25 Years on the Water

Family boat business celebrates a milestone.

In Minnesota and other water-centric places, boating is a quintessential family activity. So it’s fitting that Excelsior-based Minnesota Inboard Water Sports, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, has been a family venture from day one.

When Joe Mueller and his wife Pam opened their boat dealership in January 1992, Joe functioned as a self-described “one-man show,” handling sales, service, delivery and more, while Pam did the bookkeeping. Their sons Matt and Rob and daughter Sara joined the staff when they were old enough. Matt and Sara are still there—Matt as sales manager and part-owner, and Sara as the accountant. (Rob left the boat business last year to start his own landscaping venture, although he still helps out when needed.)

Before starting the business, Joe worked as a boat mechanic and eventually became manager of another Minnetonka-area boat dealer. He would later open Minnesota Inboard in one-third of a leased retail building on Highway 7 in Excelsior, and would eventually take over the entire building. The company moved to its current location on Lake Road in Excelsior in January 2013.

In the early years of Minnesota Inboard, Pam also ran a day care center. Joe worked from 6 a.m. to midnight almost every day. “There were a lot of ups and downs early,” says Matt, “and my parents weren’t sure the business would make it.”

One of the Muellers’ key early decisions was becoming a Malibu boats-only dealership in 1993—Malibu had redesigned its boats to better compete with larger rivals. The first five years were “a little tough,” but the brand-loyalty strategy has paid off, Joe says. “It’s been a great partnership.” He spoke with us from Apollo Beach, Fla., where he and his wife live “from Christmas until open water, when the boys tell me they have started delivering boats.” The Muellers also recently purchased a home in Shorewood.

Another defining moment was the 2008-09 recession, “when a lot of boat dealers who were larger than us went out of business [partly] because they didn’t do a good job of servicing their boats,” Joe says. “We lost 40 percent of the industry [nationwide] to the recession. During the recession, our existing customer base continued to buy product from us, which really helped us get through it.”

Since 2010, Minnesota Inboard has tripled its sales. From being the tenth-largest Malibu dealer in the U.S., they’ve grown to hit the No. 1 position. The dealership sells as many, if not more, inboard boats as anyone in Minnesota, according to the Muellers. To accommodate their growing enterprise, in 2002, the Muellers bought a 32,000-square-foot facility in New Germany, Minn., to provide a place to service and store boats. In 2006, the Muellers opened a second Malibu dealership in the Brainerd Lakes area.

Minnesota Inboard marked its 25th anniversary at the 2017 Minneapolis Boat Show with an elaborate, four-video-screen booth that won the Best of the Show award. Another celebration is planned for this summer on Lake Minnetonka.

Matt Mueller, 35, grew up in the business from the age of 14, “cleaning boats, pulling weeds, helping Dad fix boats—anything that needed to be done.” Watching his father, Matt says, he learned a lot about “how much work and effort went into the business. The business is more about building relationships than just selling boats. And once you sell the boat, taking care of the customers and keeping them happy.”

The Muellers promote the dealership as much as the boats themselves, Matt says. “We do some advertising, but the majority of our sales are either to repeat customers or word-of-mouth referrals. Anyone who buys a boat from us becomes part of our family; we’re very accessible to our customers.”

Within the past decade or so, there has been a shift in the market, Matt notes. Smaller runabouts formerly dominated the pleasure boat market. Now, inboard boats in the 20- to 25-foot range “have really taken off.” Larger boats are more conducive to family use, and provide a better rough-water ride on “big water” like Lake Minnetonka, he says. Another factor is the growing popularity of wake-surfing. “You can’t wake-surf behind a runabout; it’s too dangerous,” because of the outboard motors’ exposed propellers.

Matt doesn’t believe boating will ever lose its popularity in the land of 11,000-plus lakes. “We sell a lifestyle. In today’s world, with technology and sports and other things, it’s very easy [for people] to become distant from their kids. Boating is one of the last activities that a whole family can do together. Everyone can do something different on a boat—skiing, tubing, surfing, fishing.”

Ironically, most boat dealers don’t get to spend a lot of time on the water. “Unfortunately, my dad told me a long time ago that if you love water sports, this is probably the not right industry to be in,” Matt says. Still, Matt and his family “try to sneak away” every summer to spend a week at a cabin on Cross Lake. They also enjoy the relative calm of early Sunday mornings on Lake Minnetonka.

Looking ahead, Matt believes his sons Carter, 6, and Brodie, 8, might eventually extend the family business to a third generation. “To grow from where we started to what the business turned into has been an incredible ride. I hope I can someday purchase the business and pass it on to my kids.”