An Unsinkable Duo

Power boats, service, and accessories keep this company afloat

by Holly Hungerford

marine_leadPaul Eriksen went on his own in 1994, when he branched off from his father’s marine company to subcontract mechanical work for other boat dealers. In 1995, he was joined by Jeff Cogger, and by 2004, they were ready to open their own business, Marine Plus in North Ferrisburgh.

Faul Eriksen and Jeff Cogger, the owners of Marine Plus in North Ferrisburgh, represent the kind of businessmen one expects to find in Vermont. They’re plain-spoken, direct, and don’t pull any punches when it comes to living life.

Each of them has had an affinity for boats since childhood. Eriksen grew up with them on Long Island, working with his father, brother, and other relatives at Eriksen’s Crow’s Nest Marina, which was started by his grandfather. “I’m third generation,” he says.

A Brooklyn native who grew up in New Jersey, Cogger has always loved the water — “I lived in it as a kid,” he says — and began his boating career in 1960 when his dad bought an aluminum rowboat for him and his brother. “I still have that boat,” he says with a wistful smile. “I’ve been everywhere with it.” He moved to Vermont in 1989, working with Chatham Precision.

Eriksen and Cogger began their company under the name Marine Plus in 2004, but had worked together for some years before that. Cogger manages the business side of things; Eriksen handles everything else. “I’m the monkey here,” he says, laughing. “Anything that needs to be done, I do.” During their busy season, from April 15 to the end of December, Marine Plus employs six people. That number decreases to one or two during the slower period at the beginning of the year.

Eriksen began Mobile Marine Service in 1994 when he branched off from Eriksen’s Marine in Ferrisburgh, owned by his father, Tom. Going door-to-door, he says, he found subcontracting work for boat companies that didn’t do on-site mechanical work. “Within a year or so, the business got to where I needed someone else,” he recalls.

Cogger, who joined him part time in 1995, picks up the story. “Paul lived across the street from me; our kids played together. One weekend he asked me if I wanted to work and I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ and that’s where it all started.” He continues to work part time, around his day job as a design engineer for a medical device company.

Located on six acres on the east side of U.S. 7, the facility consists of an 1,800-square-foot shop with a 14-foot overhead door that accommodates large boats, and an attached 600-square-foot store. The area outside the facility serves as parking for boats being worked on and storage for boats that spend the winter there.

“We looked for a good two or three years,” says Eriksen of the site. The existing building on the property and its location on a main thoroughfare made it a prime site for the mobile business that was ready to put down roots. “All the time we were working together, we talked about finding a place where we could have a shop,” says Cogger.

Though the business had a cadre of existing customers when they settled in their new headquarters, attracting new customers to their stationary facility was a challenge at first and required some creative marketing techniques.

“When we opened up, there were no boats out front here,” Cogger recalls, laughing.

“We called up Paul’s father and had him drop some boats off so people would know what we did.” Eriksen continues, “Then there was the sign: We said, ‘Once we get the sign up, it’ll be the best thing going.’ Then it was, ‘Wait till we get some lights on the sign.’” Eventually, people became familiar with the business and its location, but not before Eriksen and Cogger painted shrink-wrapped boats to look like Holsteins.

Bringing in customers is no longer a problem for the duo. Marine Plus is a full-service enterprise offering service to all brands of boats, motors, and trailers; shrink-wrapping and seasonal storage; boat and trailer accessories; sales of new and used boats; consignments; boat hauling and transport; wake-board towers; and boat rentals. “Service is our biggest feature,” says Eriksen.” That’s what we do the most of and what we really concentrate on. The sales bring people in the door, but we don’t thrive on that.”

Focusing on service means Eriksen has to stay current on the products he works with. Each year he spends four or five days on continuing education — marine schooling offered by manufacturers both in a classroom and online. Certification lasts two years. Eriksen has held certification from Mercury and Mercruiser, among others, for over 25 years.

Eriksen and Cogger had two rules when they started the business: Never hire family and never over-extend the business. To that end, they work to keep their overhead costs down, passing on their savings to customers. “Everything we have we own,” says Cogger of the boats they sell.

“We like to do cash deals instead of borrow money,” Eriksen adds.

Their location also keeps costs down. Says Cogger, “We’re not next to the lake, so we don’t pay the huge fees of owning lakefront property. That keeps our overhead very low.” The small store on-site offers a variety of boat- and water-related products, but Marine Plus does not stock an extensive inventory. “We don’t keep a lot of inventory in the store because a truck comes four days a week from the warehouse,” Cogger says. Anything they don’t have in stock can be ordered and delivered the next day.

Another way they keep overhead down is by being a satellite dealership. This way, they can offer a variety of products without having to keep them on-site or in inventory. Marine Plus is a satellite dealer for Sea Hunt boats with Yamaha outboards, Lowe boats, Mirrocraft boats, and Mercury outboards. They work through All Waves Discount Marine in Fort Ann, N.Y.

Nicky Cutro, the owner of All Waves and Fischer’s Marina, also in Fort Ann, is a former world and national powerboat racing champion. Cutro has known Eriksen and Cogger for a number of years. “I have a lot of choices about who to work with,” Cutro says. “These guys get it. They know that boating should be fun, and they take the time to listen to their customers and really get to know what they need. Plus they can back up the sale with service. Paul’s a very good mechanic — he knows what he’s doing. This is not the first time at the rodeo for these guys.”

The feeling of respect is mutual. “Nicky’s been in the business as long or longer than us, and really knows a boat,” says Eriksen. “And because he knows many of the higher-ups in the business, he can get better deals.” As a satellite dealer, Marine Plus offers customers the same price for a given product here as Cutro does in New York, with the added convenience of picking up the product at either location.

Marine Plus’ primary customer is the family boater. “We don’t want to be in the performance market or the rowboat market. We want what’s in the middle,” says Eriksen. Most of these boats are trailerable, ranging from tiller outboard motors up to 30-foot boats.

The majority of their customers have been with them from the beginning. “We’re starting to get more people from Williston and that area coming down here,” says Cogger.

Both men get great satisfaction out of their work, which makes the long hours they put in worth it. Says Cogger, “I love it when I rent a boat and the people come back and say they had the best time of their lives.” Eriksen concurs and adds that getting a check from a customer with a note saying the boat’s never run this well before feels great.

Eriksen’s work life and personal life don’t look too different. Away from Marine Plus, where he spends 50 to 60 hours a week, he boats and fishes with his girlfriend, Lois Myers, and is a long-standing, and long-suffering, fan of the New York Mets.

Cogger likes to spend his time away from work fishing. “Any kind, all kinds: open water, fresh water, or saltwater,” he says. “Anytime I can get in water, on water, around water.” Janet, his wife of 25 years, joins him on his fishing expeditions. “I think that’s one of the reasons I married her,” he says, chuckling. “We were up at my cabin shortly after we met and went fishing in this stream. I hooked into a big fish and said ‘Janet, grab the net. Come with me.’ We walked into the stream and she followed right behind me with the net. We got up to the fish, she netted it, and I knew. ” •