Yacht dealers seek pickup in sales with loan twists

Some of the yacht dealers at the National Boat Show are starting the 1982 boating season with a seminar: ''How to get financing for your customers.''

The advice the dealers get this week from the seminar leader, Art Pulis, an Arizona consultant who specializes in ''creative financing,'' may make or break their year.

''A lot of guys lost sales at the bank last year,'' says Frank Scalpone, executive vice-president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, sponsor of the boat show and the seminar. And, should dealers continue to lose sales at the bank, where interest on boat loans peaked at about 22 percent last year, they could have their third consecutive bad year. This could lead to a further shakeout for boat builders.

''We're looking for the industry to be about half its current size in terms of the number of units sold by 1983,'' states Bob Seidelmann, owner of Seidelmann Yachts. He adds, ''This industry is going to grow up very quickly; those people who are in it as a business will survive and those who are in it as a hobby will not.''

Naturally, not everyone thinks 1982 is going to see a lot of yacht companies sinking below the waves. Mr. Scalpone, for example, ventures that the industry will sell more units in 1982 than it did in 1981. Last year, some 575,000 boats were sold, compared with about 500,000 in 1980, considered the ''Waterloo'' year of yachting.

The key to the year, Scalpone says, will be interest rates. If the buying public thinks interest rates will fall in 1982, he says, they may hold off buying in the hopes of nailing down still lower rates. He says that is what happened in November and December, when many of the manufacturers saw sales sink to the lowest levels in years. Manufacturers such as C&C and Pearson, which have had good years in past downturns, had to close their assembly lines for a few weeks.

But should the buying public perceive that interest rates have bottomed, Scalpone hypothesizes, ''it could be a whale of a year,'' since there is a fair amount of pent-up buying.

Still, many manufacturers are not particularly optimistic this year. Dave Parker, president of AMF Hatteras, standing on the aft deck of a 46-foot $319, 000 yacht, says his company is planning for a flat year. ''We're just planning from quarter to quarter,'' Mr. Parker says. Normally, Hatteras has a six-month waiting period for its yachts, but this year, he concedes, the wait is a lot shorter. ''Want one now?'' he asks.

Parker says sales in South America and Southeast Asia have helped bolster sales, although European sales are way off.

And Bruce T. Rollins, district sales manager for C&C yachts, notes that for the first time his company has had to go out and sell sailboats. Based on its reputation, C&C in the past has been mainly ''ticket writers.'' This year, the company has held its price increases down - below the rate of inflation. C&C had to close down its Rhode Island factory for two weeks in December to adjust its inventory. But its Canadian operations are still running at capacity.

Another manufacturer, Hunter Yachts, says its bigger boats, including its 54 -foot queen of the show, are selling well. But Robert Hathaway, a sales manager, concedes, ''Small boats aren't selling like they should.''

Even in areas of strength, such as sailboards, some manufacturers are battening down. Rick Cowen of Windsurfer International says some foreign manufacturers only sold about one-third to one-half of what they expected last year and now are loaded with inventory. Hobie Cat, however, expects 1982 to be another good year, says Doug Campbell, its president and general manager.

There is little doubt the high interest rates have been putting a squeeze on dealers. Ray Caldwell, a professer of business administration at Salem State College in Salem, Mass., who also works for Seidelmann, notes that dealers are complaining about their profit margins, which normally run 16 to 25 percent. ''If a dealer is paying 21/2 percent per month to keep his inventory, in four months he's lost 60 percent of his potential profit.''

Interest rates are the key, agrees Theodore P. Treppin, manager of marine financing for General Electric Credit Corporation. Mr. Treppin says consumers have become acclimated to rates hovering in the 15-to-17-percent range - the current rates for financing a yacht. He says that should they return to 21-to-22 -percent levels, however, the consumer will remain a landlubber. As for the future, he would rather not hazard a guess.

Some companies have already begun their own creative financing programs. At Lancer Yachts, for example, Donald C. Haskell, executive vice-president, points to a $1,000 rebate and 121/2 percent interest rate the company is offering to buyers of its 28-foot yachts. ''You see that 121/2 percent rate?'' asks Scalpone. ''That rate is getting people into the showrooms.''

For the second consecutive year, says Mr. Haskell, Lancer has persuaded a major financial institution to lend it money at that low rate so it could sell boats. ''You're better off making a product with a smaller profit than shutting down the factory,'' he says.

In fact, the president of the boatmakers' association, Jeff Napier, has been trying hard to get its members to learn a few tricks from the hard-pressed real estate industry. For example, the industry is slowly adopting what are called ''dealer buy-downs.'' Mr. Napier explains: ''The consumer dosen't want to pay 17 -18 percent, so the dealer goes to the lender and says I'll pay the difference between 12 percent and 17 percent. It comes out of the dealer's margin, but it moves product out of inventory where the dealer is paying high interest rates anyway.''

Napier says other methods of ''creative financing'' slowly working their way into yachting circles include variable-rate loans, loans with balloon payments at the end, and, in some cases, loans drawn against a home mortgage where there is a lot of equity. Some sellers of used boats are also financing their craft for buyers by letting the new buyer assume the loan. ''At least you can make a deal and get enough cash out of your boat to buy a new boat,'' Napier says.

Even if the industry is feeling pinched by high interest rates, the boat show itself is doing well. Nearly every inch of space was rented, and a big complaints among the manufacturers was that they didn't get enough floor space. In a few years, Napier notes, this problem will be solved when a new convention center is built.

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