Jeff Newkirk, MFC, started sailing at such a young age, he can’t remember a time when he wasn’t entranced with sailboats, the glide across open water and the call of the open wind.
That’s why sail and canvas making was an obvious choice when it came time for him to choose a career. After he learned the ropes at a small shop in the late 1990s, the entrepreneurial spirit took hold as he recognized demand in the markets surrounding Lake Ontario and Lake Erie for high-level design and construction.
In 2014, he turned that drive into a new venture, Precision Custom Canvas Inc. of St. Catharines, Ont., Canada.
Precision Custom Canvas has since grown into a thriving business that specializes in custom-tailored enclosures, upholstery and flooring for powerboats and sailboats of all sizes. His clients range from boat owners to dealers to custom manufacturers.
The irony? He’s so busy leading and growing Precision Custom Canvas that he seldom has time to hit the waves just for fun. He has a 36-foot cruising sailboat for weekend family cruises, but his 29-foot racing sailboat hasn’t seen the water in 10 years. “Part of our discussion in moving the company forward is to get a better work-life balance,” he says.
From one-man show to logistics expert
In the beginning, Newkirk was a sole proprietor and jack-of-all-trades, running the business out of a small, cramped shop in the basement of his home. That wasn’t always easy, but his close attention to his work resulted in well-received projects, some of which earned recognition through the Marine Fabricators Association (MFA) Excellence Awards and IFAI’s International Achievement Awards.
“We’ve set ourselves apart as not being everybody’s canvas and upholstery shop, but of serving the middle and upper-end boat markets, with an average boat size of 35 feet or larger,” he says. “We do our share of smaller fishing boats, but due to the quality of our product and our lead times, we often can’t accommodate the smaller boat market. Those clients often don’t plan far enough ahead and aren’t willing to wait for six to eight weeks during the season. Finish and quality are more important to me than getting the next job.”
In 2016, he expanded into a 2,500-square-foot commercial space, and in 2018 he hired his first full-time sewing technician.
In response to COVID-19, the company spent three months in 2020 producing personal protective equipment (PPE) for Ontario markets, ultimately producing 17,000 masks, shields and isolation gowns. The regional boating fabrication market grew during the pandemic too, but Newkirk says his clients were surprisingly patient.
“There were more inquiries from people wanting projects, as more boats changed hands and new boaters entered the market,” he notes. “But our customers were extremely understanding when everything changed on a dime due to the pandemic.”
The change meant that he was forced to quickly learn new management and logistical skills. “There was a lot of stress over how the business was going to operate, how I’d keep my staff going and pivot,” he says. “All of a sudden we had 10 to 15 shipments of small boxes to get packed and out the door, and we had to support the office end and make sure we had the staffing to do the output. It pushed me in my management style and showed me I was ready for the next step, to build out, have a higher output and manage a greater number of people.”
Today, Newkirk has four employees working under him. “I do very little of the sewing now, and I kind of miss it,” he notes. “I do customer consultations, all the office work and all the patterning and installing.”
Automation growing pains
One of Newkirk’s goals is to install a cutting table that can work with digitized patterns and fully automate pattern capturing, development and fabric cutting. That addition should improve efficiency, allowing him to redirect staff to boost production and/or cut back his own work hours.
“In all honesty, I’m looking at a mixture of all that,” he says. “We’ll always have the spring rush—it’s never going away—but I want to better manage my time and have better output so my staff and I can control our hours.”
One hurdle, however, is that COVID-related constraints have prevented him from hiring a technician who can complete the installation and teach team members to use the CAD technology involved. Newkirk can’t spare a current staffer to take on that role without slowing production.
“We’d have to bring the technician in, quarantine them and cover those costs, and it’s just not financially viable,” he explains. “But I’m still excited about automation.”
Newkirk’s best general advice for other marine fabricators? Hire for work ethic, and support employees who show they want to learn and advance.
“I don’t want this to be just a job, but an environment in which we’re family,” he says of his company. “Try to give people opportunities to improve and excel, and conduct regular check-ins to make sure they feel good, feel valued and part of the team.”
Market trends: From simple to pop
With regard to current trends in his markets, Newkirk says he is seeing the broadest changes in upholstery selection.
“Often it depends on the size of the boat,” he notes. “In big projects customers look for very simple, muted styles and balanced tones. But I see in some smaller boats like ski-type boats or bowriders, they want busy-ness or pop, inlays with alternating pattern or colors that are kind of exploding. Another client with a mid-sized boat just wants to change the style a bit so it looks more modern, maybe changing cushions so they’re a bit more square or more European style.”
Newkirk says he’s unsure how long industry demand will continue to grow in his region. As COVID fears abate, some boaters may switch to other pastimes and reduce spending while others may continue to improve their boats.
Because Precision Custom Canvas supplies products to a major custom yacht builder, Newkirk is somewhat concerned about a 20 percent Canadian luxury tax recently imposed on purchases of boats costing more than $250,000. But he speculates the tax could ultimately benefit aftermarket suppliers.
“In the powerboat market, it doesn’t take much to get to $250,000, so people may hold on to their boats and invest in them rather than buying something different,” he says. “Why not spend a portion of that potential tax redoing a full set of canvas, the full interior, on a boat you already know? What we’ve found in the past when the economy slows is that the boat market drops off a little bit, but people still continue to invest in the boats they have already.”
Either way, he says he’s optimistic for the future.
Michelle Miron is a Minnesota-based freelance writer with a 30-year background in journalism and content marketing.
Photography by Michal Pasco–Creative Collective
SIDEBAR: Azimut 62S sun pads
Jeff Newkirk, owner and principal designer with Precision Custom Canvas Inc. of St. Catharines, Ont., Canada, is particularly proud of the work his company recently completed on an Azimut 62 luxury yacht. The client wanted to replace the old upholstery because the original shaping was very round, with multiple segments that didn’t flow together. There was also gelcoat damage from the old foam holding moisture against the deck. To blend with the teak decking, the client chose a Serge Ferrari Batyline fabric.
“As we redesigned and rebuilt both sun pads and the corner bench, we put Densilite™ board bases under all the components to separate them and allow airflow under the cushions,” Newkirk says. The new 5-inch foam is comprised of a 2-inch base layer of firm reticulated foam and an upper layer of 2.8-pound density firm foam, providing comfort and moisture control.
“Challenges we had to overcome were streamlining the forward sun pad over some molded shapes in the deck, building the table inserts that support the cupholders, and elevating and permanently mounting the hinged backrest that is in the aft sun pad,” he says. “All the components are mounted with sliding hinges so they can be easily removed for cleaning, as well as allowing access to a storage locker under the aft sun pad and the backrests to raise to an upright position on the forward sun pad.”
What’s one change you’ve made in your operation as your business has grown?
We’ve adopted a program to maintain cash flow and keep our staff during our six months of winter when boats are out of the water. In the fall, we load up with a heavy round of patterning for projects to build over the winter. Those customers make down payments in the fall; then from December through April they have monthly payments due for installations set to start in mid-April. That way I know my overhead is covered, and we have a steady production flow. The system spreads out our production schedule through the year, pushes new bookings to June, July and August, and makes our spring less crazy because we aren’t battling the weather for new patterns that need to be installed immediately. This system works well, because our pattern accuracy has us completing a project with often only two trips to the boat, so those can be spread between the fall pattern and spring install.