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Center Hill Sports Marine is family business which focuses on customers

Monday, May 2, 2011

Travis McBride is shown on a pontoon boat at Center Hill Lake in DeKalb County. (Photo by Nicole W. Little)

It only seemed like a natural fit for Travis McBride.

“I get to go to the lake several times a week,” said McBride, owner of Center Hill Sports Marine, Inc., which is located in DeKalb County near Center Hill Lake.

The business has been in operation for more than 40 years, he said. But it was in 2005 when it went up for sale. McBride and his dad discussed the matter in-depth. They were already in the car business and during that time, both had always enjoyed working on boats. They made the decision to purchase the business.

“I was standing in my dad’s ear the whole time,” he recalls. “He was for it.”

Once that happened, they remodeled the building, making a nice showroom in the front. There are two large service bays in the back. They also added storage units on the property, something which has been very successful.

Also during the transition, they added runabout boats to the product line. Previously, the focus was on fishing boats and pontoons. He said the runabout business gave them an even wider customer base, both for service and sales. One of the most popular brands they sell is Bryant, and McBride said they have a close working relationship with the manufacturer in order to give customers the best deals possible.

Growing in popularity

McBride said one aspect of the business which has grown steadily over the years is pontoons.

There was a day, he said, when a pontoon boat was basically a small deck with two small pontoons and a 40-horsepower engine. But those days are gone.

Now, pontoons range in size from 24 feet to close to 50 feet. Some come with 300-horsepower engines.

“Pontoons have been evolving and growing,” said McBride. “They are now a lot more comfortable and roomy and they have ski bars and other accessories.”

Some pontoons can reach speeds of 60 miles an hour.

“They run faster and handle better,” he said, also noting that engine noise has been reduced greatly by manufacturers. They have also developed changing areas which are functional.

Center Hill Sports Marine also sells a wide variety of engines. They offer Mercury, Evinrude and Yamaha brands. McBride said Yamaha engines are becoming more popular with boat enthusiasts.

As for service, you can get just about anything done at the business. From oil changes, replacement of lower units, engine work and replacement to changing batteries and working on wiring, they offer complete service. He said they’ve even been known to go out onto the lake and help out customers who might have trouble. (That’s in addition to the regular lake trips to pick up boats for service and maintenance.)

It all seems part of the family tradition — and lake tradition.

The shop also has a complete line of accessories ranging from floating key chains to life jackets to all skiing related equipment.

“We have just a little bit of everything,” said McBride.

Center Hill Sports Marine currently has three full-time employees and two part-time workers. McBride said during the spring and summer, business really picks up, meaning there are a lot of weekends spent repairing boats and doing other work to keep customers happy.

Service with a smile

And keeping customers happy is crucial, in McBride’s estimation. He said they go out of their way to make sure customers are cared for because, in many cases, those customers make recommendations to other people which can lead to new business prospects. “Word of mouth is the best advertising,” he said.

He also pointed out that when it comes to “your toys,” people want the best service they can get. He said owning a boat is not an inexpensive hobby and that’s why they work hard to make sure customers are cared for and will come back to the business.

McBride said there are also many people who simply come to Center Hill Lake as visitors and find out about his shop. He’s done a lot of service work for customers who found them that way and some of them have turned into regular customers, even those who live out of the area or even in other states. He has one regular customer who lives in Chicago and owns a home at Center Hill Lake.

He said the Internet, too, has become an integral part of the business. In some ways, he said it has made them more competitive. The reason is that “people shop a lot more” online, looking for the best deals. He said people who are interested in buying a boat will locate dealerships in a 100 mile radius of where they live, meaning it is crucial to “keep prices down.”

One major change McBride has seen in the boating industry over the years is how the runabouts are now made out of all fiberglass. Many of the older boats used to incorporate wood, but he said manufacturers have learned it is prone to rotting so the changes have been made.

He did say many of the pontoons still have wood as the basis for the decks. It is ¾-inch marine plywood, he said, and guaranteed for as long as you own the boat. He said they found wood helped keep the noise down and it was lighter than the materials they were using.

More bang for the buck

Manufacturers have also improved fuel mileage, he said, saying that has been a critical step in the evolution of boating. Many of the engines are four-stroke, fuel injected.

“You can see a big difference in fuel costs,” he said.

With rising fuel prices, McBride said that is a key element when people are looking to purchase a boat.

As for the rising price of fuel, McBride said when it happened in 2008, he didn’t see a big drop in business. In fact, he said many people told him that instead of taking a traditional vacation to Florida, many decided to stay closer to home and utilize the lake. He believes that could be the same scenario this year with the rising price of gas.

“People did just stay close to home and went to the lake,” he said.

For McBride, that’s simply the natural thing to do.

“Enjoy it,” said McBride when asked what he likes about going to the lake. “Relaxing. Skiing. Fishing. And there’s nothing like spending a night out on a houseboat.”

Center Hill Sports Marine does offer houseboats for sale. McBride said that business has slowed somewhat, but there is still a market out there for people who want houseboats. That’s evident just down the road at Sligo Marina, where houseboats of all sizes are moored. In fact, boats of all kinds and sizes are in the water at the marina, many belong to his loyal customers.

That, says McBride, shows that people remain “passionate” about boating and he believes it’s something that will never change.

McBride said he is hopeful the current economic recovery will continue and his business will grow well into the future.

To make that happen, McBride said he remains very hands-on when it comes to the operation.

“I do anything there is to do here,” said McBride.

That’s that kind of work ethic, and love for everything marine, which will likely keep him in business well into the future.

Center Hill Sports Marine is located at 7457 Sparta Highway. Call 931-761-3196 or visit for more information.
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