An East Tennessee Winter Tradition. Interview & article by Mandy B. Pierce
While many across East Tennessee enjoy building snowmen and walking through winter wonderlands during the wintery cold season, the Bunch family and crew at Bunch Marine in Harriman, Tennessee are busy preparing spaces and booths for bass boats and fishing poles!
For the past thirteen years Shelia Bunch has been the mastermind behind the East Tennessee Fishing Show & Expo hosted every January right here in Knoxville, Tennessee. Just before the holidays I had the honor of sitting with Shelia for the “heart” story behind Bunch Marine, the family-business she and her husband, Curtis Bunch, own as well as a “behind-the-scenes-look” of all that takes place in preparation for one of the largest fishing expos in the southeast region.
Bunch Marine has been a family-owned business for over 60 years. It’s original owner, Roy Bunch, was Curtis’s grandfather. As Shelia said, “when Roy opened Bunch Marine it was a very small little business ran out of a tiny building, offering a limited amount of fishing supplies. Roy ran the business for many years and then actually sold it to a gentleman.”
The new owner ran the business only a couple of years, not really doing anything to add to its future. Then in stepped Roy’s grandson, Curtis.
At twenty-three years of age Curtis bought the family business back and set out to not only operate what his grandfather had begun, but to build the marine into something that would make Roy Bunch proud.
Year by year Curtis worked to add quality boat manufacturers and products to his shop. In time, Curtis had more than doubled the business influx of the marine and continued to listen and respond to the needs of his customers, building the family business into the #1 Boat Dealer in the East Tennessee region.
LET THE SHOW BEGIN!
In 2005 Curtis became one of the partners in the East Tennessee Fishing Show & Expo. Shelia went with Curtis in 2008 to help manage a booth their business was displaying at the show, and as she put it, “THAT was a living nightmare.” At that time the Fishing Show had a traffic flow of about 200 people the entire weekend. There were approximately thirteen businesses represented, and “not much of anything” in the way of products was being offered for participants to view.
Sheila remarked, “I went home after that show and told Curtis – ‘Do Not ever ask me to go back!’ It was a complete waste of a weekend.”
What happened next was about to change Everything!
It was January when Shelia had gone to the fishing show and vowed upon her return home that she would never go back. “Well,” Shelia chuckled, shifting her coffee from one hand to the other, “Never say never.”
It was January of 2008 when Sheila swore she’d never take part in the show again, and it was August of that same year when Curtis came home from the shop one evening asking, “Shelia, what would you think about us taking over the Fishing Show starting this year?”
The partner who had been helping over the years threw in the towel, leaving Curtis with a full show to produce, or a decision to make of whether to continue, or raise his white flag as well.
Shelia: “So, I said I would consider producing the show under ONE condition.”
Mandy: “And what was the one condition that would potentially entice you to consider managing a small fishing show that lasted a whole weekend, with a meager amount of foot traffic?”
Shelia: “The one condition? – that I get to do it MY way. There’d be a lot of changes, and I had to have the approval to make them.”
THE REST OF THE STORY
Well, as Paul Harvey used to say when ending his daily broadcast show, “And now you know… the Rest of the Story.” I don’t believe you would hear anyone who has gone to the East Tennessee Fishing Show & Expo over the past thirteen years refer to it as a small, meagerly attended event. But rather quite the opposite.
Under Shelia’s direction the show has grown from thirteen vendors to over THREE HUNDRED. The original building which hosted the event was the Jacobs Building on-site at the TVA&I Fairgrounds. However, in 2014 it was moved to the Knoxville Expo Center where it remains, a location offering much more capacity for booths and boat displays than the previous one.
This building is still not large enough to accommodate all that the show has to offer. “We have a waiting list for vendors,” Shelia explained. “Year to year we have to cut it off at a little over 300 because we’re maxed out in the space we have.”
Shelia continued, saying she would love to find a larger building offering more inside space and a larger parking area, but has not been able to locate anything within close proximity that would meet the demand. So, what is one to do when they’ve created something that exceeds all expectations, with no room to grow? GLAD YOU ASKED!
Shelia had an exciting announcement as we talked. In this year, 2023, The East Tennessee Fishing Show & Expo will expand beyond the borders of Tennessee and host it’s very first show in Gadsden Alabama in March!
“This will give customers who travel from many surrounding states a chance to attend with a little less driving,” Shelia stated. “You’d be surprised how far some travel to be at the show.”
I couldn’t keep the fun facts Shelia shared with me during our conversation to myself:
• Customers travel from 13 states to attend this annual event. (Possibly more, but this is the “official” amount recorded.)
• Some couples attend the show for their wedding anniversaries. Many of these include husband/wife fishing teams.
• One couple came to the fishing show for their honeymoon!
BLISS, BLESSINGS, HEARTACHE & STRENGTH
As Shelia talked about the history of Bunch Marine and the Fishing Show, she also took time to share from her heart about their family’s heartache interwoven within the bliss and blessings of all that’s taken place.
“Curtis had been running the Marine, and I was working elsewhere during those years, until 2020. In May of 2020, Curtis was involved in a serious accident. We spent three months at Shepherds Hospital, and upon going home, our lives would be forever changed.”
Curtis’s accident left him confined to a wheelchair with limited mobility, and Shelia would now be his primary caregiver. The first months home were extremely challenging, Shelia describing them as the “most intense moments” of their family’s lives, trying to figure out how to ‘do life’ and keep the business running at the same time.
Thankfully, their son and daughter were older now, and both stepped in to make sure the family business didn’t suffer.
“Our kids were beyond Great. Taking the reins, our son Mikie stepped in to manage the affairs of the business, while Riley, our daughter, jumped on-board right away doing all that was needed to take care of customers and help keep things flowing.”
Their children now run the family business, under their parent’s guidance, and Curtis has not let his accident dictate his life goals. Even though it is not an easy task for either Curtis or Shelia, Curtis still goes into the shop three times a week and helps to oversee business operations.
“It’s Awesome seeing everyone work together to keep things not only going, but thriving,” Shelia exclaimed.
“And I also want to say, none of what we do would be possible without the wonderful staff members we have at Bunch Marine. Many of them have been with us for years; and we are so very Blessed.”
Shelia talked through tears as she described the staff members, and how they faithfully serve to meet not only the needs of the business, but of the family and customers as well.
In winding down our conversation about Bunch Marine, and the history behind the East Tennessee Fishing Show & Expo, I asked Shelia what she would say the number one reason is for her and her family to continue year after year hosting the Fishing Show. I know there has been opportunity to turn it over to other groups, which would “free up” their time and take the load off their shoulders. It only took a moment’s time however for me to realize the heart and soul behind the show…
“My number one reason for doing what I do every year?” Sheila asked, “That’s easy – small businesses. My heart’s desire is to help small businesses succeed, and to pay it forward, what others did to help us when we were young in business and still learning.”
Sheila’s heart for small business owners is truly inspiring. One thing she is very big on is making sure that small companies with Big Ideas in the world of fishing, get recognized. She ensures announcements are made during the show introducing new inventions, small businesses, and all they have to bring to the table.
And one last surprise Shelia pulled just as our interview was ending…
A "HOLLYWOOD" SURPRISE
“We have added a television show to our Expo family too.”
I had to ask to make sure I heard her correctly! She went on to explain that in 2020 as things began shutting down, and morale sliding along with it, she was informed that they would not be able to host the fishing show since it was a live event. At first, Shelia’s heart sank. All she could think about were the businesses who were struggling just to survive with all the madness that year brought.
THEN – she had an idea.
She quickly called pro-fishing expert, Mike DelVisco, and Ray Defoe, her IT guy, to see if it could become reality and upon their ‘Yes’, she sprang into action. Within a short while, Shelia had contacted business owners, inventors, investors, and by the Fall of 2020 The Outdoor Showcase, a reality TV fishing show, was birthed.
When I asked Shelia how long it aired, she replied with a huge smile, “Oh honey, it’s still going. And we don’t plan to stop it. Anything that’s helping our customers and vendors, we’re going to do.”
The Outdoor Showcase airs every Thursday, and a link has been placed at the end of this article for all who desire to view.
REELING IT IN
After talking with Shelia about the history of Bunch Marine and the East Tennessee Fishing Show & Expo, all I wanted to do was go fishing and boating… and I’ve never fished! It’s difficult to be in the atmosphere of someone as enthusiastic as Shelia without Catchin’ the Fever!
Listening to the story of how it all began: A family business, started – sold – and then reclaimed by a grandson.
How it grew: From a tiny shop to the #1 Boat Dealer in the Region.
How its borders continue to enlarge: From rescuing an East Tennessee winter tradition from fading away, to now making it one of the largest expos of its kind!...
Truly touches your heart. But seeing the passion that drives the commitment helps you understand why and how this extraordinary family continues, year after year, to lovingly serve the East Tennessee region (and now beyond) with “All things” that pertain to fishing and boating.
As Shelia put it, “It’s not about the money, or any monetary gain from the show. It’s about small businesses, and the people behind them who deserve to be recognized and honored.”
Well said Shelia. And it’s for that very reason that we HONOR you and your remarkable family for all you bring, not only to the world of fishing and boating, but to small business owners across this great nation.
East Tennessee Fishing Show & Expo, Links:
BUNCH MARINE, THE BACKSTORY
in 1962, Roy Bunch started Bunch Marine, a small business primarily focused on servicing boats and motors, while also keeping a few fishing boats on hand for purchase. Curtis Bunch, Roy’s grandson, started working alongside his papaw at the early age of 12 years old making a whopping $10 a day. He was excited about the business, and at age 16, after diligently working to increase his knowledge and improve his customer service skills, he was ordering all parts and accessories, waiting on as many customers as he could and fully running the show!
Fast forward to the late 1970’s — the marine business was in the middle of a dip due to an unfortunate recession. However, Curtis didn’t let that get in the way of progressing the business. In 1980, after an old-time banker took a risk on him and loaned him $20,000, he officially purchased Bunch Marine from his papaw and became owner. It took a few years, but as the economy rebounded, the business significantly expanded. Bunch Marine was back on the up-and-up! They were able to add more employees and widen the spectrum of boats they offered, adding in family and recreational boats. They were also able to add onto their service department with the expansion of a 14,000 square foot workshop, and today they house over 100 boats between their two showrooms.
As the years successfully passed, Curtis’ wife, Shelia, was there, too. She supported Curtis and the business day-in and day-out, serving as a very important part of all decisions that were made along the way.
As two of their sons, Daniel and Michael, were growing up, they fell right into place within the business. They helped out after school and on Saturdays, doing odd jobs and soaking in the knowledge of running a family business in the same way Curtis had learned from his papaw. Then in 1997, Curtis’ daughter, Riley, was born and essentially grew up in the marine business. Daniel passed away in 2004, but Michael and Riley have continued within the family business, passionately working towards continuing their brother’s and their family’s passions and legacies. And even though not in the marine business, their two other children are very successfully working their own jobs — Steven, an engineer, and Dustin, who works for Raytheon.
When looking back through the years of Bunch Marine, Curtis and his crew have had to jump over multiple hurdles — a recession in the 1980s, the recession in ‘07-’09, a worldwide pandemic, inflation and rising interest rates, and within this past year, an injury to Curtis’ spinal cord. However, despite the ebbs and flows, Bunch Marine has continued to grow. And when we asked Curtis “how?”, he answered with the following — “Just be good to people!” As he’s taken an ever-so-slight step back, he’s instilled in Michael and Riley that when doing business, you have to say what you mean and mean what you say. If in a conversation with a customer you promise to check on a part and then give them a call at a later time, you better be making that call in a few hours! Operating a business in this way results in repeat customers, new customers coming in after a word-of-mouth recommendation, a respectable reputation, and in Bunch Marine’s case, it’s resulted in becoming one of the largest boat dealers in the Southeast. In closing, Curtis wanted us to make sure we expressed the gratitude he has for his family, his very special friends and of course, all of his customers over the years. He’s still very much a part of the business decisions, but he’s excited to see Michael and Riley take the business to the next level of success.