Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The Business of Sailing vs. the Interests of Sailors

I used to think that a winning business strategy was that doing what is best for the customers is what is best for the business.  Win–win.  The long term loyalty of customers will reap long term rewards for the bottom line of the business.  I thought this worked particularly well in one-design sailing where customers bought new sails, spare parts, upgrades, and new boats, frequently replacing perfectly serviceable boats.

The strategy works well in the first one-design class I joined – Flying Scots.  The builder makes an incredibly high quality durable product.  Parts are always in stock and shipped immediately.  Flying Scot Inc. brings spare parts to major regattas and sometimes delivers new boats there.  The company owner runs seminars on setting up and tuning the boat for racing.  There is no doubt that the company is doing everything it can to serve the customers, and there is no doubt that the customers love the company.  There are no accusations that prices are unfair.  The customers want to pay enough to keep the company profitable.  The class association does everything it can to support the builder, and the builder tenaciously supports the one-design goals of the association.  Even in the midst of a sluggish economy and an arguably overall decline in small boat sailing, it all works.

When I first got into Laser sailing, it seemed like it all worked there too.  Vanguard was a strong builder, the class association was strong, serving both the builder and its members, and the sailors were among the most talented and enthusiastic in the world.  I was in love again.

Vanguard is also the builder of 420s, the boats we use in high school sailing. When I began coaching,  there were a few issues with the boats, but parts were readily available and the service network worked well. 

Maybe I was just naive, or maybe things began to change.  With Lasers, I found $500 sails turned into rags in a year or less.  With 420s, I found myself doing lots of repairs, and usually the same things over and over again.  The hull flexed to the point where keelsons cracked and tank/ hull joints separated or broke.  I had to reinforce the back corners to prevent them from fracturing or even snapping off whenever there was contact with another boat. Autobailers leaked and/or cut the feet of sailors, and we removed them.  The hull /deck joint routinely needed to be reinforced after collisions.

As a sailor, I try to be understanding about one-design sailing issues.  Prices need to be high enough (or higher) to support the builder, and design shortcomings take a long time to correct.   But now that Laser-Performance has taken over, there seem to be even more price, quality, and service issues.  My list is anecdotal, but it seems like there are way too many anecdotes:

The overpricing of the Laser sail seems permanent, and the controversy over Intensity sails and fully class legal sails goes on
The Laser sail re-design has stalled
The Bruce Kirby struggle seems intractable
The only 2 brand new lasers I have seen this year both came missing many of the parts
I hear stories of difficulty getting Laser parts, Sunfish parts, and finding a class legal Sunfish sail
I have a friend who had difficulty finding a new Sunfish to buy
I note a lack of interest in improving the 420 design in general and rejection of MIT’s offer a few years ago to fund engineering for a new design in particular (MIT worked with Rondar to produce a much improved 420)
I see a number of people losing faith in LP and buying boats from up and coming Zim

I know sometimes business is hard and things go wrong, but is LP really trying to do a good job for us sailors?  Do they still love me, or is this a one sided affair?

And then there is this news from college sailing…

Recently the ICSA (Inter-Collegiate Sailing Association) has sparked a major uproar in the way it has renewed its sponsorship agreement with Laser-Performance.  As in the previous agreement, LP will supply new Lasers for both the men’s and women’s single-handed national championships.  LP will also provide some media coverage support and some unspecified cash for the association and/or host venues.  This may involve larger amounts of money than in the past, but the details are confidential, as is customary in this type of agreement.  What is different in this eight year deal is a requirement that all double-handed national championships and semi-finals leading to those championships must be held in LP boats.

No one should expect a boat manufacturer to fund an event held in someone else’s boats. In the previous agreement, LP withheld cash from the host school if other boats were used.  Schools paid a price for using another brand, but found ways to get sufficient support from other sources to host national events.  Now, they are specifically prohibited from hosting these events.

On Sail1 Airwaves, you can read the written volleys in the controversy

Okay, LP’s competition gets screwed.  (There would have been no competition if LP had worked to improve the boats and respond to the expressed desires of the customers.)  Maybe that’s just business, but what about the ultimate constituency, the sailors?  This agreement is very tough on schools currently owning other brands of boats and on the sailors at those schools. It’s also hard to see how sailors are better off in the old, tired LP design when improved products are available from Zim and Rondar.  In sailing’s most visible event, the America’s Cup, innovation is everything.  But not in college sailing.  The ICSA leaders are making an exclusive bargain that is good for business at the expense of many of the schools, sailors and coaches.  Don’t take it personally, sailors.  It’s strictly business. 

Is it impossible to have a win–win relationship with a boat builder in this complicated world?  More and more it looks like LP is pursuing a corporation-wins, who-cares-about-the-customers policy.  Show me I’m wrong.  Show me the love.

1 comment:

  1. It's sad to see this on top of the already weakened state of competitive dinghy sailing in the USA.