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Xavier Magazine | October 26, 2014

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Alumni Profile: Michael Phillips

Alumni Profile: Michael Phillips
Julie Zimmerman

MICHAEL PHILLIPS
Master of Education, 1973
Retired powerboat-industry executive
Benton, Ill.

Interest to Industry | Phillips made a career as a school teacher and administrator, and in the home-renovation business. But as a lifelong boating enthusiast, when his brother-in-law launched Celebrity Boats three decades ago and asked Phillips to join as director of sales and marketing, Phillips couldn’t resist. “It seemed like a pretty fun business,” he says. “I was a little naïve about it.”

Growth and Offers | The company went from $8 million to $60 million in business over an eight-year period, enough to earn the attention of larger boat builders and an investment firm that eventually bought the company. “We probably turned them away six or eight times, and they came back every time with a better offer until they finally hit the button,” he says. Phillips stayed with the new owners for a while but left in 1989 to help a former colleague launch Maria Boats.

A Third Company | Phillips knew Maria would be a short-term gig, and in 1991 his brother-in-law again convinced him to help start a new boat business: Crownline Boats. “He said, ‘I’ve got the urge to start one more,’ ” Phillips says. “I said, ‘All right, let’s go.’ ”

Instant Hit | In five years, Crownline was the fourth-largest boat builder in the world, success that Phillips attributes to the relationships they built in the industry. “When we built the first prototype and I got on the road and started calling dealers, they knew us and knew how we had dealt with them in the past,” he says. “The thing I am most proud of is that the dealers would look me in the eye and say, ‘I believe you.’ ”

Typical Buyer | Owning a boat, long a province of the wealthy, began to appeal to middle-income enthusiasts about 25 years ago, and all three of Phillips’ companies targeted those consumers with all-purpose boats ranging from 17 to 34 feet. “One good thing about boaters—once they get a boat you usually have them for life,” Phillips says. “We call it one-foot-itis. Whenever you get a boat, in a few years you want one a little bit bigger.”

Harder Sell | Despite the industry’s efforts to market to women, men still make up the majority of boat buyers. “When I see that gleam in the guy’s eye, I don’t have to sell him,” he says. “I have to sell his wife.”

Discretionary Purchase | Boating is an expensive hobby and easy to cut out when times are tough. Things have been especially difficult in the current recession, and Phillips, who worked as a consultant after leaving Crownline, left the industry for good in 2008.

His Craft | Phillips has a 23-foot Crownline 230 BR, “a big, open boat with a big engine and all the bells and whistles,” that he keeps on Lake Freeman in Monticello, Ind. “The thing I like most about boating is the serenity, the quiet and the escape, family and friends, the sun on you and you get hot and jump in the lake,” he says. “It’s a tremendous lifestyle that you can’t get any other way.”

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