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Keeping the ‘family’ in the business

Diane Bassett Zable, second-generation president of Bassett Boat Co., carries on her parents’ legacy

Diane Bassett Zable, second-generation president of Bassett Boat Co., carries on her parents’ legacy

It’s not easy stewarding a legacy.

As president of Bassett Boat Co., Diane Bassett Zable oversees a $30-million-a-year boat dealership with outlets in three states. When not selling boats for the business her parents established more than 60 years ago, she’s dealing with the demands of raising three kids — the oldest 15.

It’s quite the balancing act, but Bassett Zable says she has it down cold. Either she or her husband and business partner, Paul Zable, still manages to make it home every day by 2:30 p.m. when the kids arrive from school.

“I grew up living and breathing [the boat business],” says Bassett Zable, now 44. From early childhood growing up in Springfield, Mass., she and her three older siblings were surrounded by boats.

Today, two of the four are active in various areas of the business, and one, brother Dick Bassett, has retired as president of the largest boat dealership chain in the nation — MarineMax.

Dick Bassett started Bassett Boats of Florida more than two decades ago and was a co-founder of Clearwater, Fla.-based MarineMax. He since has sold his controlling interest in the MarineMax operation.

Bassett Zable’s eldest sibling, Louis Bassett Jr., also is involved in the marine industry, but closer to home. He runs his own boat dealership, Louis Marine, in Westbrook, Conn.

For Bassett Zable, all that history makes the job even tougher. “I don’t just run a business; I run a legacy,” she says.

With retail locations in Springfield; Westbrook, Conn.; and Warwick, R.I.; and a service center in Ludlow, Mass., Bassett Boat Co. is one of the Northeast’s largest retail boat chains, selling in the neighborhood of 350 boats a year, says Bassett Zable. The company has been a Sea Ray dealer for nearly 40 years. Bassett also carries Viking Sport Cruisers and the Triton brand.

Depression-era start

The youngest in a family of four, Bassett Zable says she, her two brothers and her sister each helped out at the family business started by parents Louis Sr. and Norma Bassett back in 1944.

“We all grew up in this industry,” says Bassett Zable. “I can remember being 8 years old and stocking paint cans. One of my brothers used to pick me up and put me in an outboard motor box, and I couldn’t get out. One of the mechanics would then take that same box and cut a little door and windows out for me to play in.”

Today Bassett Boats may be one of New England’s most successful dealership chains, but the brainchild of Louis Sr. and Norma Bassett didn’t start out selling boats at all.

As a teenager, Louis Bassett would go out at 4 a.m., collecting bait to sell to local fishermen, his daughter says. Eventually, he started his own shop, which he named Bassett Bait Store.

“My father came out of the Depression days,” says Bassett Zable. “He was a very strong, self-made man. His father died when he was 5 years old, so he grew up taking care of his mother and grandmother.”

From peddling bait, Bassett graduated to making and selling wooden rowboats. With the tag line, “From Tree to You,” Louis Bassett sold his pine boats for $36.95, with optional oarlocks.

“Dad had a dynamite personality,” she says.

A ‘Sea Ray brat’

The dealership eventually picked up the Johnson Motors line and at one point became one of the engine manufacturer’s largest dealers in the country.

Sea Ray was founded in the early 1960s and Bassett started selling the boats in 1967 — “really from the get-go,” says Bassett Zable.

“I grew up as the only 10-year-old to go on all the Sea Ray dealer trips,” she says. “I was personally invited by the company owners. I was what you’d call a Sea Ray brat.”

Even as a small child, Bassett Zable recalls being actively involved in the day-to-day business.

“I did everything with my mother,” she says. “On Sundays, we’d always need to make deposits. We had this huge adding machine, and my job was to push the big red button.”

Her days of weekend calculator punching led Bassett Zable to pursue accounting and business studies at Skidmore College in the early 1980s. The original post-graduation plan was to join a CPA firm in Boston, but the youngest Bassett says her course took a sharp turn when she agreed to first help out for a short stint with the family business.

“I graduated on a Sunday and was at work on Monday,” she says. “My dad said it would just be for two weeks, and I ended up staying 26 years.”

A ‘terrible time’

It wasn’t until years later, in 1993, that Bassett Zable took the reins at her parents’ company. In 1992 Louis Sr. died, and Bassett Zable returned to her hometown of Springfield to take the helm. She had been running a Bassett Boat outlet in Stamford, Conn., which she helped get off the ground.

It was “a terrible time in the industry,” Bassett Zable recalls, primarily because of the industry luxury tax that was financially crippling boat dealers and manufacturers. “Everyone was hit very hard.”

But Bassett Zable persevered, and within five years says she managed to turn the company around. “I took the company back up from scratch to the biggest it’s ever been in history,” she says with pride.

The gender thing

Being a female in a leadership position remains a challenge in the boat business, says Bassett Zable.

“It’s been very challenging over the decades,” she says. “There’s not a lot of [women] in this industry. The mentality is still very men-centered. I have stories that could make your head spin.”

In one memorable instance, Bassett Zable recalls being invited on a cruise to accept an award the dealership had earned. Her husband accompanied her, and when it came time for the presentation, only he was called to the podium — when in fact all the sales being recognized were hers.

“That was the worst faux pas,” says Bassett Zable.

Years ago, she remembers a time when all phone calls she placed to corporate headquarters were returned to her husband, Paul, who at that point had left a corporate job with Pepsi to help run the business as vice president.

“That really went up my spinal cord,” she says. “He’d turn the calls right back to me. He’s been very supportive.”

Bassett Zable says she met her husband, who was a longtime friend of the family, while he was helping captain some of Bassett Boats’ deliveries.

“Funny enough, Paul had purchased eight boats from Bassett over the years before we got married,” she says. “The standing joke among my family is that after he bought the eighth boat, he got me thrown in there, too.”

Family first

Despite the success of the family dealership, Bassett Zable still sees her greatest responsibility as mother to her three children, Norell, 15, John, 13, and Ryan, 12.

“I don’t know if you’re a success if you’re just a success in business,” she says.

All three children have been around boats since birth. Bassett Zable recalls a boating trip the family made from Stamford to Martha’s Vineyard when Norell was just 2 months old.

“The boat had a little veggie compartment, and I wanted to give her a bath,” she says. “So I filled it up with water and used that.”

While all Bassett Zable’s children are at home at the helm of a boat, she believes Norell is the most likely to someday take over business as generation three.

“She hasn’t stopped saying she wants to be a part of it,” her mother says.

Today, thanks to technology, Bassett Zable says she is able to conduct most of her daily business from a home office. She travels to the dealership’s three outlets — all within 90 minutes of one another — as necessary.

For the most part, however, Bassett Zable prefers to stay close to the family home in Springfield, where her mother, Norma, still resides six months of the year (She has a winter home in Florida).

“My mother is still very much the matriarch of this company,” Bassett Zable says. “Every day it’s like we have our morning cup of coffee/board meeting.”