While the 2008 recession hit the entire boat business, Hunter hit the hard times harder than most, largely because their powerboat segment was bleeding their sailboat business dry.
Hunter took their business into a Chapter 11 re-org, and John Peterson, the Hunter CEO, offered Sailboat Owners.com their parts business, so they could concentrate on building and selling boats and still provide support to current owners.
Hunter provided Sailboat Owners.com with both data and support, and transferred their parts calls directly to Sailboat Owners. Phil calls that transfer a “steep learning curve,” which was helped when they hired Hunter’s Al Fooks. With 23 years of customer service and warranty repair experience, Al was able to help Sailboat Owners get up to speed on the large Hunter customer base and the large number and variety of production models out there. That’s not been without its problems: even today, “people confuse Sailboat Owners with Hunter, and call us for tech support.”
Post-recession, more challenges arose, along with increased competition. “We have had to reinvent ourselves several times,” Phil admitted. “Amazon jumped into the chandlery business. West Marine, Defender, and host of others created online stores. And consumer purchasing changed from discovering things to finding the best price for things.”
With a huge base of older sailboats out there and fewer people who sell and service them, the Sailboat Owners parts business has changed yet again. “We’ve become archeologists,” Phil says with a chuckle. “Many of these sailboat parts were custom built by small fabrication shops that aren’t in business anymore, and even the patterns have been lost. We had to hunt them down, or re-create them.”
The Hunter Legends, for example, were built from the late 80’s to the mid-90’s. They have stanchions “so tricky” that normal fabricators won’t make them. Sailboat Owners created patterns for the stanchions and other parts with similar particularities and commissioned production. Sailboat owners was back into the manufacturing business. “We’ve come full circle,” Phil comments, “creating a viable business model with custom parts. Only now, no large online chandlery is likely to follow us there.”
Sailboat Owners.com has a great relationship with the owners of older sailboats. Users of the forums often refer their peers to the online store. “The owners need us, and we need them,” Phil points out. “We tell them, if you can’t get information about it from other owners on our forums and you don’t see it in our catalog, just ask us. We’ll find the part, or something to replace it. That part of our business is something we wrestle with all of the time. We probably spend more time on the phone doing troubleshooting with owners than we should. But we do it anyway. That’s what it takes to keep people sailing.”
That’s the guy I called. I ended up speaking with his associate, Dave, who swiftly told me that he had one strut left on the shelf, and went to grab it himself. The next day at noon, the new strut was in the hands of Dean Bozak, who confirmed that while the replacement didn’t match the bent model (cf archeology comment, above), it did hold the propeller shaft at the correct angle, and matched the hull attachment hole pattern. By noon the next day, we were inspecting the installation. A few hours later, Selah was afloat. The next day, The Admiral and I were on our way to Canada.
And we went on our way, deeply aware of how many people it takes to keep the two of us sailing.