Meet the 31-year-old publisher of WoodenBoat, who's reaching out to millennials

BY Laurie Schreiber

Andrew Breece, 31, who took over as publisher of WoodenBoat Publications in March, faces a challenge not uncommon in the media industry: finding younger readers.The company has 32 full-time employees and adds 15 to staff the WoodenBoat School in the summer.

An aficionado of wooden boats since he was a child and an economist by training, Andrew Breece came on as the publisher of WoodenBoat Publications on March 8, stepping into the shoes of the wooden boat world's most prominent standard-bearer, Jon Wilson.

Wilson started WoodenBoat magazine in 1974 and quickly found success not only with the publication, but in the development of a synergy with wooden boat builders, customers and fans, bringing about a resurgence of a craft that was being marginalized by fiberglass construction.

Today, WoodenBoat Publications includes one of Maine's most prominent magazines, WoodenBoat, as well as two niche publications, Professional BoatBuilder and the digital-only Small Boats Monthly.

It spun off the WoodenBoat School, which attracts over 800 students annually to the company's Brooklin campus; the WoodenBoat Show, held annually in Mystic, Conn.; the WoodenBoat Store; and various other publications.

Breece,31, grew up in Orono around wooden boats and was introduced to the magazine at a young age. He bought his first sailboat at age 10. At 12, he wrote the editors of WoodenBoat to ask if he could be a judge in one of the magazine's design contests. They agreed, and afterward mentioned him in an editorial. Breece went on to earn his bachelor's degree in economics from Bates College, then attended The Landing School in Arundel to study yacht design. He began his professional life at the Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut, followed by the Maine Island Trail Association.

Meanwhile, WoodenBoat Publications president Jim Miller never forgot Breece.

In 2014, Miller was exploring new ways to expand readership and advertising revenues of both WoodenBoat, for consumers, and Professional BoatBuilder, for industry. He reconnected with Breece and hired him in business development to expand reader demographics. That remains Breece's primary charge now, as publisher, as he seeks ways to connect both publications with younger generations.

On a recent visit, Breece provided a tour of WoodenBoat's campus — an old estate that includes the headquarters, a bookstore-gift shop and several buildings devoted to boatbuilding and waterfront activities. He discussed his passion for wooden boats and strategies to grow readership. Here's an edited transcript:

Mainebiz: How were you introduced to WoodenBoat?

Andrew Breece: In the mid-80s my dad had a dear friend who was into sailing and wooden boats. This friend said to my dad, 'You should really be reading this magazine.' My father got a subscription, and growing up it was always around the house. I certainly couldn't read at age 2 or 3, but I could observe shapes and colors — and as a young kid looking through this magazine I observed all those shapes and colors, and that's when the bug bit me. It just stirred my soul.

MB: What brought you to economics?

AB: I thought I wanted to be an investment banker. But when I was a senior in college, I went to an interview and looked around at all these people in their cubicles, working 80 hours a week, and every single one looked, to me, miserable. That's when I realized it wasn't worth it. So I said, 'I'm not going to follow my brain. I'm going to follow my heart.' I've always loved boats, so I went to The Landing School to study yacht design and see if I could make a go in the boating industry.

MB: President Jim Miller brought you on to find ways to expand readership. Does that mean there was a circulation problem?

AB: WoodenBoat's circulation peaked in the 1990s. Before the invention of the internet and Amazon, circulation was over 100,000, worldwide. Then the newsstand sales eroded. For the most part, our subscribership remained steady. But we used to have a 50/50 split — 50% subscribers and 50% newsstand buyers or people buying off the shelf. Today, newsstand is more than cut in half.

MB: When did the drop-off begin?

AB: It all started about 20 years ago, where every year there was about a 3% decline in newsstand sales. It's been a slow but steady decline. Now it's hit, more or less, rock bottom, in the sense that we've leveled off and we've found the new norm. Subscribership has also decreased lightly, but that's low compared with what's happening with other print publications across the country and around the world. WoodenBoat's distribution is between 60,000 and 70,000. We're strong and healthy, but it would be great to get back to that high-water mark.

MB: Who are your readers?

AB: Forty years ago, a reader survey found the average age of WoodenBoat readers was 59. A reader survey a few years ago found the average age was 59. So, remarkably, the readership age didn't change. As an economist, I love to look at trends. It makes sense that, when someone's 59, they've had kids who are almost through college, and they're on the back half of their career and they finally have disposable income and can chase after a hobby. And in a lot of cases, that's, 'I've always wanted a wooden boat' or 'I always wanted to build a wooden boat. How can I get educated about that?' Subscribing to WoodenBoat magazine is about the best first move they can make.

MB: How can you reach younger generations?

AB: Boating in general is pretty low on the millennial side. A lot of us lived through one of the greatest recessions of all times, so we tend to be a little careful with our money. Millennials tend to be all about sharing and making things cheaper and easier. Look at Airbnb and Uber. Having your own boat goes against that train of thought. The other thing about millennials is that life happens pretty fast. Think about all the technological advancements they've seen in their lives. Kids don't seem to be reading books underneath an apple tree any more. They're instead glued to wireless devices, playing video games and used to information coming in bullet point format. So we have a lot to do in terms of collaboration. A lot of outdoorsy millennials wear Patagonia, for example. I'd like to partner with Patagonia and do some possible co-branding. We've seen a decline in newsstand, so why not sell our magazines through Patagonia, L.L.Bean, REI and other outdoor stores? Let's find where the millennials are, and put the magazine in front of them there. That's something we've never done before.

MB: What about tech strategies?

AB: With the invention of the iPad, WoodenBoat started to gear up for the digital revolution. But today, only 3% of our readership is digital. So this digital revolution was all bark and no bite, at least for us. Does that mean our digital products aren't great and, if we improve them, more will subscribe digitally? Or does it suggest that, typically, people still want that paper product in their hands. We find, with our readership, that people still want that paper product.

We're getting on social media platforms to engage millennials. Five years ago, WoodenBoat started a Facebook page. Now we have over 155,000 followers. Less than a year ago, we started on Instagram. We now have over 14,000 followers. The same with Twitter. It's just finding where the millennials are and meeting them there. It's social media, it's like-minded retail stores.

MB: What are the indicators that the wooden boat world will remain vibrant into the future?

AB: Technological advancements, for one. One thing that's been helping wooden boats stay vibrant is this movement of 'spirit of tradition' — blend the best of the past with the best of the present. Take a beautiful, proven wooden boat design and keep that aesthetic above the waterline. But below the waterline, make it modern. And give it a modern rig. Most importantly, it's still made of wood. But it's not necessarily traditional plank-on-frame [construction]. Cold-molded tends to be where new wooden boat construction is going, since wood epoxies have pretty much been perfected.

MB: What's been most rewarding in your new position?

AB: Meeting the people at the boatyards and being in this tiny yet vibrant community together. It's almost like I found my family.