Sandy Sturner is the managing director of Marine Tech LLC, a St. Thomas, Virgin Islands-based sail and canvas shop that thrives on challenging and unusual projects. Established in 1999, Marine Tech focuses during the winter “high” season on marine canvas with an emphasis on mega-yachts, and during the balance of the year concentrates on awning and shade structures, resort and residential upholstery and locally owned boats. Here, Sturner shares her thoughts about the future of canvas shops, the challenges her business faces and her lifelong involvement within the world of industrial sewing.
How did you get involved in the industry/company?
I got involved in the textile industry at a very young age. I began sewing at 4 years old, was being paid for my work by the age of 13, and by 18 I was working for a clothing designer and studying fashion design in college. The pattern-making and production line work techniques I learned from both of these experiences have proven invaluable during all the various metamorphoses of my career. Doing both custom and wholesale clothing design provided invaluable experience in the ins and outs of running a business. In the 1980s I took up windsurfing and began to add sail repairs to my already diversified clothing business, which included upholstery and slip covers. With a downturn in the custom clothing design business and an upsurge in the number and size of yachts visiting the islands in the late 1990s, it was a no-brainer to give up clothing and focus completely on industrial sewing in the marine and awning industries.
What are the biggest challenges you face?
The largest challenge we face is a lack of potential employees to hire from. As most of us are well aware, there has been a marked decline in the number of young people training for a career in the trades. There is now a dearth of the college educated unemployed and a declining number of people with skills in the trades, with the majority of those people approaching or passing retirement age.
Why did you join IFAI? which services/benefits do you use the most?
I joined IFAI because I wanted to invest my funds in making sure that the organization which puts on the IFAI trade show would continue to be able to keep making this happen. It is an incredible information resource and networking event. The services and benefits we use the most are InfoCentral! Don’t need them often, but when we do, they are invaluable. Kind, informed, and extraordinarily helpful, willing to go the extra mile to help with sourcing needs.
What do you anticipate for your industry in the next five years? Ten?
I see an increasing number of yachts being built, and fewer canvas shops with fewer employees to service those boats. For the next five to ten years, I foresee canvas shops struggling to find and train qualified employees, and therefore in my opinion, we will struggle even more with trying to accommodate everyone with canvas needs. I do see a possible exception to this with the tech people who will be required for the ever increasing technological innovations being developed in our industry. However, I’m not sure that the decreased need for employees due to implementing new technology will outpace the lack of a skilled workforce.
What has been the most significant invention/technology you’ve observed?
The most significant development I’ve seen in my life so far is a combination of the personal computer and the Internet. These have opened up information and technology in a way that was inconceivable 40 years ago. There is now more information at our fingertips than we could possibly need in our lifetimes, and one no longer needs to be a multimillion-dollar industry to afford even some of the quite complex technology.