Talking boats with Brunswick CEO David Foulkes

David Foulkes joined Mercury Marine in 2007 and was head of product development for a decade. In that time, he also held the position of chief technology officer for Brunswick Corp. on his way to being named chief executive officer in 2019.

Foulkes has overseen a massive transformation at Brunswick, embracing the ethos that the Mettawa, Illinois-based company is a leading-edge technology firm that goes well beyond boating. Case in point: Last year, the company chose to hold the world premiere of the Sea Ray SLX-R 400e, with its advanced lithium-ion battery pack, at CES rather than at a traditional boat show.

Brunswick CEO David Foulkes

Brunswick CEO David Foulkes

Under Foulkes’ leadership, Brunswick also has expanded its I-Jet Lab and partnership with Carnegie Robotics, acquired Navico and expanded Freedom Boat Club, putting the corporation in a strong position to define the connected future of boating.

How does Freedom Boat Club factor into Brunswick’s future growth?

Freedom is growing unbelievably: 67,000 members, 4,000 boats; we just passed, I think, 312 locations. We bought out the biggest boat club in Spain [Fanautic Club, acquired in July]. That shared-access model is really working for us. More women are coming into it. Other forms of diversity—ethnic, racial diversity—is finding that model attractive.

How has the Freedom program brought more diversity to boating?

I often think we don’t necessarily get a complete, clear picture of how many women are in boating through new-boat ownership, because we get the registration data, and often there’s the male partner on [it]. The man may be the one who signs, but really it’s a family decision.

In Freedom, we get much clearer data because women join directly. Thirty-five percent of the members are women, which is higher than typically you find in new-boat ownership, and we’re finding that model is just very attractive and it builds on itself. The more women that are in there, the more women that come on the boats with them, the more they become members.

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What excites you most about the industry right now?

We’re in a particular period that’s exciting for attracting younger people into the industry, and diversity. We’re beginning to be very clear about what the next phases of technology should be. I think we’re getting more adventurous than we ever were about exploring new business models and professionalizing them.

If you think about an industry that has been pretty fragmented, a thousand brands, a lot of different channeled markets, even in the new-boat market. If you look at the pre-owned boat market, it’s weakly fragmented. If you look, before we bought Freedom, at the club market, it was very fragmented. So there’s a tremendous opportunity to professionalize these various marketplaces, and in doing so, make them contemporary and make them attractive to a new generation of participants. And that could be by using apps, it could be by digital marketing, could be by the nature of the business model itself, but there’s a toolkit that we now have that is going to make marine a more attractive space to be.

And I think it’s pretty cool that [companies] like Winnebago and Polaris [are] buying boat companies. It’s not a surprise; they see that there’s potential there. You see a lot of people entering the marketplace, and you realize that marine is a space with a lot of potential.

What can we all do to improve retention?

Communication is a big thing. Understanding the experience that people are having is critical. You may know we set up an online community called Ripl [established] by Lauren Beckstedt, our chief marketing officer of Boat Group and business acceleration. We interact with [this community] all the time. We encourage them to tell us what they like and what they don’t like, where the pain points are, what’s their relationship with the dealer, what do they like about the boats, and what they’d do differently. So, I think we need to just keep listening and learning as we go forward.

Luckily, we have new tools to be able to do that. It used to be, you did a survey every year—that’s not very dynamic, right? Especially when things are changing so much. But if you can get out there and get responses in hours, it’s a super-cool thing to do.

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The industry is riding high right now. What concerns you the most?

I think we just need to keep evolving as quickly as everybody else is being forced to evolve. I go to sleep every day thinking, What did I do today? What did we do today that is going to move the industry forward, or move the company forward? You need pace and you need momentum. You need new ideas. It’s not something that worries me; it’s something that excites me. If you stop, you die, right? We need to keep moving. ‘Get off the X,’ is what people say.

Anything on the advanced driver-assistance system that’s supposed to come down the pipeline this fall?

We’re still on track with that. The first system that we’ll bring out is more of a vision-assistance system. It will not be directly connected to the control system of the boat. It’s designed to help the operator understand the environment more. But we’re working right now on a system that is coupled to the control of the boat, and we don’t think it’s too far away. You may have seen that we recently signed a partnership with Carnegie Robotics. Carnegie’s a great company, headed by the former head of Uber’s self-driving activity.

Do you get out boating much?

I have a Boston Whaler 405 Conquest. I’m in Chicago. Our corporate headquarters is in the northern suburbs of Chicago; my boat is in a harbor in downtown Chicago.

I don’t know if you know Chicago, but the Navy Pier is one of the big tourist spots. And then Lake Michigan harbor is just below that. We can both go boating down the river. A lot of the restaurants in Chicago will have a frontage on the river, so you can pull up, dock and go to eat. Then we go out on Lake Michigan.

How important for you, personally, is that time out on the water?

There’s clear science around what water does for people, and just being near the water, being on the water, it’s clearly helpful to your mental state, it’s helpful to clear your mind a lot. Certainly that’s part of it for me, but honestly, it’s very difficult to talk about the technology, to talk about business models, unless you live it to some extent yourself. I happen to live it in a very privileged way with a really nice Boston Whaler. But, on the other hand, everything that’s on here is on my boat. So, I know how to use it. I know what works really well for me, what’s really useful.

How old are your kids?

They’re 23 and 27. One of each. They’ll come down, they’ll bring their friends down, we’ll go out. We’ll come back and our slip is very close to the city, so we can sit on the back with a glass of wine after dark. Even if you don’t want to go out, just go and sit on the boat and you watch the world go by, which is a nice thing do to.

What’s your ideal day or weekend on the water?

First of all, we’ve got to have family and some friends out there. I think that’s a big deal. And then, I don’t know, make a plan, I guess. A bit of lake boating, maybe a bit of river boating. You get back, you’re a bit sweaty, you’re a bit tired, it’s dark, you crack open a bottle of wine.

Look for the full interview with David in the upcoming issue of Soundings Trade Only. Subscribe free at https://bit.ly/tradeonlysubs 

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