Get results by setting your business apart from the competition.
By Kelly Frush
There’s no question that education affords opportunities. When those opportunities lead to growth—both business and personal—the results are worth the effort. The Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) currently offers professional certification in two areas: The Master Fabric Craftsman (MFC) for the marine, awning or fabric graphics specialties affirms that the holder has demonstrated the highest level of expertise in all phases of product design, craftsmanship and installation; the Industrial Fabric Manager (IFM) affirms that the holder has superior knowledge of the principles and practices of business and organizational management in the specialty fabrics industry.
Certification is a valuable achievement in the specialty fabrics industry. Those individuals who achieve their MFC or IFM designation are recognized for superior knowledge, skills, experience and dedication to excellence, and that translates to valuable customer relations.
This article focuses on marine fabricators who have become a certified Master Fabric Craftsman or Industrial Fabric Manager (or both) through programs sponsored by IFAI and the Marine Fabricators Association (MFA), a division of IFAI. Their experiences, however, are applicable to any segment of the specialty fabrics industry.
Set your business apart
Most fabricators find that certification gives their business a leading edge in their geographic location. Darren Arthur, MFC, of Nautilux Custom Canvas in Red Bank, N.J., pursued certification for just that reason.
“There are a lot of canvas guys in the half-hour region, and a very small number of them are involved with the MFA,” he says. “It’s great being able to add my MFC designation in an e-mail, tell customers that I’m certified and let them know that I’m involved in the organization. It’s just something more that I can tell a customer.”
Katie Bradford, MFC, IFM, of Custom Marine Canvas in Noank, Conn., also wanted to set herself apart from the competition in her area.Â “No one was certified yet,” she explains.Â “Shortly after I became certified, my closest competitor got certified and wears his MFC pin on his hat every day.”
To Terri Madden, MFC, of Sand Sea and Air Interiors Inc. in San Juan, Puerto Rico, getting certified was part of the natural progression in her career as a fabricator. “Upon attending my first MFA National Convention, it was the logical next step on my career path as a marine fabricator specializing in interiors,” Madden explains. “I met the minimum five years of experience in the industry needed to qualify.”
For Faith Roberts, MFC, IFM, of Banner Canvas in Ham Lake, Minn., the benefits of certification were two-fold.
“It validated what I did,” she says, “and it gave me the ability to use it in marketing. Those two reasons really started me off.” Roberts feels that, once certified, fabricators feel empowered to help their peers achieve certification. “You feel the responsibility to forward the program on to other people.”
By becoming certified, you’re making it clear to your customers that your business complies with safety, construction and installation standards as well as federal regulations. Getting certified shows potential customers that your business is respected in the industry.
“My customers are yacht owners, yacht dealers and designers who have earned their own degrees of education,” Madden says. “As a certified fabricator, I’m a notch above a person perceived as a hobbyist with a sewing machine fitting covers on a boat. Certification confirms that I’m a skilled and knowledgeable businesswoman.”
Arthur feels that telling customers he’s certified allows him to take more pride in the manufacture of his product. “I’m held more accountable to do a better job, to respond to customers, return phone calls, and get to appointments on time,” he says.
In addition to being recognized and respected in the marine fabrication industry, certification is a valuable marketing tool that can set a business apart from competitors. Certification often helps seal the deal with new customers because they can be confident that your products are well built.
“I’m definitely able to market myself better as an MFC in my area,” Roberts says. “I have one job that I know I got because of being certified. The customer did some price-shopping between my competitors, but ultimately, customers are looking for quality.”
Fabricators, once certified, are recognized at the annual IFAI Expo Americas trade show, receive a lapel pin and are listed in the IFAI Membership Directory and on the IFAI website. A news release is sent out to the industry, and logos are provided for use in marketing materials such as business cards and websites. IFAI has also created customizable informational brochures to be distributed to potential customers.
Being able to show customers that you’re credible and reliable is invaluable. “Now I can give customers a reason ‘why,’” Arthur points out. “We’re recognized as a reputable, quality shop, rather than just a ‘good canvas guy.’”
Certification has given Roberts’ business credibility and stability in the current economic climate. “When you’re in a down economy, it helps for people to understand that they’re getting a quality craftsman,” she says. “They see: she’s qualified, she’s got some education. We can charge a little bit more for what we do. We know the tools, fabric, hardware, and we have knowledge about how the fabric performs. We educate the customer about what being a MFC is about, and that gives them a level of comfort.”
The entire IFAI certification process was recently revamped and standardized. Applicants are required to have at least three years of industry experience, and must have earned at least 10 IFAI-approved continuing education credits (CEUs). With those accomplishments under their belts, fabricators submit an application, a Code of Ethics form, a project that demonstrates their understanding of end-product manufacturing, a project portfolio and responses to a number of essay questions. After candidates receive passing scores, they take a written exam.
Most fabricators are supportive of the revamped certification process. “It used to be a judgment call on the part of a judge, but now it’s consistent across the board,” Roberts points out. “The content is certainly the same, but the IFAI certification program used to be a lot easier, and now it has more depth.”
Arthur agrees: “I’m glad to hear that they have revamped the certification program. There are constant changes in materials, hardware and equipment available. Also, the way items get produced and fitted to the boat has changed. In order to further the quality, we have to keep up with those changes. I think the certification needs to be challenging. Whether or not a fabricator decides to get certified, changes in our industry are inevitable.”
Roberts, who regularly judges certification candidates’ applications, points out that if a candidate doesn’t pass the initial test, mentors are happy to work with that individual to find a solution. The candidate will be informed where they need further training.
“If they don’t pass,” Roberts says, “mentors will help that individual understand what they did wrong in their process.”
A solid foundation
Arthur believes that certification is changing the marine fabrication industry. “Customers will learn to ask for certain things when they go to buy canvas,” he says. “I think the certification process is going to help the industry as a whole.”
Roberts echoes that sentiment. “In order for an industry to grow, it has to have a solid foundation of people,” she says. “This used to be thought of as a ‘cottage industry,’ and the level of income was a lot lower 25 years ago than it is now, and that’s because of things like the MFA and certification. It has helped everyone’s business, worldwide.”