Growing the family

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By Tom Kaiser
September 27, 2013
Filed under Features, Top Stories

Premier Pontoon growing by leaps and bounds

A half hour north of the Twin Cities, family-run Premier Pontoon has been riding the crest of the segment’s incredible recent growth, while managing the challenges of expanding its dealer footprint, staying independent, finding workers in a tight labor market and revitalizing its Weeres and Palm Beach brands, which the company acquired in 2011.

We sat down with Connie Weinman, Premier’s sales and marketing coordinator, during the company’s dealer meeting in early August, its largest dealer meeting in the company’s 21-year history, which attracted 350 dealers to its Minnesota facilities.

While Premier’s success is largely the result of high-quality, innovative products like the luxuriant, 26- and 29-foot Grand Entertainers or the stunning, two-level Boundary Sky Dek, the company has also benefitted from being at the right place during the pontoon market’s incredible recent growth.

According to Peter Houseworth of Info-Link Technologies, pontoons have gone from 13 percent of total powerboat sales in 2003 (excluding PWC, canoes and kayaks) to one in every four boats sold — a full 26 percent through June of 2013. As Houseworth added, the pontoon gains began in 2003, but really took off during and after 2008.

While Premier’s expansion has been widespread, Weinman singled out a handful of areas the company has been focusing: Quebec, Alberta and Newfoundland in Canada, the Northeast and southern United States — Florida, in particular — and its home market of Minneapolis-St. Paul, which she said remains the largest market in the country for pontoon sales.

“We’re doing everything on the production side to keep up with demand from the dealerships,” she said. “We’ve added about 30 new dealers this year to our dealer network. It’s pretty exciting, a lot of growth in the last year.”

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On-the-water living rooms

The three-brand company feels fortunate to be in its position, but credits much of its success to believing in pontoons throughout its history and innovating with its product line.

“We think we figured it out before everyone else did, and we knew that pontoons were the way to go,” Weinman said. “Now the market is finally coming around. It has to do with performance. We’re sitting on a boat like this [Grand Entertainer] with twin 300 Yamahas and you have the performance in a 10-wide capacity and 15 of your friends sitting here — it’s a living room on the water.”

Competition has been particularly stiff in the 20- to 22-foot pontoon market, but Premier plans to maintain its upper-level market position and focusing on individual customers with custom floor plans and further expanding its facilities in Minnesota to more efficiently manage production.  Its market share gains are welcome news, but Premier plans to maintain its current course, rather than focus exclusively on gaining share.

Part of that requires convincing more of its existing dealers to stock its full product line, especially its largest, most expensive models. “If you carry it, it will sell,” was a key message to the assembled dealers at the annual meeting.

“We’re trying to educate our dealers more on knowing their markets and realizing that if they stock these boats the buyers are out there for this and they’re coming around,” Weinman said. “Some dealers figured it out really early, they thought, ‘Oh we’re going to stock our 20 or 22 and we’ll sell up from that,’ but if you bring this [Grand Entertainer] in your showroom, you’re going to sell it.”

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While Premier continues growing, the family partners are simultaneously redesigning its Weeres and Palm Beach brands, which are both positioned below the main brand.

Growing pains have come in managing the logistics of getting enough boats to its farthest-flung dealers, transferring some tube and deck production to its New Ulm, Minn., facility and finding enough new employees in a state with an unemployment rate far below the national average.

Premier has been approached by larger brands interested in acquiring the family business, but Weinman said the ownership has no interest in such a sale. Rather, the company is focused on staying a family, and growing the ranks.

“They say it doesn’t feel like a dealer meeting,” she said, echoing a common motto within the company. “It feels like a family reunion.”

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