The next steps

Carol Racine takes on one challenge after another as she and her husband build a business and make plans for a sewing school.

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"I know my limitations—but I’m always challenging those limits,” says Carol Racine, president of Racine Design in Jacksonville, Fla. “I don’t let the fact that I haven’t done a certain type of project before scare me away from taking it on, because I know what I’m comfortable with and I know when to walk away.”

Though Carol now runs the boat restoration shop with her husband Don, her introduction into textile fabrication came by working as a furniture reupholsterer in the early 1980s—somewhat by mistake. At the time, she and Don were refinishing antique furniture in the basement of their home in northern Wisconsin and had advertised their services on a local restaurant’s bulletin board. “The man who answered the ad misread it and asked if we could reupholster his kitchen chairs,” Carol says. “We’d never done any reupholstering before, but the economy was terrible and we needed the work, so we did it. It wasn’t hard; it was just a matter of taking things apart, paying attention and putting them back together the same way.”

Racine’s next project was a La-Z-Boy® Recliner, which she reupholstered using her small home sewing machine. “It didn’t take long before I realized if I was going to do this for a living I would need better equipment,” she says. “So in ’83 I bought my first industrial sewing machine: a Nakajima heavy-duty walking foot machine. It’s the smoothest machine I’ve ever worked on, and I’m still using it today.”

Making the move to marine

The influx of easily accessible furniture warehouses for the retail market led to Racine’s shift from furniture re-upholstery to marine fabrication. “Businesses like Rooms to Go were starting to create a force in the industry and I couldn’t compete with what it cost to buy new furniture,” Carol says. “So I ended up working for Don for a while doing remodeling and construction—until a previous customer called to ask me to do the upholstery on his pontoon. Once I started to tear the thing apart I realized it was a unique niche—there wasn’t a Rooms to Go for boats.”

The Racines moved to Jacksonville in 1994 and—building on an infrastructure of Carol’s textile fabrication skills and Don’s remodeling and carpentry expertise—launched Racine Design in ’96. For 14 years the company met many of the boating repair needs of Jacksonville and Southern Florida, including jobs such as restoring soft furnishings, building biminis and dodgers, and repairing electrical systems. But Carol and Don had a vision to create a place where they could work with other boat specialists and offer a more full-service boating repair experience for clients, and in 2012 they moved Racine Design to a new location where they could make their vision a reality.

New building, new business model

The current location of Racine Design sits just outside Jacksonville on the I-295 loop. At first Carol thought the building might be located a bit too far off the beaten path, but now views the location as perfect. “One of the things this location enabled us to do was to become an authorized dealer for Continental Trailers,” Carol says. “We always did a bit of trailer repair and had a relationship with Continental, but never had the space needed to store trailers and stock parts before. Now we have a concrete yard plus a showroom, and people hauling trailers can easily access the shop.”

Racine Design leases the 50-by-200-foot building and sublets some of the space to two other boat service companies: a Yamaha outboard motor repair shop and a fiberglass repair shop. “We refer to ourselves as the Boat Clinic because with our employees’ help, there’s not much we can’t fix. Without our great staff we couldn’t do what we do,” Carol says. “Clients love it that they can get all the work they need on their boats done in one place. They can drop it off and when they pick it up, they’re heading for the water.” Each company in the Boat Clinic gives separate bids to clients, and the clients decide if they want all of the work done or just some of it. Racine Design handles the scheduling. “We also encourage our customers to come in while we’re doing the work so they can watch the progress,” Carol says.

Teaching the next generation

Racine Design occupies the first 125 feet of the building and has four bay doors: three that are used to bring the boats in and one that opens into the showroom. Don and Carol renovated the space themselves when the shop wasn’t open. They installed a second level above the showroom, space that Carol intends to use to open a sewing school. “There’s such a desperate need for people who know how to sew, particularly in the upholstery arena,” Carol says. “My dream is to teach the different techniques to people who intend to make a career of it, as opposed to those who want to sew as a hobby.”

Carol posted her intentions on a board on the showroom wall and also announced plans for the school at the Marine Fabricators Association (MFA) Convention—and has already garnered quite a bit of interest from people who want to take the classes. “I’ve also been looking into offering classes specifically for veterans who need vocational rehabilitation and employment,” Carol says. “Now I’ve just got to find sewing machines, but I’m hoping to get the school launched this year yet.”

Occasionally Carol is asked by peers why she would want to train the competition—but she doesn’t see it that way. “It’s so hard to find people who are well trained, and there’s enough work to go around,” she says. “Besides, I’m always interested in raising the bar a bit. It helps everybody that way because then we can keep our prices where they need to be so we can all make a living.”

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

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