March 11, 2010

New store to sell off-road utility carts

By TUX TURKEL Staff Writer

— By TUX TURKEL

click image to enlarge

This four-wheel drive utility vehicle, made by Club Car, is an example of the off-road carts that Country Club Enterprises will be selling at its new Saco retail operation. Photo courtesy: The Mustang Group

Staff Writer

A leading distributor of golf carts in New England is opening a retail operation in Saco where consumers can test drive and buy off-road utility vehicles that are becoming increasingly popular with hunters, landowners and island residents.

Country Club Enterprises LLC, which has a small service center in Westbrook, is renovating a vacant car dealership on the Route 1 auto and entertainment strip. It plans to open in May under the name Cartmax USA and be the prototype for a network of stores in the region.

''Maine is a great place to launch this effort,'' said Ben Coes, managing partner at The Mustang Group, a Boston-based private equity firm that recently led a buyout of Country Club. ''We think these vehicles are going to appeal to people there.''

The company is planning to invest more than $500,000 in property renovations over time. It will employ roughly 10 people, with up to 25 jobs possible if the business grows as expected.

Country Club is a top distributor of two leading golf carts, Club Car and E-Z Go. Despite the recession, rounds of golf have continued to rise slowly in the region, and revenue from the company's core business is strong.

The fastest-growing segment, though, isn't golf carts. It's sales of a variety of gas- and electric-powered utility carts made for other uses. These four-wheel-drive vehicles can be camouflaged and set up with gun storage for hunters, or configured with a bed box for farmers. College sports teams stuff them with athletic equipment, and landscapers use them to haul plants.

The appeal is that they can go places where trucks can't reach, and they can carry a lot of gear. Prices range from $1,500 for used models to $15,000 for new carts, depending on size and custom features.

''They're somewhere between a Ford F-150 pickup and a wheelbarrow,'' Coes said.

Country Club has competitors in this growing market, including vehicles made by Polaris, John Deere and Kubota. But in Maine, according to Coes, most are sold through smaller dealers who also carry snowmobiles and other equipment.

Cartmax USA will try to attract buyers by offering a more focused experience, including test drives on an off-road track. That's considered key to sales, Coes said.

The company has a long-term lease, with a purchase option, at the former Brown Pontiac dealership. The 19,000-square-foot building includes two acres of paved land. It had been for sale for more than a year before being leased by CB Richard Ellis / The Boulos Co.

Workers now are giving the building a face-lift and making other changes to service and sell the carts. The improvements to the vacant building are welcomed by the city.

''These older car dealerships get tired-looking, and these guys are going to dress it up,'' said Peter Morelli, Saco's development director.

The building is next to a new business park that the city is promoting, Morelli said. It also fits well with the automobile dealers and entertainment attractions, including Funtown Splashtown USA and the Cinemagic movie theater, that line the highway.

Before opening, Country Club is developing a marketing plan that relies heavily on the Internet to drive people to its brands. The Saco store, Coes said, should pave the way for outlets in southern New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.

''We believe Saco will be profitable from day one and should generate millions of dollars in revenue,'' he said.

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at:

tturkel@pressherald.com

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