116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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Hoping to get out on the water this summer?
'Don't delay,” Shawn Harmon advised.
Harmon, co-owner of SW Marine in Palo, said shortages of hulls, outboard motors and accessories are a lingering effect of the COVID-19 pandemic that's disrupted supply and distribution in other industries, too.
'Our selling is very strong,” he said. 'The issue is, no orders for customers. They have to buy from our stock. We won't see all of our 2021 inventory until the beginning of May.”
A year ago this week, sales were up at least 30 percent over 2019.
'We started out 2020 with the best first quarter we've ever seen,” Harmon said.
But the initial COVID isolation left sales dead in the water - briefly.
'It was like someone pulled the emergency brake and shut it down,” Harmon said. 'It was the scare of it all, and the unknown.”
After about eight weeks, COVID-19's spread seemed to slow as the weather warmed, and Iowans looking for safe outdoor recreational opportunities started Harmon's phone ringing.
'We effectively sold our 2020 inventory by July 1,” he said. 'Then we experienced the lowest inventory levels we've ever had.”
The pandemic idled boat and engine manufacturers and disrupted global supply chains.
Yamaha outboards still are built in Japan, smaller Mercury outboards are foreign-made and many electronic accessories come from Asia.
'We're also seeing an unprecedented amount of orders coming in,” Harmon said. 'Virtually all boat manufacturers are closed now for the 2021 model year. They're not taking orders. It's across the industry.”
Anticipating the market shift, Harmon and his staff ordered more boats, motors and trailers than ever. That new inventory is coming, slowly, as the cost of about everything rises.
'Aluminum, freight, all of the above,” he said. 'Thankfully we have a lot of inventory that's already been bought and paid for and isn't going to be subject to these increases.
But going forward, things are going to be substantially more money for the 2022 model year.”
By acting early, Harmon so far has avoided retroactive price hikes from manufacturers, to be passed along to dealers and customers who've ordered boats.
'That's a tough phone call,” Harmon said. 'Manufacturers aren't projecting this will solve itself before, maybe, 2022.”
An angler and waterfowl hunter, Harmon worked as a biochemistry researcher at the University of Iowa when he and now-business partner, Kevin Smith, started building 'boat blinds” in the garage of his rural Linn County home in 2006.
They outfitted shallow-draft hulls with camouflage, weather protection and 'mud motors” - outboard engines modified to operate in hardly any water.
'We did them for ourselves,” Harmon said. 'We had friends and acquaintances that saw what we built, and they wanted their own. That evolved.”
As business grew, the pair shifted from adding blinds to old boats to ordering new hulls.
'If we're going to build these duck blinds, let's build them on our own boats,” Harmon recalled.
'We brought in a boat line, two of them, actually. We brought in Yamaha (motors) in 2008, and in 2009 we came here.”
In 2014, SW Marine bought Kennedy Marine of Cedar Rapids and moved its inventory to Palo.
Today, Harmon estimates boat blinds account for only about 10 percent of SW Marine's business. But he and three of SW Marine's eight employees still build boat blinds every December through March, when the rest of the business is slow.
'That's when we do our fabrication,” he said.
'The remainder of the year, there's just too much in our service department - fixing people's outboards and rigging boats. Sales, service and repair, parts and accessories, is definitely the majority of the business in today's world.”
While few customers spring for a full-package boat blind, waterfowlers still are an important part of SW Marine's customer base.
'Not necessarily blind boats, but just waterfowl hunting boats, surface-drive,” he said. 'That is a significant part of our sales and service.”
Otherwise, local customers favor smaller craft that are easier to trailer.
'The marine dealership in Iowa is selling a lot to customers who travel with their boats,” Harmon said.
'They're going to Minnesota, they're going to the Mississippi River, they're going to Wisconsin. They're going to places with more lakes and more opportunities.
'Then we have a lot of folks who just want a common jon (flat-bottomed) boat package to go fish Lake Macbride or Pleasant Creek or the Cedar River. Easy to tow, light weight, affordable.”
Last August's derecho took a significant piece of SW's two-building complex - about 8,400 square feet of shop and showroom space.
'From this wall over was destroyed,” Harmon said, pointing to a corner of his office. 'They were rebuilt completely from scratch.
'We're still not done all the way, but we're done enough so that our boats are on display. Our shop is up, fully functional.”
Parts availability remains a challenge. JW Marine's service schedule is booked about 10 days in advance, about where Harmon likes it for March.
Even with inventory 'trickling in,” Harmon is looking forward to the season.
'We're anticipating '21 to be a little more normal.”
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At a glance
' Co-owners: Shawn Harmon and Kevin Smith
' Business: SW Marine
' Address: 110 Freese Ct., Palo
' Phone: (319) 851-3825
' Website: sw-marine.com