Pontoon Perfection

Boat dealer finds success in a stellar location.
Wayzata's River Valley Power & Sport accepted an industry award in Orlando, Fla. last year.

If you’re in the boat-selling business, there aren’t many better places to be than Lake Minnetonka.
That has proven to be the case for River Valley Power & Sport, a thriving boat dealer that moved into the Brown’s Bay marina in 2013 and has enjoyed explosive growth ever since.

River Valley received a major honor last year when it was named one of the top 100 dealers in North America by Boating Industry, the industry’s leading trade publication. It’s one of only two Minn. boat dealers in that group. Nine members of the River Valley team accepted the award at an annual gala, held after the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo in Orlando, Fla. in mid-December.

The move was something of a risk for River Valley, then a small company based in Red Wing and Rochester, Minn. Company founder John Wooden started River Valley in Red Wing in 1996, not long after graduating with a business degree from Winona State University. He had launched a property maintenance business the previous year, and says he got into the boat business by chance.

But in a sense, he had long been headed in that direction, as a self-described “river rat” who grew up boating on the Mississippi and Lake Pepin. While continuing to operate its original outlet in Red Wing, River Valley opened a second store in Rochester in 2000.

The previous tenant in the Brown’s Bay spot, Rogers-based Marine Max, had discontinued its lease due to the after-effects of the recession. A friend of Wooden’s who owns Twin Cities-based Your Boat Club let him know about the opportunity, and Wooden jumped at the chance to sign a three-year lease. In 2014, Wooden and his friend partnered to buy three buildings and 98 boat slips. “It was perfectly set up for a boat dealership,” Wooden says.
Wooden considers the lakeside location a gem of a spot for his business. “It’s only 12 minutes from downtown Minneapolis, an unbelievable body of water that serves a metro area of 4.5 million people. If you want to be in the boat business in Minnesota, this is the place to be.”
Wooden is proud of the fact he built the business as an independent entrepreneur, “with my own equity, starting out as a 23-year old sitting in front of bankers. We were really not part of the Twin Cities business community; this expansion put us on the map in more ways than one.”

Wooden says he learned early the importance of taking care of the customer, which he considers the key to River Valley’s steady growth in a highly competitive industry. “It’s been interesting that we’ve been able to duplicate our Red Wing, small-town business model in a medium-size city—Rochester—and now in the metro area,” he says.

“Take care of the customers, help them get what they want, exceed their expectations and the revenue will follow.”

River Valley has become the largest marine dealership in the state, with about $60 million annual revenue—about $18 million of that from the newest, lakeside location—and a staff of just over 90 employees. “We’ve taken on the mission of taking care of people, and it appears we’re doing something right.”

Another key to longevity, says marketing coordinator Ruthie Johnson, is the ability to be “constantly adapting to trends in the market.”

An important recent trend among boat-buyers has been the growing popularity of pontoon boats as an alternative to the traditional, stern-drive runabouts and cruisers. They used to be considered slow-moving, cumbersome party barges, but pontoons have been updated.

“It used to be that if you pulled up to [a popular docking spot] in a pontoon, you might get snubbed,” Wooden says. “But pontoons have become socially acceptable, with higher horsepower and speed, twin-engine applications and more amenities.”

Michael and Karmen Hoxie and their family, who own a cabin on Jennings Bay, bought a Centurion surf boat from River Valley last summer, and say they appreciate the service they received from general manager Luke Stoker. “There were at least a few times that I texted Luke a question or a photo of something on the boat to get his opinion,” Michael says. “‘Is this the way it’s supposed to be?’ or ‘How do I work this particular feature?’ More than once he met us at the dock with our trailer hooked up to their truck to go in for routine service, instead of us having to put it on the trailer ourselves and delivering it to the shop.”