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Going the distance: Rob Kotowski rebuilds the family business

December 1st, 2018 / By: / Feature, Perspective

Photos by Carlson Productions LLC

“We don’t anticipate that the completion of a project is the last time we talk with our clients,” says Rob Kotowski, owner and president of Lake Shore Boat Top Co., St. Clair Shores, Mich. “We typically follow up with them a couple of weeks after they’ve taken delivery of their projects to make sure they’re happy with them, or have any issues or questions. And then again at least once or twice throughout the boating season. We try to be there for them.”

Established in 1959, Lake Shore Boat Top Co. was purchased by Kotowski’s parents in 1971. “The shop was my babysitter as I was growing up because my mom and dad both worked there. It’s the place my friends would come to play,” Kotowski says.

The business thrived, and Kotowski worked there part-time during high school before he left to study marketing and business management at Michigan’s Walsh College of Business. His father downsized the workload and moved operations to his garage, where Kotowski joined him when he came on board full-time after college in 2003. “I enjoyed doing the work, but at that point I didn’t see myself doing it forever,” Kotowski says. “But in 2004 we reopened a storefront inside the local marina and my enthusiasm for the business grew. I started to have a passion for it.”

The company outgrew the 800-square-foot space in the first couple of years and now has multiple locations in Saint Clair Shores. “We were bursting at the seams,” Kotowski says. “We acquired additional help and are basically more than 10 times the working space now.”

The comfort zone

In addition to manufacturing high-quality marine products, Kotowski’s commitment to ongoing communication with clients is at the core of his success. He builds relationships with the clients and takes time to educate them about all things marine fabrication. “Each boater is different,” he says. “Some know exactly what they want and others need some direction. I ask a lot of questions, and give suggestions and try to give them a path to go down. I think the biggest thing in selling jobs is being able to communicate in such a way that you put the customer in a comfort zone—a place where they understand exactly what you’re trying to sell them.”

At times, Kotowski takes clients around the marina to show them completed projects to give them an idea of the quality of the work, and offer them some inspiration. “Many of my customers give me permission to take other customers onto their boats,” he says. “We show them photos of projects as well, but there’s nothing like seeing the work in person.”

The showroom plays an important part in educating and creating an atmosphere for customers as well. The walls are painted in bright colors, dotted with framed photos of jobs the crew has completed. Awards are hung in clear sight. Kotowski even took the smell of the showroom into account, and has pineapple- and mango-scented plug-ins to add to the boating vibe. “We wanted to separate the shop smell from the showroom smell to give it a certain atmosphere,” he says. “Of course we have the usual sample books and products as well, but we also have small demo pieces like miniature bimini tops and things like that so people can have a little bit of an interaction with our products.”

Stand by me
Rob Kotowski, owner and president of Lake Shore Boat Top Co., with his father and mentor Bob Kotowski.

When it comes to products, Kotowski at times tests them on his own boat—a Sea Ray Sundeck he takes out on Sundays with his family when weather permits. “We try to stay up on new products to be able to provide something different to our customers,” he says. “A lot of times I’ll have suppliers send us samples and we’ll build little mock-ups. But other times I’ll build something out of a material they’re trying to have us carry and use it on my boat to see how it holds up. With flooring, I’ll put pieces outside and leave them out year-round.”

But when Kotowski finds a product he likes, he sticks with it, as is the case with the thread they use at Lake Shore Boat Top. “We use Solarfix® thread because we’ve found that it gives us the best results with the machines and materials we use. It’s very durable,” he says. “We give a lifetime warranty on our stitch work.”

There will always be a customer who isn’t completely satisfied with something, and Kotowski again relies on ongoing communication to address those issues. His team sends out follow-up thank-you cards to customers, inviting their comments, good or bad. Most of the time the comments are positive, and Kotowksi distributes them to the employees so they can be the ones to open them. “I’m concerned to see what the surveys say, but it’s more rewarding to give them to the employees to open,” he says.

On the rare occasion that the client is unhappy with something, Kotowski and his team make sure to respond quickly. He feels he is more likely to get the feedback he needs by providing clients with the cards. “Sometimes people don’t want to call you to tell you they’re upset, but they feel like they can get their point across in one of the surveys,” he says. “I’d much rather handle the damage control in that way than to have them go to social media, because that’s a lot harder to resolve at that point.”

Kotowski tries to look at each project as if it were his own, and pay attention to the fine details—something he learned from his father, who is retired but still comes into the shop regularly. “I’m grateful to be able to work with him every day,” Kotowski says. “I’ll catch him every once in a while sitting back and looking at the shop, and you can see he’s happy as hell to see where it’s at again.”

 

Sigrid Tornquist is a Minneapolis-based writer and editor, and a frequent contributor to the Review.

How do you manage turnaround times when customers bring their boats in for work during the boating season?

Our boating season is only four or five months long, and it is a challenge to get customers to understand that the off season is the time to bring in their boats. That goes back to educating the customers. But when it does happen that a customer brings in their boat in April or May for something like a reupholstery job in the cockpit, we’ll work with them. If they’re only using it on weekends, we’ll pull a couple of pieces on a Monday, get them done and reinstalled so their boat is back together by the weekend. It’s a bit more time-consuming for us, but it’s one of the things we try to do to accommodate our customers.

True blue fabrication

In Michigan, where the boating season is brief, many boaters call on marine fabricators to add enclosures to their vessels so they can extend the time they can comfortably spend on the water into the early spring and late fall.  For just such a client, Lake Shore Boat Top Co. built a custom camper top with 1¼-inch stainless frame to extend the living space on the back of a 43-foot Tiara Sovran named “True Blue.” The design included a 10-panel with 40mil Strataglass window enclosure and six interchangeable screen panels that zip in and out to replace a solid glass window. Lake Shore Boat Top Co. also designed rigid supports to be used as handrails to board and exit the cockpit. “The client was very straightforward with the design he was looking for,” says Rob Kotowski. “He wanted an enclosure that was not going to be boxy.”

The resulting enclosure matched all the lines of the yacht perfectly. “The design provided the customer with a clean clear ‘fishbowl’ view from the inside of the cockpit out,” Kotowski says. “This job allowed him to be able to take trips with his boat comfortably and not have to worry about the elements outside. Now no matter what the weather is like, he can entertain his friends
and family in style.”

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