On eve of retirement, longtime Spokane boat dealer looks back
After four decades as television pitchman for his eponymous boat dealership, Bill Trudeau Sr. has grown accustomed to strangers recognizing him.
And he doesn’t mind that their typical comment is a reference to his stature: “You look a lot bigger on TV.”
Trudeau may not be tall, but at least he’s still standing in a business notorious for bringing entrepreneurs to their knees.
“If you look around, you don’t see very many people who retire out of the boat business,” he observes with his trademark clenched-jaw grin.
Later this month, Trudeau will do just that when he sells his local dealership to son Doug and his Portland store to another son, Mike.
Trudeau discussed his career during a recent interview at the marina’s 304 E. Sprague Ave. headquarters, across the street from where his father opened a boat repair shop 64 years ago.
S-R: How’s business?
Trudeau: Not as good as we’d like it, but we’re about at a break-even point for the year.
S-R: What’s your earliest recollection of working with your dad?
Trudeau: He starting repairing outboard motors in 1948, when I was 6, and I started working with him when I was 15 or 16. Boats would come in without windshields or steering, and I’d drill holes through the wooden stringers for steering and attach windshields.
S-R: Did you always assume you would join the family business?
Trudeau: No. In fact, I managed a Firestone tire store while I earned my degree at Gonzaga.
S-R: What was your major?
S-R: What did you plan to do with an English degree?
Trudeau: Nothing. If you’re in liberal arts, you’re just trying to graduate. I didn’t have any direction at that point in my life.
S-R: When did you return to the marina?
Trudeau: When I was 26. I think my dad had a sense his time was short. I came to work in February, and he died in September.
S-R: Did you have a mentor?
Trudeau: I had a really good mentor in the tire business – probably the best manager I ever met. I was running a store for him, and one day he said, “Trudeau, do you know what management is?” I fumbled and mumbled and finally said, “No, I don’t know.” And he said, “Management is getting someone else to do it for you. What we have here is the reverse of management.” That gave me a whole new perspective.
S-R: How would you describe your subsequent management philosophy?
Trudeau: Make it fun.
S-R: What inspired you to star in your own commercials?
Trudeau: Back in the late ’60s, car dealers on the coast were doing that kind of advertising, and immediately they would become the largest dealer in the area. It worked really well for us, too.
S-R: Was your dad’s repair shop successful from the start?
Trudeau: He had his ups and downs. The boat business has pretty severe cycles because people don’t really need a boat. I bought the business in ’74, and four months later we had our first gasoline crisis. Then in the early ’80s interest rates hit 21 percent, and during one six-month period we sold three boats.
S-R: Did you ever worry about failing?
Trudeau: In this business you’re on the edge of failure all the time. Whenever I had any extra money, I put it in real estate, where I couldn’t get my hands on it.
S-R: How have recreation boats evolved over the years?
Trudeau: They’re a lot better built for the same amount of money, relatively speaking.
S-R: Why is it cars and so many other products are made overseas, yet most boats are still made in the United States?
Trudeau: It’s almost impossible to ship them. But we do have the challenge of overseas manufacturers coming in with Jet Skis and that sort of thing.
S-R: Do you think there will ever be a hybrid or all-electric boat?
Trudeau: Sea Ray has a hybrid boat (the 240 Sundancer). Down the road you’ll see all-electric boats, too. It’s a no-brainer.
S-R: How has your business evolved over the years?
Trudeau: Fewer units and more dollars. We’ve doubled our market penetration, but the market is only 30 percent of what it used to be. Years ago, everybody bought a boat. If you were a fireman or a police officer, you had a boat. The clientele has changed.
S-R: Has the recession impacted boat sales?
Trudeau: Oh, yes. In a good year, our Spokane store would sell 200 boats, and last year I’d guess we only sold around 100.
S-R: How’s this year looking?
Trudeau: Same as last year.
S-R: What would help boat sales?
Trudeau: Certainty in the political arena. If Obama is re-elected, taxes on the people who buy our product will probably go up substantially.
S-R: I remember your commercials from the early ’70s, and you always looked so big. How tall are you?
Trudeau: I’m 5-5. I’d sit in one of those captain’s chairs and they’d shoot me from below. I didn’t do it with the idea of looking taller. It was more like the camera angle they’d use for an entertainer. But when people would meet me for the first time, they’d always say, “You look a lot bigger on TV.”
S-R: You’re already semi-retired. How do you relax?
S-R: Not boating?
Trudeau: I’m 71 years old and my wife has vision issues, so our boating days are pretty much behind us.
Spokane correspondent Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.