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Up Periscope

Although he’s avidly involved with sports and recreation, Brunswick Corp. Chairman and CEO Peter N. Larson usually shows off his …

Although he’s avidly involved with sports and recreation, Brunswick Corp. Chairman and CEO Peter N. Larson usually shows off his moves in the boardroom, not on the basketball court. But there he was in Salt Lake City not long ago, trying to outrun Utah Jazz superstar Karl Malone in what some might politely call a one-sided one-on-one hoop game. Larson, 59, stands a few inches over six feet, so in that regard he was evenly matched with the sharpshooter fans call “The Mailman,” because he delivers. As Larson concedes about the business-related event, “Karl was not working that hard.”

But Larson is hard at work to create his own dream team. Gregarious and determined, this consumer products veteran is shaping stodgy, 153-year old Brunswick into a lean, hard, athletic competitor. He has seeded the Brunswick bench with one leading brand name after another since joining as CEO in April 1995.

Before he arrived, the company was best-known for market-dominant but uninspired stalwarts like Sea Ray and Bayliner pleasure boats, Mercury boat engines, Zebco fishing rods, and Brunswick bowling equipment. With the support of an accommodating board of directors, Larson has tacked on gear, including Igloo coolers and ice chests, American Camper sleeping bags and backpacks, Boston Whaler fishing boats, Life Fitness training equipment, Mongoose bicycles, and even time-honored sledmaker Flexible Flyer. “I like turnarounds,” says Larson, explaining why he signed on with what was then mostly a cyclical boat builder. “I saw where I could have a direct and immediate impact. Here was a collection of great brands that were being undermarketed.”

Larson’s game plan for Lake Forest, IL-based Brunswick is deceptively simple: Know what core boat customers want and sell them their fantasy. As he puts it: “If your fairy godmother were sitting on your headboard tonight, what would you like to have?” Then, interest these buyers in other Brunswick-owned products that sweeten the experience. So while the company’s disparate business lines might seem haphazard—boats and bowling? Fitness and fishing?—Larson sees these relationships clearly. A former marketing executive at Johnson & Johnson and Kimberly-Clark Corp., he cut his teeth getting people to put Tylenol and Huggies into their shopping carts. He understands how to research, build, market, and—importantly—cross-sell brands.

“People are working harder,” Larson explains. “They’re looking for ways to get outdoors, to diminish stress, to be with their families. We offer collective activities that can help.”

Marketing studies have shown, for example, that while men buy more boats than women do, they often bring their spouses to help choose. So Sea Ray dealers now emphasize boating as a lifestyle. Rather than boasting about the engine’s horsepower or the length of the boat’s hull, they gift-wrap the presentation, asking customers if they want a cabin they can sleep in, or stand-up straight in, and which on-board amenities they’d like.

Consumer research also discovered that outdoor-types use three or four different kinds of recreational products on average. Boaters apparently are also enthusiastic bowlers—another family activity. To attract more families to its company-owned alleys, and to encourage them to stay longer—and spend more—Brunswick recently introduced “cosmic” bowling with glow-in-the-dark balls and pins, flashing lights, and rock music to transform a staid, retro sport into a modern, interactive video-like game. And Larson appreciates the fact that once you’ve captured the bowling crowd’s interest, you can tell them about bicycles for the kids, fitness equipment for Mom and Dad, and camping equipment, fishing rods, and coolers the family will need for their next wilderness overnight. To reach these buyers, Brunswick has built a proprietary database of 13 million households. That’s leverage.

Larson’s cross-training regimen seems to be making a difference. About 35 percent of Brunswick‘s $3 billion in sales during the first nine months of 1998 came from recreation products, up from 33.6 percent a year earlier. Recreation is the key revenue driver. Sales were up 12 percent in that same period, while marine grew 7.4 percent. Marine now accounts for roughly 65 percent of revenues, down from 74 percent at the end of 1995. Larson’s eventual goal is for recreation and marine to contribute equally to total sales. “Larson is an impressive manager,” observes Kevin Grant, an analyst with Chicago mutual-fund company Harris Associates. The firm’s Oakmark Fund owned roughly 7.3 million Brunswick shares as of September 30, 1998, or about 7.3 percent of the company. “He has a unique talent in putting together groups of businesses that fit well together.”

Seven years spent as a nuclear submarine officer in the U.S. Navy taught Larson about how different personalities can exist in close quarters. He’ll need all hands on deck now as Brunswick tries to dodge the gutter ball that’s been flung into its Asian bowling operations. Brunswick took a $60 million pre-tax charge against earnings in the third-quarter of 1998—about 80 percent of which was attributable to weakness in Asian markets. “Given the effect of Asia on certain of our businesses, we are taking aggressive steps to respond,” Larson contends. Last October, Brunswick announced it would slash 750 jobs, move work to lower-cost Mexico, and close or sell some overseas assets, including a bowling pinsetter plant in China and 15 bowling centers in Asia, Brazil, and Europe. Third quarter 1998 also saw slight declines in camping and fishing equipment sales, due to competition from cheaper Asian imports. In fact, Grant, the Harris Associates analyst, speculates that Brunswick ultimately may be forced to decide if it wants to remain in the camping business at all.

To keep Brunswick shipshape, Larson is relying on the double-digit sales pickup the company enjoyed from Life Fitness exercise equipment, Mongoose bicycles, and Igloo coolers. Solid sales in the high-margin luxury boat business is also building stamina, although continuing declines in U.S. consumer confidence would almost certainly keep many would-be sailors on shore. Still, Brunswick‘s diverse product line gives it ballast against a slowing economy that it never had before. And its dominance over several highly fragmented markets, like boat-building, works to its advantage in any economic cycle.

Through this next phase, Larson will be pushing the Brunswick brands further and seeking innovative joint-marketing opportunities. He is patient about the task, a quality that evidently comes from having spent long months in a submarine, running silent and deep. Indeed, perhaps only someone who has spent so much time under the sea would know so well how and when to keep his head above water.


PROFILE

PETER N. LARSON

Chairman and CEO

Brunswick Corp.

Age: 59

Birthplace: Los Angeles

Family: Married, one daughter.

Education: J.D., Seton Hall University.

Pastimes: Clay-pigeon shooting; boating, skiing, biking.

Vacation Spot: Telluride, CO.

Underwater Experience: Nuclear submarines, U.S. Navy; 1960-67. Favorite

Film: Das Boot, (Director’s cut).

Inspirational Saying: “No master mariner has ever proved himself in a calm sea.”

About jonathan burton