When he’s not patterning and installing boat covers or managing sales and customer relations, sports enthusiast Kyle Van Damme spends his free time boating, coaching track and field, and cheering for the Minnesota Vikings. Basketball, however, is his sport of choice for analogies about growing up—and growing a business—in the marine fabrication industry.
Likening his first time attending the annual Marine Fabricators Conference to rookies entering the NBA, the co-owner of Marine Tops Unlimited Inc. in Omro, Wis., recalls being quickly humbled by the experience.
Similar to a college ballplayer joining the professional association, Van Damme arrived at the conference confident and eager to make a name for himself. He was barely in his 20s at the time but had worked for nearly a decade at the company he now owns with his father, Carl, who started the business with Van Damme’s grandfather Harry in 1982.
Van Damme spent his childhood summers boating around the Great Lakes with his family. As his interest in boating increased, he worked his way up at Marine Tops through middle and high school, starting with basic tasks around the shop such as sweeping and taking out the trash. Over time, he became skilled at every step of the fabrication process and was soon completing patterning and installation projects as a teenager.
“I knew I was good at my job. But meeting and learning from industry leaders from across the country at that conference helped me realize I could be a lot better. My goal was to continually learn from the best of the best—to be a sponge that soaks in as much knowledge as possible and builds on it year after year.”
Almost 10 years later, Van Damme has delivered on—and remains committed to—this aspiration. In 2018, he achieved Master Fabric Craftsman certification for marine interiors and exteriors, demonstrating the highest level of expertise in all phases of product design, craftsmanship and installation.
That same year, he conquered another feat: expanding Marine Tops’ production shop. The company specializes in custom marine canvas and upholstery applications, including cockpit and mooring covers, bimini tops and enclosures, and upholstery and carpeting. It serves all of Wisconsin and some surrounding areas from three locations across the state: the main production facility, owned by Van Damme and Carl, plus two satellite shops in Madison and Harshaw.
“To increase business, we needed to increase our work space,” Van Damme says. “But effort, time and money were major obstacles.” He drafted floor plan designs on and off for three years, adjusting for cost and operational efficiencies until he and Carl realized their dream could become a reality with the right layout and a shared commitment to sweat equity.
“My dad and I worked nonstop for a year, going straight from a full workday at our old shop to spending the entire evening building out our new space. But it was more than worth it. We now have over triple the amount of room, which has been a game changer for our business.”
For Van Damme, the greatest reward throughout the multiyear endeavor was witnessing Carl’s passion for their work intensify.
“It took me a few years to decide to become my dad’s successor, and I could tell my uncertainty had dimmed some of his enthusiasm,” he says.
Van Damme studied business at the University of Wisconsin–Oshkosh for a year after graduating high school. He then transferred to a local trade school that specializes in technology, where he earned two associate degrees. “I learned a lot from those experiences, but they helped confirm that marine fabrication is my true passion. The deeper I dive into the work, the more I want to learn and do. It’s been fun to see how my drive and excitement for the business have rejuvenated my dad’s as well.”
The expansion was not without growing pains; Van Damme learned the hard way that more does not always mean better—at least not right away. “We took on too much too soon; our plate did not have enough room for everything we were trying to put on it,” he says. “That was a tough lesson for us to learn, but it forced us to improve scheduling and efficiencies. We are in a much better place now, and I come to work every day to make something better than the last time we did it. Our main concern is not how much we can do but how we can ensure our products are the highest quality—and then we determine how much can we do while maintaining that quality.”
Van Damme has also improved operations by investing in technology. Marine Tops uses digital tools to measure and design at least 80% of its projects. CAD software typically has a steep price tag—and an even steeper learning curve—but Van Damme says the benefits have been invaluable. His team has achieved significant time savings and cutting-edge designs and accuracies. “These tools have so much potential we haven’t tapped into yet, and I’m excited to see how we’ll use them over the next several years.”
The technology’s appeal to younger generations is another critical benefit Van Damme hopes to help more industry peers recognize. “Younger workers have different motivations than previous generations, and we need to acknowledge that as we engage them. I have the privilege of being incredibly passionate about my work, and it’s important for me to share that passion and make this industry an attractive option for them. The CAD wave in our industry is going to help with that a lot.”
Last year, Van Damme hired a CAD-certified employee to manage and accelerate the company’s CAD capabilities. “He’s incredibly skilled, but the challenge is that understanding CAD is just the tip of the iceberg; he still has so much more to learn about our business and our products,” Van Damme says. “I love how unique our industry is, but that also makes it harder to attract, train and retain new employees. The better our strategy is for bringing in new talent, the better we can all be as an industry together.”
Holly Eamon is a business writer and editor based in Minneapolis, Minn.
Project snapshot: A tall order
In 2020, a Marquis yacht owner in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., requested a new enclosure that would provide clear line of sight while driving the boat and strong protection and longevity for the boat’s second-story seating area, as it was often used for entertaining and as a living area.
In addition to fabricating sun shade screens for the inside of the enclosure, Marine Tops used Makrolon® Marine 5 polycarbonate clear product and Stamoid to fabricate the window panels. From patterning to installation, the project spanned four weeks. The panels’ lofty size and location made it difficult to install, requiring the team to stand on the bow rail to install snaps on the enclosure’s side portions and crawl up to the windshield to do the front snaps. Photo: Kyle Van Damme
Sidebar: Q and A
What boating trends are you seeing?
It takes a few years for coastal trends to reach us in the Midwest, so right now we’re seeing a surge in pontoon popularity. The boats are becoming more sophisticated; they’re wider and longer and have more horsepower. This means our covers also need to be more complex, which requires more intricate measurements, patterns and stitching.
These new features are driving up the cost of new pontoons. Many boat owners are choosing to spend money on upgrades instead of new purchases. We’re doing a lot of rehabbing and getting several requests to put in all new flooring and upholstery. With ongoing inflation, I expect this trend will continue and more people will be willing to put more money into their used boats.