Joe Lewis owned the Mount Dora Boating Center and Marina for only a couple of years when his service-first philosophy faced, perhaps, its most preposterous test.
A frantic customer who bought a boat at a different dealership pulled into Lewis’ marina because the boat wouldn’t plane.
They told Lewis, “This boat will not run. We give it a wide-open throttle and all it does is sit there and spray water out the back.”
“Where is it?” Lewis asked.
“It’s at your dock,” the couple said.
“Well, let’s take a look,” Lewis said.
“The first thing I noticed when I got out there was that it was sitting funny — it was really bowed out. Upon closer inspection I could see that there was something hooked onto the eye at the front of the boat. I looked down and sure enough the trailer was still there. They just unhooked it from the truck and took off.
“I think I see your problem,” Lewis told them.
“I’ve never seen anything funnier ever since.”
More than 16 years later, Lewis recalled this story in early January while working at his marina.
Looking more like Santa’s workshop than one of the top boat dealers in the nation, his display included a miniature homemade Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a tree that changes lights to “dance” with the music and multiple Santas with full complements of reindeer. The display might make P.T. Barnum blush. It jumps at passers bye, nearly thrashing unsuspecting visitors out of their holiday trances.
Eye-opening and blinding, the 750,000-light display sets the waterfront, park and dockage aglow, embarrassing the lighthouse that sits just a few hundred yards down the shoreline.
That Lewis is the architect of the display shouldn’t surprise anyone. He’s been trying to light the way to boating industry success in Florida for nearly 20 years.
His efforts have earned him prestigious recognition. He was the most recent inductee into the Marine Retailers Association of America Hall of Fame.
Lewis wasn’t always in the boating world.
A former outdoor power equipment distributor from Harrisburg, Pa., Lewis decided in the late 1980s he needed to do something different with his life. An ad in the Wall Street Journal selling a Florida marina captured his attention. Thirty days later, Lewis closed on the Mount Dora Boating Center and Marina and headed south.
Less than 10 years later Lewis became a prominent voice in the industry, calling for dramatic changes. Industry leaders and legislators listened to him.
In 2002 he became president of the Marine Industries Association of Florida, an organization that was $250,000 in debt and it lacked representation in state government.
“We had to figure out a way — if we were going to have all this fun in Tallahassee — to pay for it,” Lewis said. “To do it strictly on a dues-supported organization wasn’t getting it done.”
Lewis made it his priority to get the organization out of debt.
Taking a page from the National Marine Manufacturers Association, he organized the Sunshine State’s first two boat shows sponsored by the MIAF. The success of those events put money in the organization’s wallet.
Lewis then concentrated turning those dollars into power; he was tired of having the state’s boating industry’s concerns overlooked by the Florida state legislature. He helped establish the Office of Boating and Waterways, an organization dedicated to lobbying for industry causes.
“He’s a significant contributor to industry efforts,” National Marine Manufacturers Association president Thom Dammrich said. “He’s a very enthusiastic guy, an optimistic guy and, like most successful people, he just has a lot of perseverance.”
He owns a full-service compound. He sells Four Winns, Harris Float Boats, Escape Watercraft and Rinker boats. The marina also offers boat service and repair, wet and dry storage, fuel and boating accessories.
Yet he has dedicated many years to lobbying on behalf of the industry.
For years the boating industry didn’t have any voice in state government, Lewis said. “What we were able to do — through working with the legislators and getting in front of their representatives — was to let people know the marine industry’s story and what an important industry this is to the state.”
See the complete story in the upcoming February issue of Soundings Trade Only