“We like to say that our facilities are built for and designed to deliver the excitement of a boat show experience every day.” – Gary Wimmer
Growing up near New Hope and Washington Crossing on the Delaware River, Gary Wimmer has never strayed too far from the water.
With a hint of warm spring in the air, Wimmer, who has sold and serviced boats for most of his life, is getting ready for another season greeting people who are considering their first boat or bringing winterized boats out of storage for loyal customers ready for another summer of recreation on the water.
In mid-March, Wimmer and his staff at Highway Marine – just north of Quakertown – were preparing 35 boats for the truck ride to the Greater Philadelphia Boat Show, a yearly pre-spring rite that marks the beginning of Wimmer’s new sales season.
“It’s a five-day process to get all the boats selected, cleaned and prepared for the show,” said Wimmer, president of Highway Marine, an inland port of boats and watercraft for all uses on Route 309 that has helped fulfill the nautical dreams of landlubbers for nearly 40 years. And there’s no rest after the Philadelphia show as Highway Marine prepared for its own annual spring show later that month.
Although he’s considering retiring soon and turning the business over to his son, Dustin, Wimmer still enjoys the interaction with customers emerging from their winter slumber who have made a decision to spend discretionary income on a recreational item they may have long dreamed about.
Highway Marine opened in 1977 in an old fruit stand that was converted into a boat business, about a mile north of its present location, after Wimmer decided to start his own enterprise after years managing a boat dealership in Trenton, N.J.
In 1987, when Highway Marine outgrew that location, it moved south to its present spot, a sprawling 30,000-square-foot showroom that displays up to 35 boats, a warehouse and an 18-bay repair shop on 16 acres in Richland Township.
“We like to say that our facilities are built for and designed to deliver the excitement of a boat show experience every day,” Wimmer said.
Highway Marine sells and services new and used boats, offering everything from pontoons to luxury vessels with cabins up to 30-feet long.
Wimmer said he sells a lot of smaller boats – 14-15 footers – to outfit customers who enjoy the lakes of eastern Pennsylvania, such as Lake Nockamixon, a popular boating destination in Bucks County, and larger offshore cruisers for those who like to fish in the ocean and upper Chesapeake Bay.
“Between the aluminum and salt water fishing boat is where we do the most business – the runabout style boat with an inboard motor that’s mainly used for pleasure and recreation and family fun,” he said.
“Most of the time people who start out small will go bigger, and we follow them up the ladder with all of the major manufacturers available to our customers,” Wimmer added. “For the most part, they stop at 30 feet. Most of our customers are in their late 20s to mid-50s and spend between 30 and 70 hours a year on the water.”
Highway Marine has 20 employees and does about $6 million a year in sales. Before the recent recession, Wimmer said he had twice the sales and 34 employees – “I had to downsize to get through it” – but he’s see an upswing over the past two years.
“I think people who’ve always wanted a boat are not waiting any longer and feel more confident with job security,” he said. “We are a discretionary income business.”
His strongest customer base comes from the Lehigh Valley and Bucks County. “But we bring in people from all over who have an interest in boating,” Wimmer said. “We sell overseas to Russia, Germany and Iraq. It’s crazy where some of our inventory goes. We get everything prepared for shipping in large containers when we get orders from our clients overseas.”
Traditionally, the busy season for Wimmer and his crew is early spring through the end of September. After that, the business turns toward picking up boats for winterization, which lasts through Christmas, and purchasing new inventory for spring.
“I’ve boated my entire life,” Wimmer said. “I grew up down the road from a small boat dealership in Titusville, N.J., and sold canoes and worked on outboard motors. I’ve always loved boats and boating. I’ve never gotten it out of my system. It’s never left me.”
Wimmer, who operates the business with his ex-wife, Sarah, has navigated through some rough economic seas, including a glut of used boats on the market, gas rationing in the 1970s and recessions that discouraged potential customers from splurging on a boat.
“We’ve seen everything that could be possibly dished out,” he said. “For us to have made it this far in a discretionary-income business, we’re pretty proud of that. Nobody has 16 acres and showroom and facility like we have here. You have to go a long distance to find a marine facility like this one.”
Wimmer said Highway Marine is on smoother waters these days, “but we don’t know if it’ll come to where it was before this last recession. It remains to be seen, but we feel strongly about what we started.”
For Wimmer, it’s time to start deciding when to retire and turn the operation over to his son, who’s been learning the business at his side for the past three years. “I just think the most satisfaction given me is the ability to survive in hard times, thrive in good times and enjoy what I’ve always loved to do and that’s boat,” he said.
“No matter what happens, I don’t plan on stopping what I love to do,” he said. “I’ll be on a fishing boat in the Florida Keys or out on a lake somewhere in Pennsylvania. I still feel like a kid out exploring the Delaware River.”
For more information about Highway Marine, please visit its website at highwaymarine.com.