As seen in Business People Magazine April 2008
Boat Headquarters – A Swell Vocation
The last new-boat dealer in Franklin County keeps his head dry.
by Keith Morrill
At age 18, Kevin Lothian had already built a reputation for himself as a handyman when an unusual job offer came his way. Lothian’s business, Boat Headquarters in Swanton, is a direct result of that phone call.
Kevin Lothian has managed to do what every other new-boat dealer in Franklin County could not: He’s stayed afloat. Where before there were three or four other retailers in the county, that number shrank over the years, until now Lothian is the last one above the waves.
There could be many reasons for this, but according to Lothian, the answer is simple. “Commitment,” he explains. “I used to work here seven days a week, at least 80 hours a week. We put more time in, and by putting a lot of hours in, we gained customers’ trust that when we said we were going to get something done it would be done.”
This undying dedication to his customers is the mainstay of his business, he says. “I realize that Vermont is not a volume state when it comes to boats, so the important thing for us is service. With great service comes better volume.”
Lothian is a boat man through and through, although this wasn’t always the case. His start in the business came in the form of an unexpected phone call. Lothian grew up in Franklin and attended Missisquoi Valley Union High School. He was known around the area for performing odd jobs, and even back then, he was finding a lot of business through referrals.
One particular call, from Jack Macy, was a little different. Jack and his wife, Peggy, owned Northland Motors in St. Albans, and they were looking to bring somebody on board their boat business. Lothian told them there was only one problem, “I don’t know anything about boats.”
Strangely, Macy responded with enthusiasm, recounts Lothian, “He said, ‘Perfect. That’s what I’m looking for — somebody I can train to be a good mechanic, my way.’”
That was in 1981, when Lothian was 18. He started as a simple helper and eventually went on to attend the Outboard Marine Corp. Service School in New Jersey several times, where he became a fully certified Evinrude mechanic.
In ’93, the Macys were looking to sell, and Lothian bought the business “at more than a fair price,” he recalls. Initially, he continued to do business at the original site on U.S. 7 in St. Albans, although he changed the name from Northland Motors to Boat Headquarters.
In 1995, he purchased the vacant building on Vermont 78 in Swanton, where he continues to operate. Five years later, he bought an adjoining piece of land, doubling his available space to accommodate the business’s growth, and to better suit the needs of his customers by allowing for on-site storage during winter months. Last year, Lothian purchased a three-acre parcel of land less than a mile away for additional boat storage.
All these changes have been in response to customer needs, he says. “They’re looking for a one-stop shop — somewhere that’s not only going to sell them a product, but is also going to service it, store it in the off-season, and get it back to them in the spring when they snap their fingers.”
In that same spirit, Lothian has significantly expanded his product line. Boat Headquarters sells six boat brands and three outboard motor lines. By having more brands, Lothian expects to automatically make more sales.
“A lot of customers are already predetermined in what brand they want,” he says, and gives an example. “They might own a Yamaha snowmobile and ATV, and they’re going to stick to what they know.”
Customers can expect to walk in the door and peruse Boat Headquarters’ inventory in person, rather than look at pieces of literature, a point of pride for Lothian. “You can’t sell what you don’t have, so I’m a firm believer in having the product on the floor so people can see it.”
Customers want a one-stop shop, says Lothian, where they can buy a boat, find service for it, store it in the off-season, and get it back in the spring. Paul Stough is head mechanic.
Primarily, Lothian deals in boats between 16 and 21 feet in length, although he does sell the occasional 27-footer. The company moves a lot of fishing boats, some cruisers, and all things boat-related, including parts, trailers, and accessories. But the highest sales volume floats elsewhere. “We sell an awful lot of pontoon boats,” boasts Lothian. “We advertise ourselves as Vermont’s pontoon headquarters.”
Despite Vermont’s long winters, business is steady year-round. At first, Lothian wasn’t certain he could achieve his goals by dealing only in boats. “When I first got into the business, I was always looking for the other thing to sell in the off-season,” he says. Now, he’s glad he never found it.
“We don’t really have an off-season now. We used to have three or four slow months, but not any longer,” he says. “Back then, we would go down to just me and one other person. Now we keep a salesman, mechanic, office person, and me, all full time, because we’re much busier.”
Boating season proper may last only from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend, but Boat Headquarters works through December servicing boats and storing, even selling a few to fishermen and hunters. Preparation for the Vermont Boat Show & Expo at the Champlain Valley Fairgrounds begins in January. Then, by the end of February, the company’s already servicing boats for customers eager for the next season.
Helping Lothian shoulder this work load are four full-time employees. Bernie Cota is his parts manager; Kraig Ledoux, the salesman; Paul Stough, head mechanic; and his sister, Candy Lothian, is office secretary. Also instrumental to operations is Lothian’s father, Loren. The senior Lothian retired from IBM the year his son purchased Northland Motors. He performs numerous essential cleaning and maintenance tasks, and does a lot of the necessary trucking. Boat Headquarters sells six boat brands and three outboard motor lines. Instead of shopping from catalogs, customers can see the inventory in the showroom. Candy Lothian, the office secretary, is Kevin Lothian’s sister. Kraig Ledoux is the salesman.
Despite the busy schedule, Lothian still finds time for family: his wife, Darla, a registered nurse in St. Albans, and their children, Ryan, 13, and Rachel, 11. They enjoy the water in all seasons. In summer, he says, they spend a lot of time on Lake Carmi, where they have a cottage. In winter, they’re devoted to ice hockey, which both children play. Family encourages him to persevere, he says.
After all, it isn’t all smooth sailing.
For starters, he says, being so far north presents a challenge in trying to draw customers who might be just as content to shop in Chittenden County. He does, however, have the advantage of being along a busy throughway where a good deal of traffic from New York and Canada passes through.
While his clientele includes full-time Vermonters, Lothian sells to a fair number of seasonal and out-of-state residents who own homes in the area, or just like to enjoy the beauty of Vermont’s lakes. He’s hoping that, with the gaining strength of the Canadian dollar, he’ll see more of our neighbors to the north this year.
Already, he sees a decent contingent of loyal Canadian customers. One in particular, Neil Paznokaitis, a contractor from Montreal, has been dealing with Boat Headquarters for five years and plans to continue indefinitely.
Paznokaitis says that’s because of the great service he’s received. “There are a lot of quirks with boats, and a lot of dealers just say, ‘That’s tough.’ Kevin always says, ‘Bring it in,’ If I had to say just one thing, it would be, ‘Outstanding.’ They start the job by making a sale, and they finish the job by doing the after-sales and service, so I keep bringing my boat there every year. I recommend them to everyone.”
It is this service aspect that Lothian hopes will bring customers back despite rising prices of both boats and, of course, gasoline. Since he entered the business, he’s seen the price of boats rise threefold. Fortunately, he adds, consumers are getting a better boat for their money. Boats have traded wooden parts for composite materials, extending both the lifetime of the average boat and the length of manufacturer’s warranties.
He says people concerned about gas prices and pollution would be pleased to know that in recent years, industry standards have become more stringent, and that outboard motors burn 20 to 30 percent less gas than the engines of just a decade ago. They’re also polluting less by the same percentage. Engines now burn cleaner and quieter, which is good news for everyone hoping to enjoy Vermont’s lakes.
Lothian has seen all of these industry changes, and the continued challenges remain a reasonable price, he says. He’s doing what he loves as he continues to operate from Swanton, offering what he calls “Franklin County prices” and his special brand of customer service.