Customer profile: Grand Rapids Marine

Bob and Mike Holmstrom in the Grand Rapids Marine showroom.

Bob Holmstrom clearly recalls the date when he opened the doors of Grand Rapids Marine: March 15, 1978. 

“I had been working with a local accountant to find a boat dealership in this area that I could buy,” explained Bob, founder of the business.  “We couldn’t find the right deal, but Mornes Implement was located on this site.  The Mornes business sold marine equipment along with LP gas and appliances, and they were interested in selling their marine business.

“On March 15, we opened the doors with five employees and a lot of enthusiasm,” Bob continued.  “One of the Mornes bookkeepers came to work for me, and we had three mechanics who were the heart and soul of the business for a long time.”

Bob grew up in Warren, MN, and later moved to Bemidji.  He held jobs in chemical dependency counseling and construction before making a decision to strike out on his own in retail.  

“My family had a cabin in the Bemidji area, so I lived on a lake from Memorial Day to Labor Day every year,” he continued.  “I loved that life, and I thought that selling boats would be a way to keep me connected with what I loved.”

Like many small businesses, Bob needed a loan to get the business off the ground.  After striking out with another Grand Rapids bank, Bob visited Clair Wilcox at Grand Rapids State Bank.

“Clair gave me what he called a ‘character loan,’” said Bob; “I’m not sure banks can make loans like that anymore, can they?  But Clair loaned me the money based on what he knew of my character, and we have never missed a loan payment.  I worked mostly with Russ Holm as my banker in the early days.  It’s been a mutually beneficial relationship.”

Bob’s son, Mike, has just recently moved into his dad’s former office. The office move is more than symbolic; Mike is running the business on a day-to-day basis while Bob lends his support to whatever needs doing.

Mike began his career at Grand Rapids Marine washing boats at the tender age of 12.  In fact, Mike recalls that he even helped make a sale that summer: he helped a customer test-drive a boat at the Holmstroms’s Deer Lake cabin, and the customer bought the boat later that day.

Mike graduated from Grand Rapids High School and attended Detroit Lakes Technical College to learn marine mechanics.  He worked for the City of Detroit Lakes as a Zamboni operator while he attended school.  After graduation he returned to the business here in Grand Rapids and worked in the service department for four or five years. He supplemented his on-the-job training by attending every business and economics course he could take at Itasca Community College.

Grand Rapids Marine now offers a wide range of recreational items:

  • 8 lines of boats (Alumacraaft, G3, Sweetwater, Aqua Patio, Sanpan, Hurricane, Stingray and Rinker)
  • 2 lines of outboard engines (Yamaha and Mercury)
  • 2 lines of stern-drive engines (Mercury and Volvo/Pento)
  • 1 line of hot tubs (Marquis)
  • 2 lines of docks and lifts (Porta-Dock and Shorestation)

They also offer customers the largest water sports accessory display in the area.

“Most of our business comes from within a 90-mile radius,” explained Mike.  “However, thanks to the internet, we can do business anywhere.  A couple of years ago we had someone from the state of Virginia do an online search for a Hurricane deck boat.  We got a call from this fellow, who e-mailed us and then called with a credit card to confirm the sale.  The next week a truck pulled up from Virginia and he drove the boat home.”

Mike finds that of all the social media sites, You Tube offers the most opportunity for his business.  “We posted a You Tube video showing people how a certain dock tool works.  I couldn’t believe how many hits that got,” Mike added.  “The internet has been huge for us; it’s a very cost-effective marketing channel.”

Bob seems to savor the opportunity to provide some quiet coaching as his son takes the reins of the business.  Grand Rapids Marine now employs 20 people in a business that for the most part was recession-resistant.

“Grand Rapids is a strong area for marine business,” Bob explained.  “Between us and other local dealers, Grand Rapids is a place where people in the region come to shop for boats.  We didn’t see a big decline in business during the Great Recession that affected most other businesses in our area, and for that we’re thankful.  We know that our reputation is founded to a large extent on the service we’ve provided over the years.  We want to maintain that reputation.”

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