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Marine fabricators diversify and stay afloat

Feature, Management, Marine | May 1, 2011 | By:

Marine fabricators capitalize on new growth opportunities as the economy begins to improve.

Like most segments of the specialty fabrics industry, marine fabrication took a hit during the recent recession. Consumers became wary of investing in new luxury items like boats during such a volatile time, and the marine fabric market suffered for it. At its lowest point, the U.S. and Canadian marine fabric market was down by 20 percent. Boat manufacturers slowed new boat shipments and laid off workers to focus on selling existing inventory.

However, the second half of 2010 showed improvement for marine fabricators. Manufacturers ramped up production and sales of new boats and, despite the fact that the marine fabric market was down 7 percent in 2010 and is expected to be down 2-3 percent in 2011, many marine fabricators have seen success by specializing in certain applications.

Katie Bradford, MFC, IFM, owner of Custom Marine Canvas in Noank, Conn., gave her employees six weeks off with unemployment benefits last year. “It was very depressing,” Bradford admits, “but now everyone is back to work, and we are slammed as we used to be.” This is, in part, thanks to her strategic planning during the recession.

“Every boat customer has a house with furniture, shade needs and utility projects,” Bradford says. “And every boat customer has a job. What does his company do? Can you market to that company?” By capitalizing on specific growth opportunities within their industry, many marine fabricators like Bradford have successfully weathered the storm—and have come out better for it. Capitalizing on growth opportunities keeps marine fabricators successful, even through the tough times. Launching a mobile shop, pursuing smaller repair jobs and taking on cockpit and interior work are three strategies that can give your shop a competitive edge.

Mobile shops

Some marine fabricators serve customers who keep their boats on the water by taking their workshops on the road. Going mobile isn’t simple or inexpensive; there are investments to make in a vehicle, duplicate tools and materials, and time to plan and organize trips. Yet, the flexibility of a mobile shop has made it possible for established canvas shops to expand their service areas and customer bases.

Justin Jones, owner of Custom Covers in Salt Lake City, Utah, added travel to his business when local economic conditions changed. “We used to do everything in-house,” Jones says, “Our market was all trailerable ski boats.” When that market collapsed with the economy, Jones expanded his customer base to include the larger boats and houseboats on area lakes.

Steve Griffith, owner of Marine Tops Unlimited in Madison, Wis., serves several cities over a wide area. He uses his mobile shop to do pattern work and installations. “Neither one of our shops is located on the water,” he says. “A lot of times, we’re traveling upwards of 20 to 30 miles to get a job and then do the work, so having the mobile shop is a necessity.”

Seth Hetherington, owner of Mobile Marine Canvas Co. in Harpswell, Maine, is a licensed manufacturer for EZ2CY and travels the East Coast from Maine to Connecticut and Rhode Island to provide service to his customers. “We just purchased a new rig that we’re going to outfit for mobile tube bending, welding and pattern making,” he says. “The rear doors of the van open and articulate around to side panels. We plan on installing a motorized crowner on one door and a radius bender on the other.” Getting creative is essential when it comes to outfitting a mobile shop.

The key to Griffith’s business is his mobile shop, which targets a section of the market by providing better customer service than his competitors. “We spend a lot of time traveling from our establishment to wherever the boat is parked in the water or at the people’s homes, providing a little bit of a niche service industry,” he says.

The primary reason many fabricators set up mobile shops is to avoid wasting time traveling back and forth between a boat and their canvas shop after discovering problems during installation or a missing tool. Just setting up a mobile shop may not eliminate those inefficiencies, though. Careful planning is essential to avoid wasting time on road trips: plotting the route, deciding which tools and materials to take and laying out the on-site task sequence.

“If you want to pull an eight-hour day and you have to drive three hours to get there, you’ve got to get there ready to go, organized and well thought out,” Hetherington says.

Griffith makes sure to include marketing and pricing materials with his travel equipment. He can produce proposals on the docks, right from the computer in his van.

Being on-site in a marina with a van, truck or trailer emblazoned with the canvas business’ name on the side is one way to build business. A clean and well-organized van assures prospective customers of quality work. It’s a valuable marketing tool, one that people can see with their own eyes. A boat owner may drag a tattered cover to the mobile shop while the fabricator is installing a new cover nearby, ask for a quick repair or a quote for a new cover. These chance encounters provide excellent word-of-mouth advertising opportunities.

Small repairs and fixes

Most canvas shops offer repairs but sometimes underestimate the value of them. By offering an alternative to new canvas, repair work can bring in new customers and help to accommodate the needs of existing customers who may also be dealing with fewer resources. Allerton Harbor Canvas in Hull, Mass., puts a high priority on quick turnaround of repairs, which can provide a consistent work flow, cash flow and the profitable capture of chargeable hours.

“Creative ideas play an important part of how to help solve your customer’s needs,” says Jay Hanks, owner of Allerton Harbor Canvas. “For example, painting vinyl cushions, as a less expensive option to recovering them, helps a customer on a tight budget.”

Figure out a pricing plan, and be careful not to back your business into a corner. Most customers can relate to hourly charges, so provide an approximate number of hours, the hourly rate and the cost of materials. If you have to give a firm price, consider including a caveat that you will call if you run into any additional time or expenses.

Keeping track of how repairs affect your business is essential. “We have tried to keep a tighter control on chargeable hours and materials,” Hanks says. “We continually try to demonstrate quality and service, which are the building blocks of our reputation.” Hanks uses QuickBooks accounting software to collect the chargeable hours and materials from time sheets and work orders. By using the Graphs and Reports feature, Hanks can track changes and follow how repairs impact the scope of his business.

Providing quality repairs is a way for customers to get to know you, your products and your services. In the future, when satisfied customers need more extensive work, they’ll be more likely to return—and spread the word to others.

Cockpits and interior work

One of the most promising areas for profitable growth for marine fabricators is cockpit and interior work. Jay Stroker, who was a marine fabricator for more than 20 years before joining Tri Vantage as a senior account representative, says cockpit and interior work requires that marine fabricators take a broader view of opportunities for profitable growth.

“We encourage marine fabricators to expand their horizons and recognize a broader diversity of opportunities within boating, from cruisers and runabouts to sport fishermen and yachts,” Stroker says. “The family yachting experience has really expanded in recent years with a great deal of emphasis on comfort below deck. Plush appointments, designer color schemes and comfortable sleeping all represent opportunities for marine fabrication.”

For Custom Marine Canvas, offering interior upfits has been a substantial financial benefit. As boaters are keeping their vessels for longer periods of time before trading up, the ability of a marine fabricator to suggest upfit opportunities has never been more important. An investment in new canvas above and below deck is a cost-effective way for a boat owner to have the feeling of a new boat at a fraction of the cost.

“We had a similar experience with the recession of the 1980s when people were holding onto their existing boats rather than buying new,” Bradford said. “We tell customers that for 10 percent of the cost of a new boat, we can give them new sails, completely new canvas and a new interior.”

Bradford says that interior work is not for all marine fabricators, but there are benefits of growth and stability for those who are willing and able to diversify.

“Interior work is a challenge, but we love to do it and we’re good at it,” she said. “Accuracy, accuracy and accuracy are the secrets to success. If you are a meticulous craftsman, then you should be able to succeed with interiors work.”

Although the marine market was hit hard by the recession and has been a little slow on the rebound, IFAI market research shows that marine fabricators are seeing improvement and are more optimistic. Building a stronger business that is successful even in the most challenging economic times is possible by making the most of every opportunity.

Kelly Frush is a Minnesota-based writer and editor.

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