Larry Whiteley: Eliminating redundancies led to a combined 45 layoffs in March at Bass Pro and Tracker.
Larry Whiteley: Eliminating redundancies led to a combined 45 layoffs in March at Bass Pro and Tracker.
Sales at boating manufacturers across the country are drying up, and a major player in the Ozarks is among those adapting.

Springfield-based Tracker Marine Group LLC, a division of Bass Pro Shops, is in a nationwide club of boat makers whose members have reduced their work forces in recent months. The layoffs at Tracker began in October with 100 Bolivar employees; four months later, Tracker closed the Bolivar plant, laying off another 80 employees. Remaining operations at the Bolivar plant have been folded into Tracker's plant in Lebanon.

In mid-January, Tracker's plant in Miami, Okla., just across the border from Joplin, also laid off 55 workers and cut one of its two shifts, said Judee Snodderly, executive director of the Miami Area Economic Development Service. Snodderly said Tracker began manufacturing boats at the plant in early 2003 with about 250 employees. At its peak a couple of years ago, the plant employed close to 500 people, she said.

The latest blow to Tracker came in March, when Bass Pro spokesman Larry Whiteley said a total of 45 employees from both companies lost their jobs as redundancies were eliminated through an internal merger of departments. Longtime Tracker President Ken Burroughs is no longer serving in an executive capacity, and his responsibilities have been shifted to Bass Pro President and Chief Operating Officer Jim Hagale, Whiteley said.

Tracker, which also has manufacturing plants in Clinton and Ozark, is one of the country's five largest boat manufacturers, said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and the Springfield-based company is not alone in its sales slump.

"I'm not aware of any boat manufacturer who hasn't experienced layoffs or reductions," Dammrich said. "Having to make these cuts in your work force is extremely painful. ... Most boat builders are in smaller towns where the workers are their neighbors. However, the survival of the company is what's paramount at this point in time."

Surviving the recession hasn't been easy for boat manufacturers.

Retail boat sales were moving along at a nice clip until July 2008, when they began to fall "precipitously," Dammrich said, citing the commerce-killing confluence of a slowing economy, falling home prices and plummeting consumer confidence.

In fourth-quarter 2008, one in three NMMA members furloughed operations for a period of time, and one in 10 closed down a plant entirely, Dammrich said. As of late March, the Chicago-based association estimated that unemployment in the boating industry was more than 50 percent, he said.

"They're probably collecting unemployment and looking for other work - and if they've got any free time, hopefully they're going fishing," Dammrich joked.

The first quarter of 2009 doesn't look much better for the industry.

"What it comes down to is that, until the consumer starts feeling more confident about the future, they're holding off on some purchases," Dammrich said.

Whiteley said Tracker's declining sales - he would not discuss how far off the numbers are from projections - have been felt throughout the country, including the South, one of the strongest regions for retail boat sales and related equipment. He also noted that boat loans aren't as widely available as they once were, due primarily to tightened lending standards.

In March, Tracker's financing arm - Tracker Marine Financial Services LLC - announced a partnership with Louisiana-based AppOne to simplify the finance process for Tracker's network of 500 dealers, according to a news release.

The AppOne technology will help Tracker Marine Financial Services and its dealers automate indirect lending, credit approvals and compliance processes required for booking and funding boat loans.

"By automating the indirect lending process for Tracker dealers, we will be able to help them turn loans around faster, which ultimately will help them increase their service levels, retain more customers and sell more boats," said Toni Miller, Tracker Marine Financial's vice president and chief financial officer, in the release.

Dammrich said he's hopeful nuggets of positive economic news - along with discounted boat prices - will spur consumers to wade into the marketplace this spring.

"There are some glimmers of improvement out there, and we are entering the prime selling season," he said. "This is a fairly critical period for retail boat sales."

Whiteley said Bass Pro's customer base is a resilient one.

"One thing about outdoor people is that they are still going to find a way to do their fishing, do their hunting, do their camping, do their hiking," he said.