Riad Shakeer builds his company with diversification

Riad Shakeer moves his company forward through product diversification.

As soon as my business started to grow, I started looking for something else to produce,” says Riad Shakeer, owner of Calypso Marine Canvas Ltd. and Calypso Fabric Architecture Caribbean Ltd. in Chaguanas, Trinidad. “I’ve always had that intent to go further. What is there in the specialty fabrics industry that would encourage me to stay in the business?”

Shakeer started out in the industry working with his father at their auto and furniture upholstery shop. When his father died in 1972 the business was in the process of completing four large contracts, including three restaurants and a government contract for employee vehicles—and his father’s death left 22-year-old Shakeer solely responsible for fulfilling them. He enlisted the help of two younger brothers and was able to complete the contracts.

The need for speed

Shakeer and his brothers continued to expand the business, taking on restaurant contracts and doing upholstery for race cars—when they weren’t driving them. “I love to play with speed,” Shakeer says. “I started racing cars and then got into power boat racing in 1979.” Shakeer’s introduction into the power boat racing world came because of a car-racing friend’s request to upholster his boat seats. “I met one of the bigger boat builders in Trinidad, Brian Bowen, who raced cars also,” Shakeer says. “We became friends and he asked me to do the upholstery on his boat. I had never done any marine work, but we decided to try it.”

Bowen was in the process of building a power boat to race in the 90-mile Great Race, sponsored by the Trinidad and Tobago Power Boats Association. Though the race was only a few days away and the boat was still being constructed, Shakeer agreed. He and his brother Fuad loaded a sewing machine in the back of a truck and went to the boat factory to complete the upholstery. “This was a crazy project,” Shakeer says. “The boat was being built while we were doing the upholstery—the engine was going in at the same time.” The team completed the boat in time for the race—and Bowen offered Shakeer the use of one of his fishing boats should he want to enter the race as well. Shakeer, along with two men who worked at the factory, raced the boat and won the class. It was a decision that sealed Shakeer’s passion for working on—and racing—power boats. “I won everything that year,” he says. “After that, I kept moving up in speed and in size [of boats].”

Supply and demand

That decision to work on his friend’s boat project served as a catalyst for Shakeer to leave the auto and furniture upholstery business and change his shop’s focus to marine upholstery. The transition was fairly simply for Shakeer. Though marine upholstery required slightly more precision, and materials that could be exposed to the sea and the sun, the process was mostly the same. In 1989, when he expanded the business to include manufacturing bimini tops and other marine canvas work, he realized he needed some guidance. “That is when I joined the IFAI (Industrial Fabrics Association International),” he says. “I came to my first conference and learned about the best techniques and materials in the market, and tried to land distributorships.”

Over the years, Shakeer has secured distributorships for several suppliers, which he has used to further his business—and the industry—in Trinidad. “The more we encourage people in our industry, the more we can accomplish and the greater the demand for materials,” he says. “I’ve taught quite a few people what to do and how to do it when manufacturing marine canvas and upholstery projects. This increases the demand for materials—for fasteners, for stainless steel tubing, for acrylic. And where are they going to get it? I will bring it in.”

Diversity and mentoring

After 20 years in the marine fabrication industry, Shakeer began to look again for further challenges and opportunities for his business. “Getting involved in the marine industry pushed me to get involved in IFAI, which is a whole new world of specialty fabrics opportunities,” he says. “But I didn’t stop there, because in that new world I saw that I could diversify again. I saw the things people were doing with fabric structures and tensile structures and thought that would be something I’d like to get involved with.”

Shakeer and his niece Neala Bhagwansing, who had joined the company in 2000, started researching lightweight structures and what it might take for them to enter into a new and demanding market segment. Again, Shakeer realized he would need to tap into IFAI’s specialty fabrics community to find someone to help learn about lightweight structures. “One of our suppliers recommended we contact Harry Daugherty [of HB Daugherty Consulting Engineers, Toledo, Ohio], who recommended Mark Welander [of Fabricon LLC, Missoula, Mt.].” The four worked together on what would be Shakeer’s company’s first lightweight structure, a 6,000-square-foot project completed in 2006.

In order to keep his company’s branding clear, Shakeer decided to create a separate business for the awnings and lightweight structures projects. “We traded as Calypso Marine Canvas for many years,” he says. “Then when we went to designing and building tensile structures and fabric structures we were losing awning business to the other marine canvas shops nearby.” He formed Calypso Fabric Architecture Caribbean Ltd., which manufactures awnings, fabric structures and tensile structures. Bhagwansing has been a driving force, right beside her uncle, in the creation and vision of the new company, and Shakeer is continuing in his practice of mentoring by grooming her to be in charge. “I plan to let Neala hold the fabric structure business and run with it,” he says. “She can have 75-80 percent of the responsibility so she will know what it is like to be on top.”

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn. She is also the associate editor of InTents magazine.

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