SANTA CRUZ—After four years at the helm of the nation’s largest boating goods supplier, West Marine’s chief executive officer stood at the entrance of a new water lifestyle test store last week in Santa Cruz and said it reflected the ongoing strategic transformation of the company.
“This is a radical departure for us,” said Matt Hyde, who turned toward a 13,000-square-foot showroom that opens to a full catalog of water and boating lifestyle accouterments — shoes, hats, luggage, a full line of men and women’s apparel, kayaks, paddleboards, water coolers, sunglasses, GoPro cameras and fishing gear. Behind the front counter is an online ship-to-store pickup with its own customer parking space in the parking lot.
About 78 percent of the company’s revenues still come from traditional boat supplies, the kind of boat gear that fills up the back of the store, plus marine electronics and miles of rope and line on dozens of large spools hanging on a corner wall.
“It’s always going to be a core part of our business,” Hyde said of the traditional gear. “It’s what we’re known for.”
Hyde, however, was hired in 2012 to expand the customer base from its precariously small and diminishing niche of aging white, male boat owners. The publicly owned company had tried for years to broaden its customer base.
“When he came on board, there was still some concern about the viability in this space of parts for the boat,” said Dennis Madsen, a West Marine board of director and former head of REI where Hyde worked for 26 years prior to taking the top job at West Marine. “We needed to be a little bit more than that.”
The company has “absolutely” turned a corner, Madsen said. “The signs are there. We’re seeing our customer base grow with new customers that are not our traditional boat owners. It’s a younger and more diverse (customer) by ethnicity and by gender.”
Hyde helped navigate the same kind of transition at REI, Madsen said.
“I see the challenge that Matt has at West Marine and whole boating industry as such a similar place that REI was in 25 years ago,” Madsen said. “It’s an opportunity to become relevant to an emerging millennial market by taking bold and attractive steps to include them.”
West Marine is on track to reach several financial targets such as more than 50 percent of sales from new format stores and 15 percent of its sales from online transactions by 2019. From more than 400 smaller stores in the U.S., Canada and Puerto Rico in mid-2000s, the company had consolidated to 310 stores when Hyde came on in mid-2012. Now there are 258 and more consolidations underway.
Retail is changing, Hyde said.
For Randy Repass, company founder, former chief executive and president and the largest shareholder, the transformation is a long time coming. Repass credits Hyde with hiring the right team of executives to help steer the transformation to a better online experience and a broader customer base.
“For over 20 years we’ve had apparel and kayaks and so on, but he’s doing a better job implementing it,” Repass said. “He’s been good at executing the strategic plan.”
For Hyde, 53, who was a top executive at REI but never a CEO, it’s also been a personal transformation of sorts. A pilot and passionate rock climber who’s scaled rock faces from the Arctic to Peru to Tajikistan, the focus has been on getting his feet wet.
He said he’d paddled in a kayak before joining West Marine, but now, with his wife Lisa Beaudreau, an avid mountaineer and bicyclist, he now shares three kayaks, five paddleboards, four wetsuits, two boogie boards and a 22-foot Catalina Capri sailboat. He readily shares his photos of kayak fishing for lingcod on his phone.
“He’s reoriented his entire life to the water,” Madsen said. “That’s remarkable to make that kind of a spin from being an almost exclusive mountain person to the water. It’s not just a job for him, it’s a lifestyle.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct the date of the grand opening.
New West Marine Test Store
GRAND OPENING WEEKEND: 5-8 p.m., Friday through Sunday, Aug. 26-28.
STORE: 2460 17th Ave., Santa Cruz; 476-1800.
SIZE: 13,200 square feet.
LEADERSHIP: Tim Clark, store manager.
RIBBON CUTTING: 5 p.m., Friday, Aug. 26.
CRUISING FOR A CAUSE: A charity fundraiser for local nonprofit organizations: Big Brothers & Big Sisters of Santa Cruz, Coastal Watershed Council, Grind Out Hunger, Jay Moriarty Foundation, Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Exploration Center, O’Neill Sea Odyssey, Pelagic Shark Research Foundation and The Last Plastic Straw.
TICKETS: $10, available at participating nonprofit agencies and at the new store. Funds collected from ticket sales and 50 percent of West Marine’s Aug. 26 store sales, up to $10,000, go to nonprofit organizations.
FRIDAY ACTIVITIES: Food, entertainment, ribbon cutting with mayor.
WEEKEND ACTIVITIES: Food, stand-up paddling yoga and kayak pool demonstrations, Kids Zone with sailboat coloring, knot-tying lessons, VW photo booth.
VISITING EXPERTS: Gerry Lopez, (surfer/SUP/shaper/actor/journalist), Ken Sauret (fisherman), Erika Benitez (teen SUP competitor), Seychelle Hattingh (SUP yoga), Jimbo Phillips (illustrator).
PRIZES: Waterlife adventure package; first 150 customers get free Jimbo Phillips T-shirt.
This article was published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.