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What’s a Navico?

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What’s a Navico?

Deconstructing and defining an emerging marine electronics giant.

When I was first introduced to Simrad’s new NSE displays last fall, I just had to ask a company rep what the letters NSE stand for. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I was told that it means “Northstar Edition.”

Like many of you, the fate of Northstar has been a bit of a mystery to me. I knew that both Northstar and Simrad are owned by the same company, that Lowrance, Eagle; and Brookes and Gatehouse (B&G) are all part of the same group; and that between them, the five brands make up Navico, almost certainly the world’s biggest supplier of electronics for recreational craft. But why go to the trouble of keeping the five brands separate, I wondered, and use the name of one brand as a model designator in another? You wouldn’t expect to see a Ford Lincoln or a Chevrolet Buick on the streets anytime soon, would you?

The story really begins in Norway, when just after World War II—completely independent of each other—Thorlief Robertson and Willy Simmondsen set up Simmondsen Radio converting ex-military radios for use by commercial fishing boats. From there, the story reads like something out of the Old Testament:

Simmondsen begat Simrad and Robertson bought Stowe. Simrad then bought Robertson, Shipmate, Navico, and B&G. And finally, Altor bought Simrad and Lowrance and named them Navico.

On a rather smaller scale, Brunswick—the company that owns a portfolio of boatbuilders as diverse as Hatteras and Quicksilver inflatables—had taken just three years to acquire Northstar, Navman, and MX Marine before selling them two years later, when they joined Navico.

In all, a dozen different brands from all over the world went into making up the Navico we know today, one of them being the original Navico, the small British company whose slightly quirky but highly effective instruments I remember very vividly from a 23-foot sailboat that I owned back in the early ‘90s.

But the funny thing is that though you never see a Philips, Stowe, or Shipmate product nowadays, neither do you see any that carry the Navico badge. That’s because the company describes itself, instead, as a “house of brands.” To find out what that means, I contacted Louis Chemi, Navico’s executive VP and chief operating officer for the Americas. I began by suggesting that some boaters might be confused or even put off by the “house of brands” idea.

“Not at all” came his reply. “There are many other houses of brands, particularly in consumer products such as Proctor and Gamble and the Volkswagen-Audi Group. Each brand is aimed at a particular customer set, allowing it to focus on the needs of that particular set of customers but also giving customers the reassurance that the brand has the backing of a big company.”

Then I mentioned that the Navico Web site refers to “a common culture” and “economies of scale,” and asked the same question many of you have been asking: does this mean the company will eventually become a single brand?

“No,” he responded, “For the next five to ten years, we see distinct advantages in keeping separate brands, though we may reduce the number of brands to three: B&G, Simrad, and Lowrance. There’s no point having several brands within the group competing for the same customers.

“But different customers have different needs and expectations,” he continued, “and Navico’s goal is to create cutting-edge, compatible, and scalable technologies that can be delivered to customers in ways that offer the greatest value—not to make one product be everything to everyone.”

So, I asked him, exactly how do these groups of customers differed? Chemi used as an example that Simrad customers who he says are typically offshore fishermen and bluewater cruisers. A typical Simrad user might be a coastal cruiser on a 46-foot Grand Banks who spends time the day before his trip setting waypoints along a route to his next destination, so he needs a user interface that makes it easy to set up complex routes such as along the Intra-coastal Waterway.

This is in contrast to Lowrance customers, who he says may overlap a bit with Simrad but are more inland and inshore coastal, and hardcore bass and walleye fishermen. “They are at the value end of the saltwater market and the premium end of freshwater,” says Chemi. “A typical Lowrance user is more likely to be a tournament bass fisherman for whom the simplest part of the user interface needs to be dropping a mark quickly at the precise time and location of a bite.”

Chemi emphasized that both users need the same underlying function of dropping waypoints and use the same set of software that is at the core of the user interface. But each has unique needs in how that waypoint is dropped and what information may be available while dropping it.

After that discussion, I couldn’t avoid asking about Eagle. I will never forget being called out by a reader who insisted that by writing enthusiastically about a Lowrance product, I was somehow trying to trick him into parting with more money than was strictly necessary. “Why would I want to buy Lowrance,” he asked me—without any expectation of an answer—“when I can wait a couple of years and get the same product with a different label for half the price?”

“Eagle was a ‘channel’ brand,” explained Chemi. “Eagle products are similar to Lowrance, but they are designed to sell through retail outlets like Wal-Mart at specific price points, so they typically have similar but less expensive screens, inexpensive connectors, lower specs, and lower price points. But channel branding is no longer relevant.”

And so we came back to Northstar, which was historically very strong in the Northeast. But when Brunswick bought Navman Marine in 2004, it combined the two brands by simply applying the same logo to all of the products. The result was a three-tier product line targeted at small, mid-range, and large recreational vessels that were matched up to the various boat brands and boat sizes in the Brunswick family. “But although the brands were combined, it was only aesthetics; the functionality and user interfaces did not change,” said Chemi.

When Navico bought the Brunswick brands in 2007, it analyzed the market and features of each of its five brands, then broke each down into its component parts. “So we’ve taken the best engineers in radar, the best engineers in sonar, the best engineers in user interface and so on, and have reassembled them into a Navico culture. Northstar and Navman products span Lowrance and Simrad so we’re phasing out those two brands, expecting the Navman customer to move to Lowrance and the Northstar customer to Simrad.

“But what made Northstar so great was the user interface, which we’ve now been able to bring to Simrad: the NSE was designed by Northstar engineers.”

And so after a half-hour interview, I finally had my answer as to what happened to Northstar and how Navico is digesting all of those disparate brands. As I said, it’s a story of biblical proportions.

This article originally appeared in the July 2010 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.