Even though it isn't peak boating season, there's plenty of work to be done at Hayes Marine.
Boat maintenance will dominate the winter work at the Appling dealership, the only one with a location on Thurmond Lake.
"Having a boat ramp 100 feet out your back door is really unique," said Travis Hayes, a third-generation Augusta marine salesman. His grandfather ran Paul Hayes Marine on Olive Road in Augusta in the 1950s. His father, Bob, co-owned Martinez Marine on Washington Road until his death in the late 1980s.
The credibility of that pedigree, he said, has helped his fledgling business find its sea legs.
Mr. Hayes and his wife, Cathy, bought a struggling lakefront boat dealership before their marriage two years ago. Hayes Marine rents its building from the marina's owner, Trade Winds. It is near Lake Springs Recreation Area.
Mr. Hayes said his service business is up but boat sales are flat because of the economy.
"The lake coming up in the spring like it did made it easier to be in business. It took a head wind and turned it into a tail wind," he said.
"Lake level affects business more than the economy, we found out," Mrs. Hayes said.
A lot is based on perception. When the lake level is down 10 feet, she said, people think there's not enough water for recreation. Higher water means it is easier to enjoy the lake.
Lower water means fewer usable boat ramps.
"It is the way they use the lake. They'll go into a cove and raft, and when the water is low, some of those hideaways go away," she said.
The lake in December is quiet. But in the shop, Patrick North works on the propeller shaft of a boat brought in for maintenance.
"We offer a discount to have people do the maintenance now in the off season," Mr. Hayes said.
Mr. North is the only employee at Hayes now, but it will add four more in the summer during boating season.
Mr. Hayes said he is seeking to hire a full-time service manager.
"It is challenging, and we know we need to run lean in these times. It has gotten to the point now that the business is healthy enough to bring a guy in full time now," he said.
"That way, Travis can work on some of the growth activities," Mrs. Hayes said.
The peak for boating season is tied to kids' summer vacation. Activity picks up after the Masters Tournament and dwindles off a month after children return to school.
The season ends when Georgia plays its first home football game, Mr. Hayes said, " 'cause the phone won't ring on Saturday."
Hayes Marine doesn't have a lot of retail space.
"We're off the beaten path, so we don't get a lot of retail foot traffic. The Internet drives that for us, and the phone," Mr. Hayes said. "Sales is the high-end revenue number, but the model is shifting away from these big-box retailers because the overhead is obnoxious."
The business sells between 40 and 55 boats a year.
"That gives us a chance to make the manufacturers happy and we can keep the personal interaction," Mr. Hayes said.
But service is the driver in the business' success, he said. Hayes has a courtesy dock for troubled boaters to pull in and seek help. That dock also gives Hayes a leg up on landlocked boat dealers: the test drive.
Service quality earned the dealership a ranking in Boating Industry magazine. It is in the top 100 dealers, ranked by customer service, marketing and operations more than overall sales. Hayes Marine is 31st on the list, which was released last month.
Mrs. Hayes keeps the books and does the marketing for the company. She's at the dealership only on weekends because her weekday job is sales for AstraZeneca.
In January or February, she and her husband will spend a few weekends at area boat shows, the small ones that fill a local parking lot. The big-city shows are too expensive.
In the water
Hayes has the advantage of selling boats in a market without a lot of competitors, but there is a disadvantage in that it is also a small market.
"A small market with discretionary income, right now, people are choosing to use in other ways," Mrs. Hayes said.
Hayes Marine sells four brands: Stingray, a value line; Crownline, more of a luxury boat; Triton, for fishing; and Benington, a pontoon. And, like car dealers, the business has pre-owned inventory.
"Repo boats are the hot thing now," Mrs. Hayes said.
Hayes doesn't rent boats, though Mr. Hayes sees a potential to increase business by offering daily rentals.
"It is a great way to introduce someone to boating. But you've got to have someone you trust to go down there and give the novice boater a good orientation ... and they don't bring it back damaged," he said.
The couple were engaged when they bought the business in June 2007. It was known as Harbor Point then. Their interest in buying the dealership had been sparked three months earlier at a boat show in Savannah, Ga., when one of the boat manufacturing representatives let it be known that it was available for purchase.
They got married in October after three months of business partnership.
Before then, she was living in North Carolina and working in a private counseling practice with Mr. Hayes' mother and stepfather.
Mr. Hayes' parents set up the relationship.
"They kept saying, 'We've got a single son.' She had harassed me enough. 'OK, I'll come over and meet him,' " Mrs. Hayes said. "We hit it off and started a long-distance relationship. He moved me here two years later."
Since they were a late-in-life marriage, there isn't a fourth generation of Hayes family members to go into the boating business.
But they have three dogs.
Mr. Hayes was out of the boat sales business for more than a decade before taking over the business on the lake.
He had worked for his father at Martinez Marine in high school and continued there for a time after his father's death in 1987 -- his grandparents raised him through the last years of high school since his mother lived in North Carolina.
He was in no position to buy into the business by the time it closed in 1992.
"I went back to college," Mr. Hayes said. "The marine business is very cyclical. The good times are great times, but the hard times are challenging. When I left and went back to college, I'm going to find something outside of the marine industry, something more stable."
He graduated from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte in 1996 with a degree in mechanical engineering.
But he didn't stay out of the boat industry.
During his senior year, wanting a job before he graduated, he opened his book of old contacts to get job interviews. One of those contacts was a representative for Mercury Marine, a Wisconsin-based boat engine manufacturer.
The company hired him for a rep job in Louisiana and held it for him until he finished college.
Mr. Hayes moved back to Augusta in 1999, with a different job for Mercury, calling on boat makers instead of boat dealers. He worked with the engineers designing the new boats to make sure the engine systems meshed.
In 2006, Mr. Hayes got his master's degree in business administration from Oklahoma State University. He was in the state working on a project and some of his colleagues were involved in the executive MBA program.
"I provided the sweat equity and they provided the checkbook."
Just before buying the dealership on Thurmond Lake, Mr. Hayes was at a crossroads with his career with Mercury. He had reached his limit with the company as a field engineer. The next step on the ladder was mid-management in a facility -- and none of those opportunities felt right.
Knowing his way around a boat engine has been helpful in the service end of Hayes Marine.
"He jumps out there and helps the technicians when there is something they're not comfortable with," Mrs. Hayes said.
Mr. Hayes introduced Mrs. Hayes to the boating industry, but she hasn't left her other career behind.
She was born in Florida but grew up in Gastonia, N.C. She obtained her undergraduate and graduate degrees in clinical psychology from Appalachian State.
"Right out of school, I did some work with the prison system. That wasn't going to be a long-term career," she said.
"Some good stories though," Mr. Hayes said.
She moved on to a state agency that assesses and treats adolescents with developmental disabilities. Six years later, she took an assistant director's job in Hickory, N.C., where she met Mr. Hayes' mother.
After moving to Augusta, she kept working in her field, as an administrator with a mental health facility in McDuffie County and then in Augusta.
Weekends on the lake
Last year, an AstraZeneca representative was moving to North Carolina and asked Mrs. Hayes if she was interested in moving into pharmaceutical sales. She was in a similar situation as her husband, not much upward career mobility left.
She spends each day on the road, but her territory isn't so large that all of her calls can't be day trips.
Her weekends are spent on the lake, occasionally requiring her to sell boats too.
"We all equally handle the sales," she said.
Boats are delivered on trucks, much like cars, and then are put in place by forklifts. Or they can send a driver to get a boat.
"Cathy's dad is retired. He is our delivery person. We'll let him buy a Hardee's biscuit and a newspaper and he'll go pick boats up for us," Mr. Hayes said.
Running a new business in tough economic times doesn't afford much time for hobbies. Free time is spent around the house, Mrs. Hayes said.
Mr. Hayes once played around with boat racing, like his father, and dabbled in cross country motorcycle racing.
"Dad would ride dirt bikes for fun. That grew over time. We had fun with it and would get away to ride other trails," he said.
"Did some motocross, but it was intense. I was older when I started, and my knees couldn't take that stuff."
Mr. Hayes doesn't own a boat.
He said they will take one of the new boats and "demo" it, using it for 12 to 20 hours to get a feel for its features. Then they sell it at a discount.
Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BORN: May 13, 1969, Augusta
EDUCATION: Mechanical engineering, UNC-Charlotte; business administration, Oklahoma State University
BORN: March 1, 1970, Florida
EDUCATION: Clinical psychology, Appalachian State University
Travis Hayes points to where Bussey Point is located at Hayes Marina on Thursday, December 3, 2209
Travis Hayes bought Hayes Marine, then known as Harbor Point, in 2007. His location on the lake allows him to offer test drives to prospective boat buyers.
Travis and Cathy Hayes have plenty to do at Hayes Marine on Thurmond Lake even in the winter off season for boating. They offer a maintenance service to boaters, which helps take up the slack when boat sales are down. [CAPTION]
Travis and Cathy Hayes pose for a photo at Hayes Marina on Thursday, December 3, 2209
Travis' father, Paul Robert Hayes Jr. in 1979 [CAPTION]
Mr. Hayes (second from left) worked at Martinez Marine in high school. The business was co-owned by his father, Bob Hayes, and Dale Duvall (far right). [CAPTION]
Employee Patrick North works on a boat at Hayes Marine. He is the boat company's only full-time employee now, but four workers could be added in the busier summer season.