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Wareham Boatyard and Marina, Rose Point, 73 Leonard St, Wareham, Massachusetts

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A Lesson In Navigation: Randy Repass Takes Boating Supply Company West Marine From His California Garage All The Way To Wall Street

Boats have always had the power to inspire people. They have been the impetus behind countless songs, paintings, works of literature and early retirements. West Marine's founder and chairman, Randy Repass took his own passion for boating, channeled it into a prosperous business and revolutionized the way people shop for boating supplies.

What has become the world's largest boating supply retailer started modestly enough in a garage in Sunnyvale, CA. Repass, who was disappointed with his job at a Silicon Valley technology firm, turned to his love of boating for relief from the cold, impersonal nature of the high-tech industry. In 1968 he began selling nylon rope by mail order under the name West Coast Ropes. Occasionally, adventuresome customers would even drop by to pick up their orders in person.

"I decided from the beginning that I wanted to take care of people," says Repass. "The high-tech industry didn't provide me with an effective way to do that. But the boating industry gave me the opportunity to really enjoy my work and interact with customers who shared my interests. I was having a blast and building a business at the same time."

Repass also saw an opportunity to improve the way people shopped for boating supplies. According to Repass, he was frustrated by the experience of shopping in local chandleries for the parts he needed to outfit his modest daysailer. "Boat supply stores in those days were usually dark, disorganized places staffed by a couple of salty, but indifferent clerks who preferred swapping sea stories with one another to helping customers find what they came in to buy."

Repass' dissatisfaction led him to open the first West Coast Ropes store in Palo Alto, CA in 1975. Besides carrying the quality rope the business was built on, the original store stocked a small selection of basic boat supplies including anchors and fenders. Though the selection was meager at first, the service was outstanding. "We were, and continue to be, a company of boaters helping fellow boaters. From salespeople to top-level management, our associates are intimately familiar with the boating needs of our customers," says Repass. "We believe that it's just as important to offer knowledgeable service and support as it is to offer top-flight products."

As more and more customers discovered the store, they asked for a wider variety of products: antifouling paint, cleaners, electronics, safety equipment, foul weather gear and the like. The staff listened and the product line grew. In 1977, the company acquired some of the assets of Boston-based West Products, a well-known mail-order business, and changed its name from West Coast Ropes to West Marine Products to reflect its expanding selection. Then in 1978, West Marine introduced its own wholesale division, Port Supply. This allowed the company to sell products directly to boat yards, charter fleets, boat dealers and government accounts.

To better represent West Marine's growing product line, it was decided to present the company's entire selection in one comprehensive, easy-to-reference volume. In 1987, the company introduced its first Master Catalog - 330 black-and-white pages packed with boating gear. Since then, the catalog has tripled in size and features full color photos of thousands of additional products, making it the biggest in the industry.

In the fall of 1991, West Marine opened its first stores on the East Coast in Miami and Annapolis. More stores followed in Florida, Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Then in 1993 the company went public under the symbol WMAR on the NASDAQ exchange.

In the spring of 1996, West Marine merged with one of its oldest and most respected competitors: E&B Marine. "Their target customer was a powerboater with a smaller, trailerable boat, while ours was primarily a sailor with a larger coastal boat," says Repass. "By combining the companies' individual strengths, we could truly become a one-stop shopping destination for boating supplies." After the completion of the merger, West Marine had 150 stores across the U.S. and became nearly 300% larger than its nearest competitor.

In early 2003, West Marine marked another historic milestone in the boating industry by acquiring the retail and catalog divisions of long-time competitor BoatU.S. "Both of our companies have always shared a foundation built on knowledgeable service and a customer-first attitude," says Repass. "It was the perfect fit."

Today, West Marine has more than 400 West Marine stores and BoatU.S. Marine Centers in 38 states, Puerto Rico and Canada. The company now carries more than 100,000 products, ranging from the rope that started it all, to the latest in marine electronics. In addition to its retail stores and Port Supply wholesale divisions, the company serves boaters in more than 150 countries worldwide through its mail order and Internet divisions.

In the midst of its dynamic expansion, West Marine has continued to rely on outstanding customer service, selection and quality as its anchor. "West Marine's prosperity has been the result of its strong connection to the boating community," says Repass.


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