MacKenzie is equally feisty when it comes to protecting the boating industry in Connecticut. A director of the Connecticut Marine Trades Association, MacKenzie said the state continually needs to be reminded that boats are discretionary and that efforts to generate tax revenues on the backs of boaters will never be beneficial if they kill the tourism industry upon which many parts of the state depends.

He pointed to a special luxury tax on boats imposed a few years ago and later rescinded that was estimated to bring in over $1 million but failed to generate even a tenth of the projections.

"It chased business right away," he said. "This is a huge industry in the state."

It's also a passion for MacKenzie, who says it's an activity that the whole family can do together. It's a reward as well, he said, for people who have worked hard and saved their money so they can enjoy the spectacular feeling of floating on the water with not a care in the world.

"The moment I leave the dock, I'm free," MacKenzie said. "It's wonderful therapy."

l.howard@theday.com

Outboard motors on racks Tuesday at Boats, Inc., in Niantic.
Outboard motors on racks Tuesday at Boats, Inc., in Niantic. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo
Boats, Inc., in Niantic offers sales, service and a marina.
Boats, Inc., in Niantic offers sales, service and a marina. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

Business snapshot

WHAT: Boats Inc.

WHO: Don MacKenzie and Peter Rothman

WHERE: 133 Main St., Niantic

EMPLOYEES: 30

PHONE: (860) 739-6251

WEBSITE: boatsinc.com

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