Jun 7, 2017

70 YEARS OLD AND STILL GOING STRONG

By: Mike Yurk

     For a business that began on a troop ship returning to the United States after World War II, Warner’s Dock, in New Richmond, has come a long way to now celebrating it’s 70th anniversary. Through the years, it has become the premier marine dealer in northwestern Wisconsin and, after three generations, is still a family business.
     Ronald Warner was coming home from the war in Europe. What looked to be a long, slow trip back to the United Stares on a troop ship was anything but boring. Everyone was paid just before they got on the ship. “I couldn’t believe the Army would do something so stupid,” Ron told me years later. For a bunch of men without much to do and a lot of pent up energy, it didn’t take long before the cards came out and the gambling started. By the time Ron landed on the East Coast, he and one other soldier managed to win most of the money on ship.
     When he returned home to his wife, Delores, and first son, Marlin, he had a “grub stake” which he and Delores invested in a retail and wholesale gas station. They started their business on their wedding anniversary. It would be a partnership for them in both marriage and business.
     In addition to selling gas and doing car repairs, they found a bunch of old outboard motors when they purchased the business. They started selling those old outboard motors on the side at first, Ron told me. The service bay of their garage doubled as both an auto repair shop and an outboard motor display area. Things were different in those days, Ron explained to me. People bought a motor and just rented a boat. Most of the motors weren’t that big and had to be hauled around in the trunk of a car.
     It didn’t take long before he and Delores realized there was more money in outboard motors and boats than selling gas. “We really got rolling into the boat business in 1956,” Ron recalled. They started selling Evinrude motors and Crestline aluminum boats. In 1956, the largest outboard motor they had was 30 horsepower. Soon they left the gas business entirely and moved to a new location in New Richmond, which had a bigger showroom for boats and motors, adding Glasspar fiberglass boats. Fiberglass boats were new and Glasspar was one of the first. The family who bought the first Glasspar boat from them are still customers today.
     In 1960, they added Kiekhaefer Mercury outboard motors. On the wall in their service department is a sign for Kiekhaefer Mercury Outboards. In 1982, Mercury was sold to Brunswick, dropping the Kiekhaefer name. In 1972, Warner’s Dock added Alumacraft boats and in 1973 they included Weeres pontoon boats. In 1991, they introduced Javelin bass boats, which is now Stratus, and in 2000 they added Premier pontoon boats. Within two years with Premier pontoon boats, they received Premier’s Top Dealer award. In 2006, Warner’s Dock moved a block up the street to their current location. They still sell Alumacraft and Stratos fishing boats, Weeres and Premier pontoon boats and Evinrude, Mercury, Yamaha and Honda outboards.
     Ron and Delores retired in 1988 from the day-to-day operations of Warner’s Dock, turning the business over to their three sons, Marlin, Gregory and Gerald. After 62 years of marriage, including 58 years in business together, Delores passed away in 2004 at the age of 84.
     Ron continued to maintain a presence at Warner’s Dock. He regularly stopped in, keeping a desk in the upper deck office area. His grandson, Nate, remembered when Ron was 87 years old he still helped get pontoon boats from the factory.
     Whenever I stopped by Warner’s Dock I always looked for Ron, many times I walked up to the office area to visit him. I always called him Mr. Warner and I loved to talk to him. I enjoyed his stories of the early days in the marine business. He was one of the millions of men who fought to save the world from tyranny and whose ranks were quickly fading. He also was the embodiment of the American dream who built a business, which still carries his name, in continued operation with the next generations of his family. He once proudly told me, “We have all three sons, three grandsons and even a granddaughter in the business.” In November 2011, Ron suffered a stroke while at work and passed away shortly thereafter at the age of 90.
     This year, Warner’s Dock celebrates 70 years in business. Today they employ 14 people, of which four are Warner family members. Of the three brothers who took the business over from their parents, Marlin retired in 2005, Greg retired in 2010 and passed away two years later. Gerry still remains active in the business as the senior sales representative. He will also turn 70 this year. He was born the year Ron and Delores started Warner’s Dock. “I’ve been here from the ground up,” Gerry joked.
     A third generation now runs the business. Gerry’s son, Nate, is the Business Manager and Marlin’s son, Scott, is responsible for all maintenance, or as he says, “everything but sales” and his wife, Stacy, handles parts and warrantees. Regardless of if you are family or not, Warner’s Dock is an extended family to all who work there. Melissa Mork is the Office Manager and has been with Warner’s Dock for 22 years.
     “Most companies don’t make it to the third generation, but we are stronger than ever,” Gerry said. “We are moving forward.” The secret to their success according to Gerry is “great product lines and good customer service.”
     In addition to new boats and motors, Warner’s Dock also offers used boats and motors. Not only do they sell used boat and motors, brought in as trade-ins, but for the last 30 years provide a brokerage service to sell boats, motors, trailers as well as complete rigs for customers wanting to sell. They have sold boats, motors, trailers, parts and accessories in all 50 states, five Canadian providences and overseas to customers in such countries as Russia, Germany and Norway. Their website, www.warnersdock.com, lists their complete inventory of both used and new equipment, parts, boats, motors and trailers.
     I have bought my last three boats through Warner’s Dock. The first two were used and the last one was new. My wife, Becky, and I were searching for a replacement for an old fiberglass bass boat some years ago. We decided we wanted an aluminum boat and started visiting a number of boat dealers around Minneapolis and Saint Paul near our home in Hudson on the western edge of Wisconsin. We were frustrated. Most dealers just wanted to sell us pre-rigged packages. We explained to them the 50 horsepower Mercury on our boat was only a year old and we didn’t need a new motor. We just wanted a boat with trailer to rig our outboard and trolling motor on. The dealers we talked to were less than encouraging. One even told us outright if we didn’t buy the motor from them we would be a low priority for maintenance when we brought it back for servicing.
     Then we walked into Warner’s Dock. Gerry and Nate were the first two we met. We told them what we wanted and they said sure, we can do anything. They had a one-year-old used Alumacraft tiller steer boat and trailer, rigged for walleye fishing. They never hesitated when we told them we wanted to use our existing outboard and trolling motor and wanted to convert it to a console steer and set it up for bass fishing. They said they would install a console and a rear casting deck. When asked about maintenance, we were told they would care for our boat, motor and trailer like they would if we bought a brand new package from them. We had that boat for the next 11 years.
     A couple of years ago, I was on the Mississippi River on a cold, damp afternoon, the end of October. As I was racing back to the landing, my outboard motor seized up. It was the same 40 horsepower Mercury we had on the first boat. It was now 17 years old and on a second used boat I bought from Warner’s Dock. We luckily got another boat motoring by us to tow us to the landing. I called my wife on the way home, telling her what happened. An hour later, when I finally got home, she had searched the Warner’s Dock website and found a new Alumacraft boat with a 50 horsepower Mercury. It was the last boat they had from that year’s inventory.
     The next day we went to Warner’s Dock. Scott Warner confirmed I had blown the motor and this time they could not fix it. By the next day, Becky and I bought that remaining 2014 Alumacraft. Like in the first boat, they replaced the package trolling motor with the one I had on my old boat since it was only a year old. They made all the adjustments we asked for, took my old boat and trailer as a trade in and disposed of my worn out motor. Since it was late in the fall fishing season, they agreed to hold the boat for pick up until the following spring. Their customer oriented support is the reason I have bought three boats plus a canoe from them, and if I buy another boat in the future it will also be from them.
     The other factor which makes Warner’s Dock unique is their service and maintenance department. I know of this first hand. I am not gentle with my equipment and I fish a lot, so things go wrong, or things don’t go at all, occasionally during the season. I have stopped in early in the morning on my way fishing and they fixed my boat, motor or trailer and got me on my way to the lake. I am not sure this is a good sign or not, but I have Warner’s Dock on speed dial on both my home and cell phone. If I walk in during the fishing season, the first thing Scott says to me is, “What did you break now?” In addition to various emergencies, they do all the servicing of my boat. I call them the Boat Doctor for good reason. Every spring I take in my boat sometime in late February or early March for what is referred to as the spring checkup before I start fishing the Mississippi River.
    A couple of years ago, I was on my way to an eastern Minnesota lake. When I got to the landing I saw smoke coming out of the axel. I don’t know a lot about maintenance, but I knew this wasn’t good. I had recently been hearing funny sounds from the trailer, but with the abuse my trailers take it didn’t seem strange. Over the years, I have gone through at least four trailers. I called Scott at Warner’s Dock. “It sounds like you blew an axel,” Scott told me. I asked him what we needed to do now and he told me you need to get the boat and trailer to the Boat Doctor. He suggested I call AAA. They dispatched a tow truck and to my amazement said they covered the tow. That was the best news I heard so far that afternoon.
     It took awhile for the tow truck to find me, but when it did the operator loaded the boat on the truck, and with me following, we headed to Warner’s Dock. By the time we got to Boat Doctor it was 4:30 on a Friday afternoon. I was resigned to the fact I probably wasn’t going to see the boat for at least a week. When I walked in Scott looked at me and said, “We’ve got to get you back on the lake, Mike.” He had a plan. They were going to lift off the boat, loan me one of their used trailers to get me back on the road and fix the axel later in the week. It sounded good to me and I was amazed they were going to trust me with another trailer given my track record. However, they looked at two different trailers and found problems with each of them.
     Finally, Scott said, “We’ll just fix it.” They replaced the bearings on the side that went out and then checked the other side. “This is one is going too,” the mechanic told me. Scott got another set of bearings and they replaced that one as well. At 6:30 in the evening I was leaving Warner’s Dock with my trailer fixed and the next day I was fishing again. That was great news, far better than I expected a couple hours earlier.
     Ron and Delores Warner left a legacy in Warner’s Dock. The family owned business they started and nurtured has reached a 70-year milestone, continues to be run by their family.  From a troop ship returning from the war in Europe to today, it is a story of a family in the marine business still going strong through three generations.
Author’s Note: Warner’s Dock is located at 1020 Knowles Avenue in New Richmond. Their website is www.warnersdock.com. They can be contacted by phone at 888-222-3625