Cope Marine still floats your boat 50 years later

March 24, 2014 

What began as his pastime became a life-long vocation for Ken Cope, who established Cope Marine while still in high school and is still floating boats half a century later.

He is celebrating with an open house this week. Last week, business writer Will Buss visited the Ken Cope at his business to talk about Cope Marine's longevity:

Q: How did you get started?

A: "I graduated from high school in 1964, and I started this business right after that. I started this business right after that, but I was in college at the time. I went to Belleville Area College, which was Belleville Junior College (and later graduated from McKendree College, now known as McKendree University, in Lebanon). When I started in this business, it was me and another person. I got to be the mechanic, and he got to be the salesman. We kind of put our ideas together and were really a one-horse operation. Our first location was right by Scott Air Force Base by the main gate. In 1969, we moved to this location and then developed here and added property. Now, I have a 20-acre site here in the middle of O'Fallon."

Q: What brought you to O'Fallon?

A: "I went to high school in Trenton at Wesclin High School and then we moved to a Belleville address as soon as I graduated from high school. We opened by Scott Air Force Base and then we had the chance to move here. This building was half of what it is today. Oddly enough, that same year, Dori Marine moved form East St. Louis to Fairview Heights and Belleville Sport Sales moved in Belleville to their new location on West Boulevard. So we all shifted within the same time frame. As time passed and as money would permit, I would buy additional pieces of property. This location here is comprised of about 10 different pieces of real estate. It's all contiguous, but it was an acquisition here and an acquisition there."

Q: How has the business changed over the years?

A: "Over the years, business has been ups and down. We've been through economic changes and all kinds of financial changes. When I started, I was the youngest dealer in the Untied States and now I'm getting to be the oldest dealer in the United States."

Q: What have been the ups and downs?

A: "Over a period of time, I was able to acquire every sales and service award that our industry awarded from a manufacturer's standpoint. Then I gave up my wrenches. I used to work on stuff all of the time. At one point in time, we had 65 employees and had a really good business. Then around 2007, when the economy fell off the edge of the world, we had to redesign again and went from 65 employees to 25 employees, which was a major down-sizing. About 12 or 15 years ago, we opened another location at Table Rock Lake, which is in Southwestern Missouri...We've had a bit of a struggle to revamp our employment situation for all of the employees. We're in the luxury business and we lost a lot of our customers when the Chrysler plant closed in St. Louis in Fenton and the Ford plant closed in Hazelwood and Anheuser-Busch redesigned itself with its new ownership. Those workers were a huge portion of our customer base. Those guys had automatic times when they were off for weeks at a time, when they had the model year change. They made good wages, they were good jobs, they worked hard, they played hard and they had motorcycles, cars, trucks, boats, campers, all kinds of things. So when those businesses all closed, that put a crimp on us."

Q: How has your business survived the economic recession?

A: "We have revamped our business enough to focus on accessories. In today's world, a lot of our business is generated by the Internet. On a regular bass, we are delivering boats to people one or two states away to people from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Oklahoma. We had three sales that we made last month to people north of Detroit. They really come from all sorts of places. We advertise and price all of our inventory, except the new stuff, because we are a discount dealer. They won't allow us to put our new prices out there because it affects people in other markets. We focus on the local residents, but we do a lot of distance business, and that's what's kind of keeping us going, I guess. We have four boat shows a year, and we just came out of our last show for the season, which was the St. Louis Boat Show, which has been going on for years and years. We had our best year at that show since 2008, so we believe things are recreating themselves. I can't tell you that the general economy is a lot better. I believe that people who are working believe in having good family time together and family recreation, and there is nothing better than boating for families. You could ride a motorcycle, you could hunt, you could fish, you can do anything, but a group activity of kids, working adults and retired adults all together spans throughout our industry and keeps building and remains popular."

Q: Why go into the boating business?

A: "We grew up in boating. We've had boats all of our lives. It is a family-owned and locally owned business, which is kind of hard to see hang around for 50 years."

Q: How has O'Fallon changed since you moved there?

A: "We've seen the advent of all of the big department stores come here. When I bought this property, there was a farm across the street. Then, they built the church and then they started selling property of the farms down the road and now we've got every business and restaurant and big-box store in the country is here. So there have been many changes and we have had to be on our feet to make those changes and still exist, and we have. We have changed banks a couple of times because all of the banks have changed labels and employees and policies and procedures. We have been pretty successful to be here this long and are pretty happy that we were able to be that successful to maintain our position here."

Q: How has the business survived for so long?

A: "We're a dry land-based business that sells boats. That's kind of like an oxymoron. I've thought many times if I were really intelligent, years ago, I probably would have searched for a coastal destination to open this business rather than an inland destination. But with the advent of Carlyle Lake in the late '60s, the development of the Kaskaskia River and as close as the Mississippi River is, there are quite a few bodies of water here and there's lots and lots of lakes within a 100-mile radius for people to enjoy the sport. And that's what keeps us going."

Q: What keeps you going in this business?

A: "You have to choose something that you love to do and then you can go to work there every day. Our family grew up doing this and had a good time."

Job: Owner, Cope Marine @ 1725 W. Highway 50 in O'Fallon (618-632-6353)

Outlook: "You have to choose something that you love to do and then you can go to work there every day. Our family grew up doing this and had a good time."

Contact reporter Will Buss at wbuss@bnd.com or 239-2526.

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