Shop owner practices what he preaches

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Westport Outfitters offers gear, boats, seminars and guided charters — all focused on the water

Westport Outfitters offers gear, boats, seminars and guided charters — all focused on the water

After several years in the corporate world, Eric Johnson, a fishing enthusiast from Connecticut, struck out on his own and bought a boat dealership and tackle shop. After a couple years under his watch, Westport Outfitters, in Norwalk (Conn.) Cove Marina, has added new lines, services and events. It also has a new mission: “Take the family fishing.”

The company has a crew of fishing guides on staff and offers charters, educational seminars and e-mail fishing reports. It sells boats by Pilot, Bristol Skiff and Ranger and gear by brands such as Helly-Hansen, Big Pond and Old Harbor Outfitters, as well as fishing equipment and bait.

Westport had for years been in Saugatuck, Conn., before moving to Norwalk.

“Two years ago, this place was nothing but a garage,” says Johnson, 33. “Everything but the name changed when I took over.” He cleaned up the shop, which really had no inventory at the time, and put down an epoxy floor, among other improvements. The store at Calf Pasture Beach Road is neat, well-lit, and filled with high-end fishing gear. At any given time about six new boats can be found in front of the store on the driveway, which has new signs and marked parking spaces.

A problem still remained, though.

“How can we distinguish ourselves in an area that’s pretty competitive?” asks Johnson.

The concept behind the new Westport is to be a welcoming spot for families. There is a focus on new fishermen and education, and Johnson says he has trademarked the slogan, “Take the family fishing.” Corporate events are a possibility, too.

“It sounds kind of old-school, but here we are in a Fairfield County, where we pay a ton to live, and 80 percent of that [cost] is out here, the water,” says Johnson. (The other 20 percent, he says, is proximity to Manhattan.)

Johnson has heard countless Metro-North commuters agonize over what they will do with their kids in the summer. And fishing hasn’t necessarily been an attractive option.

“A lot of people are not comfortable to walk into your average tackle shop and asking questions, so they’d rather take their kids to the movies,” he says. A small part of the company’s marketing, for example, is to put a sign by the miniature golf course at Norwalk Cove Marina that reads, “Done golfing? Go fishing.”

Johnson grew up sailing and fishing on the Connecticut River in Essex, Conn.

“Obviously I have a passion for the water,” says Johnson. “Being from Essex, it’s kind of hard not to be associated with the water growing up in that town. More importantly, I feel like I’m in business, and I happen to run a marine-related business.”

During his college years, Johnson worked summers at the Brewer Dauntless Shipyard in Essex, grinding boat bottoms for $15 an hour. The experience helped him in corporate life, he says, which seemed “so easy” in comparison.

Johnson found post-college employment with chartering outfit The Moorings in the West Indies. After returning to Connecticut in 1994, he eventually ended up in Manhattan, working in product development for CitiGroup.

Johnson’s opinion is that there are too many people in the marine business and they fall into two categories: counter hobbyists and salesmen. He has a unique position, having roots in boating and fishing mixed with a corporate background.

“I’m trying to run it as a business,” says Johnson, as opposed to a hobby. “There’s a difference between just coming in everyday and saying, ‘I love it,’ and just waiting for it to come to me, but saying, ‘Now that I’m here, how can I make it grow? What can I leverage from my past experience that’ll work here?’ ”

Westport owns about 10 or 11 marina slips in front of the shop. Some are for the company’s captains, some are reserved for dockside service, and some are available for new customers who might need one. The VHF radio is always on inside the shop, to communicate with charter captains, receive calls for dockside service and, Johnson admits, for ambience.

Johnson also wants to make fly fishing, in particular, more accessible.

Johnson says he is trying to “change the mentality” of the fly fishing market. The barriers to entry are a lot lower than most people think.

“You can get into a fly fishing setup for saltwater for a couple hundred bucks, rather than a couple thousand bucks,” he says. A customer could walk in and buy a cheap, sturdy rod then, if they become an enthusiast, might return a few months later and buy a better setup.

Westport employs six captains during the season and three during the offseason. For beginners, the shop also offers on-land fly fishing lessons for $100.

“I’m trying to get people involved; I’m not trying to scare them away,” says Johnson.

Bill Beck, a Norwalk resident and avid fisherman, stopped by the shop soon after Johnson opened for business. He has been coming back ever since and dropped by one dreary December day last year.

“It’s a great shop because it’s more than just any tackle shop, because there are always knowledgeable people here,” says Beck, who is 56. “It’s a friendly, no-hassle place to come down to, have a cup of coffee and hang out.”

Beck, who is a sales rep for a heating and fireplace business, says he has enjoyed the seminars Westport has held regularly.

That sort of value-added service is designed to keep people coming back, even in the winter months, according to Johnson. He has counted 60 or 70 people at every seminar.

Westport already carried the Pilot and Bristol Skiff boat lines when Johnson took over, and he has since added Ranger Boats. The freshwater bass boat stalwart actually has been building saltwater boats since the 1980s, and Johnson describes the Ranger bay boats as “perfect” for Long Island Sound.

Johnson took over in May of 2005, but it wasn’t until May of last year that he put up the “under new ownership” signs. By that time the captains and Ranger fishing boats were in place, the inventory was up and the educational model and focus on kids were lined up.

Johnson says most of the customers are new.

The company sends out an e-mail fishing report — made possible by almost-daily fishing charters — that combines education with a sales pitch. The e-mails have garnered a great response, but the ever-mindful Johnson tracks the data to make sure the e-mails result in Web site visits. So far that hasn’t been much of a problem, as the Web site currently gets between 1,100 and 1,200 unique hits over the three days following each fishing report.

The fishing charters themselves are a critical part of the sales process at Westport. Half the charter boats are Ranger bay boats, and not coincidentally half of the dealer’s Ranger sales come from charter customers, who get a pretty good sea-trial in addition to a day of fishing.

“It’s your boat for 4 to 6 hours,” says Johnson, who adds that, by contrast, many dealers require 10-percent down, signed contracts and other stipulations before a customer can take a boat for a test run. “We can take you for a test run, but why don’t you take the boat?”

Johnson has a saying that he hasn’t sold a boat yet, he just gets people involved.

“At the end of the day it’s not about catching fish anyway. It’s about being out there,” says Johnson. “It’s the same with sailing: Winning is fun, but if you can be out there with your daughter, or your son, it’s just a cool thing.”

www.westportoutfitters.com