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ABBRA: Building better relationships, better boatyards

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No two boatyards are exactly alike. No matter their geographic proximity, there will always be factors which differentiate them from each other, whether it’s that one specializes in engine work and the other specializes in rigging or fiberglass. More importantly, for those who run the boatyards: There is always a way to differentiate your boatyard from another.

It is in this regard that the American Boat Builders and Repairers Association (ABBRA) has distinguished itself as a resource for boatyards in the United States.

“We want the ABBRA brand to stand for the professionalization of the industry,” says ABBRA President John Fitzgerald. “So, if you go to a yard that identifies itself as an ABBRA member, you know that they are part of a professional organization that is seeking to improve the industry and offer the customer a better experience.”

ABBRA does this in several ways, but most notably through its annual Boatyard Business Conference, where it offers a platform for the upper-management and owners of boatyards around the country to get together and discuss the state of the industry.

“It is an important aspect of what we do for our members in order for them to come together and share experiences – both good and bad – and take that information back to their businesses in order to put them to work immediately in order to better their business,” says ABBRA Executive Director Gordon Connell.

In the end, that’s really ABBRA’s main focus: It tries to make itself a conduit through which its members can learn and adapt in a way that makes their businesses more effective and more resilient through the years.

Common purpose since 1943

ABBRA was founded originally as the Atlantic Boat Builders and Repairers Association in March of 1943. In that sense, it is one of the oldest yachting industry associations that exists. Ten years later, ABBRA changed its name (though, notably, not its acronym) by swapping out “Atlantic” and replacing it with “American.”

ABBRA 2“Essentially, the boatyard operators and companies who were in the business of building or repairing boats after World War II felt the need to come together to address issues they were facing,” says Connell. “There were government regulatory issues and workforce issues, training issues and figuring out what wages were reasonable.”

In many ways, they are the very same issues that are at play today – only the standards have continually changed. Over the years, owners and managers would gather to discuss what we, today, call best management practices.

“They came together and made advocacy, education and collaborative effort to improve the standards of their business as their core objectives,” says Connell.

In past decades, there was a real need for hands-on training courses to develop a skilled workforce: training in everything from diesel engine repair to fiberglass work.

“More recently our focus has been less on technical training, because there are a lot of technical schools that are offering those things these days,” says Connell. Instead, ABBRA has shifted to offer more in terms of management and business development and to improve operational practices, though they still offer classes on forklift and straddle-lift safety.

In this vein, ABBRA offers a Marine Manager Service Course, which is generally for boatyard workers who are in the process of moving into management, or for people with management experience in other industries who are moving into the boatyard business. The course is instructed over three days, and ABBRA tries to offer it three times a year ­– though that is largely dependent on demand.

“It is designed as a primer for someone who wants to move on to secure a marine service manager’s position,” says Connell. The course hears from maritime attorneys, environmental and management specialists, as well as profitability and professional development specialists. “We kind of give a well-rounded presentation of topics and information for service managers,” he says.

Educationally, ABBRA also offers a variety of webinars on topical issues.

As a standards-bearer, ABBRA adopted a Code of Ethics in 1984, which deals with business conduct. The code touches on everything from business practices, to a pledge to preserve and protect the marine environment.

“Our ethical standards are important to us,” says Connell. “We certainly make them clear and review them with our members from time to time. While we don’t have any kind of formal dispute-resolution procedure, we always hold our members to a high standard.”

ABBRA 4While ABBRA doesn’t currently offer a formal certification, it recently worked with several boatyards in California to provide a peer review of their policies and practices, says Fitzgerald, who is also the president of Saunders Yachtworks in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

This was also part of an attempt to grow ABBRA’s reach. Currently it has over 250 members. However, many of these are still focused in the Northeast, the Mid-Atlantic states, and Florida. There are some members from states bordering the Gulf of Mexico, as well as a contingent from the Midwest – though it is looking to expand along the Pacific Coast. “We really want to build California and the Northwest,” says Connell.

Boatyard Business Conference

Within ABBRA, the year tends to revolve around the Boatyard Business Conference. This year, the conference will take place on January 21 through 23 at the Hyatt Regency Pier 66 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

This year, the conference theme is: “Taking the Lead: Setting Service Standards & Achieving Business Stability.”

“The annual conference is an attempt to bring together the best resources available for the business side of running a service facility and a boatyard,” says Fitzgerald. “We do our best to focus on business ownership and operational management. Topics range from environmental compliance; insurance policies;  how you assign or dispatch your labor resources; or how you manage subcontractors on your yard.”

In past years, says Connell, the conference has dealt with the following issues, among many others: transition planning; sustainable business models; marketing in the context of new technologies; when it’s right to outsource certain aspects of your business; along with all the continuing issues with regulations enforced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The conference also offers those in the boatyard industry a chance to get together with colleagues and compare their experiences over the preceding year.

ABBRA 1“From a business management standpoint, it’s good to compare notes with your industry peers,” says Fitzgerald.

“We really try to bring keynote speakers who have had success in the industry, because everyone has done it a little differently,” says Fitzgerald. “It exposes people to different ways of thinking about the business.”

This year, Peter Johnstone, the CEO of Gunboat, and Jim McManus, the CEO of The Hinckley Group, will be the keynote speakers.

Registration is still open for the conference through January 2, 2015. It is $399 for ABBRA members; $499 for non-members.

The wider world

In recent years, many boatyards suffered from the global economic recession. “A lot of companies got slimmer and trimmer and learned how to be more efficient with their operations over the course of the last couple years,” says Connell. “They are now at the point where they’re seeing an increase in business. We’re hearing from many, many of our members that they’re busy and that they’re hiring, although no one wants to move aggressively forward and hire too many people.”

Part of the hesitation is the lack of unity within the U.S. government. The divisions between Republicans and Democrats, and between President Obama and Congress, has only intensified and stymied many legislative efforts.

“There’s still too much uncertainty in the economy and in our political environment,” says Connell. “The government is not managing effectively and allowing businesses that comfort and stability that they would want and need in order to fully invest in their businesses.”

ABBRA 3“Given the current state of gridlock between our president and in Congress, not a whole lot is happening,” he says.

In spite of this, ABBRA does advocate on behalf of the industry – at least insofar as it is able to.

“It is very expensive to play in political advocacy – especially in a leadership role,” says Fitzgerald. “We look for those issues that are of specific interest to our members and add the ABBRA voice to the other voices in the industry.”

ABBRA does this largely by partnering closely with the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) in trying to push forward an agenda which benefits their membership, says Connell. They also encourage their members to build relationships with their local representatives in order to have a foot in the door at a more local level.

Preparing for the future

At the end of the day, ABBRA – like its members – must balance its focus on both the present and the future. It must be prepared for the realities of operating a business in the current economic and political environment, while also planning and laying the foundations for a better and more prosperous future.

In many ways, this is what it helps its members do best. It helps them take the time to step back and look at what ought to be changed in order to correct some of the mistakes that have occurred in the past. It helps its members become stronger and more resilient in the face of uncertainty. 


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