Charting a course

December 1st, 2015 / By: / Business, Feature, Management, Perspective

CMB_150820_K_Bradford-219-EditIncoming IFAI board chair Katie Bradford takes the helm, using business expertise and networking know-how to lead the association.

“I believe good leadership encourages participation and embraces differences,” says Katie Bradford, MFC, IFM, incoming chair of the Industrial Fabrics Association International (IFAI) and owner and president of Custom Marine Canvas, Noank, Conn. “IFAI membership is made up of large businesses, small businesses, manufacturers and suppliers. Everybody at the table has a voice—and an opportunity to impact the future of the specialty fabrics industry.”

Bradford’s introduction to small business ownership began in 1985 when she launched her marine canvas manufacturing shop in an unheated warehouse, with her one and only employee—her cousin (see “Bradford brings virtual vision to life” in the September 2009 issue). A lot has changed since then. Custom Marine Canvas is still a small business with six on staff, including Bradford, but the accommodations have improved dramatically, and the company client list now includes the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Navy, the Thames Shipyard and Repair Co. and the Newport Shipyard.

Active optimism

Like many manufacturers, Bradford is still navigating her business through the economic challenges that began in 2008. “The downturn in the economy has led to a downturn in the manufacture of boats and the number of people using them,” she says. “We just don’t have the backlog of projects that we used to, but we’ve found ways to fill the gaps.”

Although doing work for the U.S. Coast Guard is nothing new for Bradford, expansion to working for the U.S. Navy is. And working for the shipyards has resulted in work from unexpected sources. “The work we do for the Newport Shipyard is on yachts. What we do for the Navy and the Thames Shipyard is heavy-duty, utilitarian stuff. The Thames Shipyard hauls out the fire boats that belong to New York,” she says. “It’s fun work, and a bonus is that one of the firefighters on board the fire boat came all the way from New York to us to have work done on his personal boat because he liked the work we did.”

Bradford is also taking on more hospitality projects for hotels and high-end homes to augment the company’s project load. “A cushion for a couch vs. a cushion for a boat is still a cushion,” she says.

CMB_150820_K_Bradford-183-Edit-2And Bradford began advertising, which she says she never had to do before. The company places ads in a local sailing magazine, as well as sending repair ads to her client list through Constant Contact. “We just started doing the email blasts in the beginning of 2015 and it’s been effective,” Bradford says. “The first one we sent out was on a Friday, and when we came in on Monday there were three calls for work waiting for us.”

Despite the recent economic challenges, Bradford’s business is doing well and she is optimistic about the industry as she takes the helm of the IFAI board. In her first years of being in business Bradford became involved with Marine Fabricators Association (MFA), which led to participating on the IFAI board, both decisions she says helped her run and reinvent her business—and now she’s in a position to give back as chair of the IFAI board.

“The captains of industry all had to start somewhere. Thirty years ago I was just a kid with a sewing machine in a leaky old shed thinking, ‘I’m never going to make it.’ But I did,” she says. “I want those starting out to know they can make it too.”

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