A Sum Greater Than Its Parts

A Mercury Marine engine in action (Image credit: Brunswick Corporation)

Marine engines and parts/accessories are Brunswick Corporation’s biggest revenue generator, followed by boats and fitness equipment. The business also supports the company’s efforts to innovate across its enterprise.

“We’re working to provide everyone in the company with an improved toolset.”

When David Foulkes was named Brunswick’s first chief technology officer in late 2014, he retained his duties as VP for product development, engineering and racing at Mercury Marine, its engine division.

Foulkes was already familiar with the company’s innovation, as Mercury Marine had introduced a new product every 4-6 weeks last year (that’s in marine engines, just to be clear). The business had built significant technology resources, and boasted some of the world’s top experts on aluminum and materials science. 

Brunswick Chairman and CEO Dusty McCoy challenged Foulkes to meet with the company’s other leaders, and baseline the people, technologies and skills that each division brought to the table. What Foulkes discovered was a diverse array of capabilities, along with pockets of excellence that might not be sustainable if they remained focused solely on one line of business.

“Activities hadn’t been deliberately siloed previously, but there wasn’t always full visibility across the corporation,” Foulkes said. He discovered projects in one business that could draw on the resources in others, and also found improvement challenges that could benefit them all: For instance, complex telematics that would be difficult and costly to develop for just one segment had applications in engines, boats, fitness, even bowling (Brunswick sold its eponymous retail bowling centers in 2014, and its bowling products division just last week). The same is true with sensor sets.

A series of innovation workshops came next, intended to get Brunswick’s people to embrace the idea of generating ideas, and pushing work on new ideas upstream into planning stages via structured tools, such as a platform for virtualized design. They were backed with programs McCoy and Brunswick President and COO Mark Schwabero were developing, intended to embed innovation as a key part of the company’s organization and exec talent development.

“Innovation at Brunswick isn’t something that happens in a particular department, or somewhere outside the enterprise,” according to Foulkes. “Since we never know when or where an innovative idea will arise, we want everyone at Brunswick to be equipped and empowered to recognize and act thoughtfully on it.”

This makes strategic sense, especially in the categories in which Brunswick competes. Its equipment customers value performance benefits and reliability, according to its ongoing research, in lieu simply of novel technologies or experiential bells and whistles. “Many boaters aren’t daily users, so our products need to be intuitive. Effective integration of technology innovation is as important to us as it is to our customers,” said Foulkes.

That’s not to say there isn’t disruptive innovation happening in its markets, but Brunswick is often the source. 

Its joystick control helped usher in a revolution in the way boats are steered, relying in large part on the software expertise resident in its engines division. A product called Skyhook lets a boater specify a position, and then uses GPS technology to control and automatically maneuver the engines to keep the boat stationary. And those aluminum experts have produced patents for the company on corrosion-resistance and energy absorption that have significantly changed the performance of Mercury Marine products.

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Foulkes doesn’t offer the typical platitudes for measuring the ongoing innovation at Brunswick. He mentions patent applications (many), third-party recognition (also a lot), but keeps coming back to the company’s focus on product leadership.

“What we make and sell needs to speak for the entire business, not just our innovation,” he said. “If we’re successful, I won’t have to explain it.”