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April 2008
Catching the Wave
By Casey Jacobus

     Rod Hall, a Rock Hill native, was an engineer with Duke Power Company when he first started building docks part-time on Lake Wylie. But it was in 1974, when he was offered the opportunity to build a marina in a new lakeside residential community, resulting in the successful launch of Tega Cay Marina in June 1975, that put Hall and his wife Fran at the helm of the nascent Hall Marine Group.

     Tega Cay Marina proved a successful test ground for Hall’s business philosophy of personal service and commitment to a fair deal for every customer.

     “My parents taught me right from wrong,” says Hall. “We aim to do right by every customer, every time.”

     In 1976, Hall purchased another small marina on Lake Wylie. He expanded the facility into what has become the Hall Marine Group’s flagship location, Lake Wylie Marina.

     At first Hall handled a wide range of boat lines, including Winner, Chris Craft, Glassmaster, Galaxy, Cruisers, Inc, Terry, Boston Whaler and Stingray, but, by 1984, Lake Wylie Marina became an exclusive dealer for what many consider the strongest brand of boat in the industry, Sea Ray. The combination of Sea Ray products and the Hall family approach to sales and service created an alliance that became one of the most important and successful in the American marine industry.

 

A Strong Current

     While building a strong relationship with Sea Ray, Rod Hall also built Lake Wylie Marina into an unmatched facility for boaters. Shortly after purchasing the marina, Hall added a 200-rack dry storage facility and a showroom/office. An additional 300-rack dry facility was added in 1984. Later the wet slips were replaced and the showroom was expanded. In 1995, an auxiliary showroom was added to accommodate the display of larger boats.

     With Lake Wylie Marina building a strong reputation, the Hall Marine Group began looking for other markets which could benefit from Hall’s unique approach to boating. Tega Cay Marina was sold to make way for expansion into South Carolina, and Hall Marine Group opened Sea Ray of Charleston in 1987 and Sea Ray of Columbia in 1988.

     The growing community of Lake Norman, to the northwest of Charlotte, was the next logical site for a new Sea Ray dealership, so, in 1997, the Halls built Sea Ray of Lake Norman, a state-of-the-art sales and service facility in Cornelius.

     Now recognized as a leader in the boating industry, Hall Marine Group began expanding to the Savannah area, building the Sea Ray of Savannah sales and service facility and then purchasing the Savannah Bend Marina on the Intercoastal Waterway in Thunderbolt, Ga. The company continued to expand in upstate South Carolina, adding Sea Ray of Greenville in 1999.

     In 2000, with the rapid growth in the Lake Norman area, Hall Marine Group expanded again, opening Sea Ray of Lake Norman-Northlake.

     In 2004, Rod Hall retired and handed off Hall Marine Group to his sons, Rick and Jeff, who had grown up working in all areas of the family business. Jeff recalls, “We sold gas on the docks, repaired boats, drove forklifts, sold boats, did whatever was necessary. We’ll still get out there and wash a boat, do whatever it takes. We’re very hands on.”

     Today, Hall Marine Group’s corporate office is located at the Lake Wylie Marina, where Jeff, as president, oversees all the corporate policies, procedures and administration. Rick works out of Sea Ray of Charleston and focuses on sales and delivery of the larger boats, the coastal markets, as well as staffing national shows and events. Rick Neal is vice president of operations and corporate sales manager, traveling extensively among the stores.

 

Riding the Waves

     Built over a generation, the family business that began with one marina and two employees has grown into a company with seven locations and 115 employees. Over the past thirty years, Hall Marine Group has sold more than 10,000 boats. Today, it is one of Sea Ray’s top five dealers worldwide with annual sales in the $50 million range.

     Jeff Hall says the key to the company’s growth has been its desire to deliver a great boating experience to each customer combined with a staff that is dedicated to delivering this.

     “We know boats; we grew up with them,” he explains. “We understand that people who buy boats want to bond with their families and create memories. We want to do right by each and every customer.”

     Jeff attributes much of the company’s success to its relationship with Sea Ray. Founded in 1959, Sea Ray was one of the first boat builders to use fiberglass and other high tech composite materials in the construction of pleasure boats. Today, it produces more than 40 models, ranging from 18 to 68 feet. The four families of Sea Ray products include Sports Boats, Sport Cruisers, Sport Yachts and Yachts, and Hall Marine Group stocks all of these product categories.

     “In a world where there are 3,000 different brands of boats and anybody with a shed and a little know-how can put one together, we are very fortunate in our relationship with Sea Ray,” says Hall. “They are the most recognized and sought after brand of boat in the industry.”

      Hall Marine Group is one of the largest independently owned Sea Ray dealership organizations in the world. Although it operates two marinas, it is primarily a retail boat dealership. With its seven locations in North and South Carolina and Georgia, it has expanded to the boundaries of the territory it holds exclusively from Sea Ray.

     “We don’t compete nationally because we don’t want to sell boats to customers we can’t service,” Hall says. “The key to our growth is our desire to deliver a great boating experience to every customer. Our customers are why we’re here.”

     Hall Marine Group was one of the first dealerships to participate in the Sea Ray Master Dealer Program. Established eleven years ago, the Master Dealer Program was the first standards-based program in the boating industry. To qualify, the dealerships have to meet more than 110 stringent customer-care and operational standards, as well as yearly on-site evaluations by an independent consultant.

     Recently Sea Ray took its commitment to customer satisfaction a step further by initiating its Ambassador Dealership   Program. Ambassador Dealers must not only meet all the demanding Master Dealers requirements, but also fulfill special criterion related to overall performance quality, outstanding customer satisfaction and delivering a superior customer experience.

     All of the Hall Marine Group locations have achieved the Sea Ray Ambassador Master Dealer Status for the past three years. In addition, last year the group was chosen number seven best dealer in the county by Boating Industry Magazine’s Top 100, which recognizes dealers for their overall business operations, customer service, marketing and professionalism. Hall Marine Group was selected from almost 400 applications submitted by over 3,000 nominees.

 

Unsinkable

     While the sales and servicing of Sea Ray boats accounts for 90 percent of the Hall Marine Group’s business, the company also sells Boston Whaler, which is the leading manufacturer of family fishing boats 11 to 35 feet.

     Boston Whaler is known around the world as “The Unsinkable Legend.” In the early ’50s, Richard T. Fisher, a Harvard graduate and co-owner of an electrical manufacturing company, had the idea of building a boat that wouldn’t sink. He started tinkering in his garage and the resulting 13-foot outboard was introduced at the 1958 New York Boat Show. It became an immediate sensation and a plant just outside of Boston in Braintree, Mass., began production.

     Fisher delighted in demonstrating the boat’s special characteristics through a variety of torture tests. He drove it up rocky rapids. He filled it up to the gunnels with water and people to show not only its unsinkability, but also its uniquely level floatation. And perhaps his greatest publicity stunt of all was in 1961 for the cameras of Life magazine, as he sat in the stern while a diver below cut the boat in half with a crosscut saw. Both halves continued to float and Fisher calmly drove away in the half with the motor.

     Stories of Whaler’s survival have built the legend over the years: a boater taking an accidental plunge down Niagara Falls and the boat emerges with only scratches; a 30-mile trip back to shore with a three-foot hole in the hull; being blasted by a thousand rounds of machine gun fire and continuing to float; and many more.

     The secret from the beginning has been the Whaler’s patented Unibond construction, a process in which dense structural foam is introduced between two fiberglass hull walls; the foam extends up the sides of the boat, creating a virtual life ring for its occupants, even if swamped in a storm.

     “Boston Whaler is one of the most recognized brands in the industry,” says Jeff Hall, “its product has no equal.”

     For 2007, Hall Marine Group was the largest independent Boston Whaler dealer in the country.

 

Powering ahead

     The Hall Marine Group has grown over the past 35 years, partly because Charlotte has been a growing market and partly because it has expanded to new locations in North and South Carolina and Georgia. The diversity of their markets has been a strength that has allowed Hall Marine Group to succeed and grow even during the recent drought, which has affected boating on Lake Norman and Lake Wylie. In the next five to 10 years, the company will need to focus on improving business internally in order to continue to grow.

     “The key is to identify areas you can improve,” says Jeff Hall. “We have to look at how we can be more effective and efficient in delivering a better   boating experience to our customers.”

     Another challenge is to continue to retain, develop and recruit a staff of qualified personnel. Since 60 percent or more of the Hall Marine Group’s business is from repeat customers, the company is aware they need to keep their sales and service staff motivated.

     “We have a great product to work with and try to create a positive and rewarding atmosphere in which to work,” says Hall.

     Each store has a location general manager and they are a key force behind the success of their store. The company recruits technicians from several training schools and all employees attend additional training programs every year. All of the company technicians are either certified by Mercury Marine or working towards certification. Every employee has an annual performance appraisal and goals are established for every service and sales person. The staff also participates financially in the achievement of the group’s overall goals.

     But, above all else, the Hall Marine Group values its customers and is committed to customer service. All of its locations consistently rank in the top levels of customer service satisfaction scores, a clear indication of a dedicated team.

     “It’s all about establishing a personal relationship,” says Jeff Hall. “We offer our customers fun events and great service. It’s never just, ‘Here are the keys. Thank you very much.”

 

Casey Jacobus is a Lake Norman-based freelance writer.
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