Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Smooth Sailing

Walker Marine makes buying a boat the closest thing to a pleasure cruise

By Jenny Callison
Enquirer contributor

John Walker of Walker Marine Group stands on one of the boats for sale at his dealership off of Kellogg Avenue.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/ERNEST COLEMAN

COLUMBIA TUSCULUM - John Walker retired from his Mercedes Benz dealership in 1990, then quickly became restless. So he turned to his first love - boats - and in 1996 became a partner in Captain's Cove, specializing in large pleasure craft.

Four years later, he took another step away from retirement by going solo and ultimately changing the name of his business to Walker Marine Group.

Walker purchased a barge at the river's edge along U.S. 52 just east of Lunken Airport and turned it into a vast dry dock, building a full-service repair capability.

He also launched a transport division whose staff can haul a large boat in sections, assemble it at its destination, put it in the water and troubleshoot it with the owner.

In its relatively short history, Walker Marine has worked hard to distinguish itself from other local boat dealers.

To begin with, the company specializes in large motor yachts - boats 25 feet to 70 feet long. It also has equipped itself to offer a complete range of services to its customers, from mooring and storage to repair and transport.

Walker Marine Group has seen steady growth since its inception in 2000:
Employees: 18
Sold: More than 300 motor yachts.
Price range: Less than $20,000 to $2.5 million.
Business climate: The aftermath of Sept. 11 caused sales to ebb, but the tide has turned. "Last year at this time, we had sold four boats; this year, we have sold 25 since the January boat show," he said.
Walker Marine Group is at 4581 Kellogg Ave. Information: 321-6600 or Web site.
But most important, customers say, Walker Marine makes boat shopping, boat buying and boat owning an experience akin to a pleasure cruise.

"They make you happy to part with all that money," said Tim Oppenheimer of Anderson Township. "John Walker has an instinct about doing business with people who have disposable incomes to spend on luxury items."

Taking the plunge

Oppenheimer and his wife, Julia, had never been on a boat when they stopped by the dealership four years ago to see whether the nautical life might suit them. They took the plunge, purchasing the smallest craft in Walker's inventory.

Recently they upgraded to a 40-foot cruiser.

The Oppenheimers are fairly typical Walker Marine customers, according to Walker.

"People come back, they send their family and friends, because they have been treated right," he said. "We go above and beyond to be totally honest, and we place a tremendous emphasis on the customer's experience."

That experience begins with the first contact between a prospective buyer and the sales staff.

"Oftentimes, when a customer comes in, they feel they want to buy a larger boat but have no idea what that entails," said sales representative Jim Wallace. "We listen to them and ask probing questions: How will they use the boat? What do they want to get out of this purchase?"

With the information they glean, Walker's sales staff floats all the options of size and configuration.

The next step is to take the boat out.

"We insist on taking them out on the boat because we want them to experience the boat before they buy it. It's important that their expectations are met," Walker explained.

Support from Walker Marine continues even after the purchase, to ensure a good experience.

"We spend a full day or more going through the entire boat with a customer after sale and delivery," Walker continued. "We go through some simulations, such as going to the fuel dock. We will put a captain out on the boat with them as many times as it takes. We're getting new blood into boating, and it's vital to us that they learn how to operate the boat comfortably and safely. If they can't be comfortable, they won't stay in boating."

Sleek and shiny

Serving the luxury goods market meant making an investment in his inventory. Walker spends $50 per boat per week to wash them - so they will look sleek and shiny. He also spends $19 per foot to wax and buff every used boat before he will display it, and he's picky about what used boats he'll sell or broker.

Walker Marine's effort to create a positive experience for its customers extends to events it sponsors each year. There are Ladies' Days, during which women customers leave their men behind and take to the river aboard a Walker craft with one of the company's captains.

"It may sound kind of sexist, but it gives you a chance to ask stupid questions - to be at the helm and make stupid mistakes, away from your husband," Julia Oppenheimer said. "You get the guidance of a professional."

Walker also invites its customers to periodic rendezvous events, where a flotilla of customers in their boats cruises the river, stopping for a cookout.

A third event is the annual owner roundtable, where customers have dinner with manufacturer's representatives.

"It's a chance to say what you would change or re-engineer about your boat," said Julie Oppenheimer. "There is also a representative or two from Walker Marine, and it's a no-holds-barred session."

Walker says the first reason for the roundtable is to thank his customers for sticking with him. He also wants feedback for his business and his manufacturers so he can continue to improve his operation.


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