You can either look at challenges and decide you can make things work and get on with it, or you can worry and then panic,” says Nigel Richings, founder and owner of Undercover Canvas and Awnings Inc. in Wildey, Barbados. “It’s one side of the coin or the other. I just don’t get scared. I just hit it hard and try to make sure we don’t give up.”
When Richings finished his secondary education at the age of 15, he had no interest in going away to university and college. Instead, he took a four-year apprenticeship at the local sail loft Doyle Offshore Sails to learn a trade. In 2000, at 19 years old, he moved to Majorca in Spain, to work at a mega-yacht sail loft. He lived there for two years before returning to Doyle in Barbados, bringing with him a wealth of knowledge about sail-making and design. “I went back to working at Doyle as a manager after my time in Spain, but I had a young family to support so wanted extra income,” Richings says. “People would ask me on the side to make them bimini tops, canvas bags, barbeque covers and things like that. So I got a little Singer sewing machine and set it up in the house we were renting.”
Richings asked his off-hours clients to keep the work “under cover.” After about seven months of working from home on nights and weekends, he handed in his notice to Doyle. In 2003 he hired one employee, rented a small workshop and officially set up shop. “In Barbados ‘undercover’ is a really cool word—you’re an undercover policeman, an undercover agent or an undercover lover,” he says. “People would love it when I would tell them this work is all under cover, so the name stuck and my company became Undercover Canvas and Awnings. Plus I was making covers and putting people under cover, so the company name was a natural.”
A logo that works
When it came to designing a logo for his new company, Richings not only wanted something that was distinctive and representative of his products, he also wanted something that was easy to replicate and easy to attach to a variety of structures. “I wanted to keep it simple,” he says. “I didn’t want shadows or too much definition in the logo because it would be expensive to reproduce, and it limits where you can put the logo.”
Richings settled on using blue for the awning, black for the writing, white for the border and silver for the grommets. He also decided to use cut vinyl as opposed to printing. “Printed logos fade and start to look shabby—especially in a climate like Barbados,” he says. “I wanted a logo with individual pieces I could cut and put on one background.”
After seven years of doing manual patterns and floor cutting, Richings decided to automate his designing and cutting. He purchased a digitizing machine and plotter/cutter; however, when the equipment arrvied it took up too much floor space. He decided it was time to expand his workshop, but instead of moving to a bigger space, he envisioned adding a second floor to the A-frame building. “My idea was to put in a second floor, but when I called the welders to give me a quote on installing an I-beam from one side of the building to the other, they suggested hanging the floor from the roof instead,” Richings says. “So that’s what we did. We put all the equipment up in the air so we didn’t have to use existing floor space.”
The unique solution of adding lofted space worked well—until Undercover again outgrew the space. In 2016 Richings moved to a workshop with 16,000 square feet. “This bigger space came up and we took it,” he says. “And I’ve not cut any corners making it exactly what I want it to be. Every penny we make I put back into the business.”
Although Richings is renting the space, he’s investing in it to create an environment that encourages excellence in his employees and instills confidence in prospective clients—and he’s done it without going into debt. He’s outfitted the space with new equipment, an upscale employee lounge, color schemes and matching furniture, uniform workspace tables, and shade sails in the parking lot. “No matter what kind of workshop you have—whether it’s a metal workshop or awning shop or a sail loft—it’s important to take into account the appearance,” he says. “It matters what the customer sees when they place an order.”
In a time when technology reigns in many ways, Richings chooses to train in it and understand it—and then let others on his staff manage it. He doesn’t use a computer, and answers emails on his iPhone. “We now have a staff of 20 and the designers, managers and admin personnel have computers, and we have a server, of course,” he says. “So the company is up to date with technology, but I choose not to use it myself.”
Every morning Richings hand-writes a to-do list on notepad-sized cards that he gets from the recycling bin at a local printer. “I write it all down in my own handwriting and cross off what I manage to get done or delegate to get done, and the next day whatever’s not finished goes on the list again,” he says. “I find that hand-writing it out and keeping it in my pocket relieves me from the pressure of trying to remember every detail.”
He approaches using CAD the same way, despite the fact that he trained in it before bringing it into his workshop. For most jobs, he chooses to let his CAD team and awning technicians take the project from start to finish—from digitizing to installation. “Part of what makes this company so successful is that I continually train my staff,” he says. “I take my years of experience and knowledge and pass it on to them.”
For the more complex jobs, however, he gets more involved. “I know so much about dissecting a design in my head and cutting patterns on the floor that I prefer to approach a project that way,” Richings says. “I can sit down next to somebody at the computer and help them to complete an autoCAD drawing, which then gets cut on the plotter.”
No matter how busy each day is, Richings regularly makes time to consider ways to advance the company.
“Each day is busy, and there’s a lot to do to keep moving things forward, but I try to take a minute to stand and look down at the workshop and envision what’s next,” he says. “That’s when new things start to happen.”
Sigrid Tornquist is a writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn., and a regular contributor to the Review.
Since 1998, luxury beach club Nikki Beach has been combining music, dining, entertainment, fashion, film and art into one exclusive venue for high-end vacationers around the world. The company, a luxury lifestyle and hospitality brand, hired Undercover Canvas and Awnings to design and install a variety of fabric and metal structures to shelter guests outside the restaurant at its St. Peter, Barbados, location, which opened in December 2017. The design portion of the project took approximately six months, but the installation took place in only 12 days. “I’ve never worked so feverishly on a project—the deadline was tight,” says Undercover CEO Nigel Richings. “The project showcased nearly all of our attributes—roll-down screens, tensile structures, vinyl roofs and metal structures.”
Originally, Richings envisioned installing tensile shade sail structures over much of the outdoor area, but the client was concerned about where speakers, AV and lighting equipment would fit into the design. They settled on a traditional steel structure with canvas stretched across the top, with tensile shade sails off the side to block the rain and wind from diners. “We used approximately 3,000 square feet of canvas for the project,” Richings says. “The client was so demanding and well-organized that it made us step up a notch to meet the demands. They were very happy with our work, and we learned a lot.”
As your business has grown, what things have you found most helpful to delegate to others?
One thing that has really helped me is that now I have a dedicated sales person. She started in the CAD department, took on ordering, then learned about materials, and eventually I trained her to do sales. I also gave her some books to read. One of the best I’ve found is: “Persuasion: The Art of Influencing People” by James Borg. It gives good strategies about how to frame conversations and connect with people.
Of course, there are still longstanding customers and very large projects that
I want to deal with personally, but she handles the everyday sales, and that frees me up to focus on growing the business and figuring out what I’m going to do next.