Growing a business against the odds
Signature CanvasMakers relies on hard work and ingenuity to build a thriving business during the recession.
Marine Fabricator | July 2012
By Sigrid Tornquist
“In the Navy they call it deckplate leadership,” says Chandler Clark, owner of Signature CanvasMakers in Hampton, Va. “It’s a leadership style that involves teamwork, common sense and taking care of your people—and I try to apply it to my dealings with customers and employees.”
Chandler, who owns the canvas shop that manufactures exterior and interior marine products, says he was first introduced to true leadership while serving in the U.S. Navy. When he was promoted to Chief Petty Officer, he underwent a training phase with other prospective Chiefs, designed to turn a group of individuals into a team of leaders. “It was challenging,” Chandler says. “We burned a lot of midnight oil, while working full time, but it is one of those things in life where you get out of it what you put into it.”
Although Clark enjoyed serving in the Navy, he always knew he would retire after 20 years and start another career—but he didn’t know what that career was going to be. “I knew I loved boating, and I knew I wanted a job where I could work in flip-flops and shorts and be outside much of the time,” Chandler says. “I also knew that since I was stationed in New Orleans while my wife Charlene was working and living in Hampton, Va., I needed something productive to occupy my free time.
Drawing on his resourcefulness, common sense and a penchant for teamwork, Chandler walked into a local sailmaker’s office and offered his services for free, providing they would teach him everything they knew about sailmaking and marine canvas. They agreed, and for two years he worked there during his time off.
He soon found that the sail loft manufactured a minimum of marine canvas, but still acquired some basic knowledge and opportunities for growth. “The first dodger I made I figured out on my own, and my approach was off,” Chandler says. “The more I worked to make it right, the uglier it got. At least the customer was happy, and that’s what matters, but I wasn’t sorry to see that dodger go down during Katrina.”
When Chandler retired from the Navy in 2006, he joined Charlene in Hampton and further honed his marine canvas skills by contracting with Jo Bostek, MFC, at her shop, Canvas and Cushions. “Working with someone as skilled as Jo was like getting a graduate degree for me,” Chandler says. “I learned a lot about technique and managing customer expectations.”
In 2008, just as the recession was hitting the U.S., Chandler transitioned from contracting to opening his own shop. Two years later Charlene quit her job marketing for Anheuser Busch and joined Chandler full time. “That moment was a turning point for the company,” Chandler says. “Charlene’s extensive customer service background has expanded our business and freed me up at the same time.”
Charlene applied her expertise to online marketing—implementing paid search advertising to boost website traffic and sales, and creating and maintaining a Facebook page. She also learned how to sew, and train other sewers, which enabled Chandler to spend more time with clients in the field.
Creating and maintaining an online presence is important, but it is the word-of-mouth and personal relationships the couple create that kept the company growing during the economic crisis. “Our approach to face-to-face marketing is as boaters who happen to have a canvas shop,” Chandler says. “We’re on the docks all the time—if we’re not doing a job, then we’re there on our own boat. That connection immediately gives us common ground and credibility.”
The online and face-to-face marketing has paid off—the company has grown 40 percent of gross each year since 2008. “The growth is great but managing it is a challenge,” Chandler says. “It seems the larger we get, the more challenging it becomes.”
One way they have found to manage the dramatic increase in canvas work is to occasionally sub out some of the company’s “non-core” work to other, reputable companies. “There are times when it makes sense to work with a third-party vendor for certain aspects of a large job, which allows us to stay focused on our core business,” Chandler says.
As the company grows, Chandler says they’ll likely incorporate technology at some point, such as digitizing patterns, but notes that a company’s success always comes down to having the right employees, no matter how much technology you have.
Chandler relies on four management strategies as he works with his employees to provide quality products, on time: educate, empower, involve and reward. “The more people understand about what they’re making and what the end product should be, the better the result,” Chandler says. “The sewer visits a boat to learn about patterning and installing because that gives perspective to what’s being sewn, and the patterner/installer spends time learning how the pieces go together because that affects how the pattern is drawn.”
Instilling a feeling of empowerment into his staff is vital to forming an effective team, Chandler says. “Everyone has a say in what and how a task is addressed. If a job is particularly challenging, the group discusses the options and comes to a consensus.”
Chandler makes sure everyone on staff is able to easily track a project’s progress by using a schedule management system posted on the shop wall. “And reward—that’s pretty self-explanatory,” he says. “Pay your employees well and make sure they know you value them.”
When it comes to dealing with customers, Chandler’s strategy is as simple as honest and open communication. “For example, we work hard to complete projects on schedule,” Chandler says.
“Sometimes that means telling a customer that we are scheduled 10 weeks out when what they want to hear is that we will have it to them in two weeks. We would rather start the relationship on the right foot than to promise something we can’t deliver.”