How Mike Erickson grew his Canvas Designers business

Published On: March 1, 2009Categories: Features, Management

“I believe that as responsible corporate citizens, we must provide living wages for our employees,” says Mike Erickson, MFC, president and owner of Canvas Designers Inc. in Riviera Beach, Fla., who pays his staff above the industry standard. “I want employees who stay on long term.” And that’s exactly what he’s got, along with a thriving business. With 30 employees, Erickson has the largest custom marine canvas shop in the country, and his employees are dedicated, productive and valued—which is especially important now that Erickson is also serving as president of the Indian Trail Improvement District and on the Industrial Fabrics Association International board of directors, elected positions that require many hours a week on average.

The business and the employee successes weren’t born independently of each other. Erickson has the ability to look beyond the immediate circumstance, factor in challenges and goals, then apply new ideas and technologies without losing sight of the people who will move the process forward. It’s a perspective that has worked for Erickson and Canvas Designers, whose ongoing client list includes names like Jack Nicklaus, Ken Griffey Jr., Tiger Woods and Celine Dion.

A new view

Erickson’s ability to look at his business from multiple angles developed with practical experience. In the late 1990s, he had nine employees at Canvas Designers, the business was cutting deeply into family time and he was approaching burnout. At that time, he sold the business to move into the distribution end working for John Boyle & Co. (now Tri Vantage), and later as a marine manager for what is now Ferrari Textiles Corp. Though he excelled at that side of the industry, travel demands were substantial, and when he had the opportunity to buy Canvas Designers back, he did. It was a turning point that gave Erickson another way of thinking. “Going to the other side in distribution and manufacturing and coming back, I have a different perspective,” he says. “I got over the approach of: ‘This is how we do it and this is the only way that we do it.’”

Canvas Designer’s success is due to that kind of innovative approach to processes and procedures, according to Erickson. “Our scale and size has a lot to do with the efficiencies we’ve created through the development of technology for our industry,” he says. “We created the first enclosure that was done in 3-D anywhere in the country”—a process that takes 17 production hours out of the fabrication process on one enclosure.

Adjusting the rudder

In addition to embracing new technologies, Erickson, who, with a group of fellow fabricators, recently purchased window company EZ2CY, believes that as a leader driving the big picture, it’s necessary to avoid the trap of micromanaging employees. “Empowering your employees and giving them responsibilities is the only way you’re ever going to grow out of being a little cottage industry business,” Erickson says. In practice, that means identifying areas that can be delegated to others, providing the education and tools to the employees to enable them to fulfill their duties, and exercising patience as they hone their skills. “You’ve got to let go and you’ve got to understand that maybe the first attempt at giving an employee new responsibilities isn’t going to go as well as when you do it yourself,” he says. “But in the long range, they learn from it, they develop from it, and many times, because they have the ability to focus more on that responsibility than I was able to—wearing all the hats of the organization—they become better at it than I was.”

Sharing responsibilities and empowering employees creates a solid foundation and an environment conducive to experimenting with the workplace structure. It allows Erickson to pursue his workplace philosophy of a balance between work, play and family with characteristic enthusiasm and drive. Last summer, Erickson committed the company to embracing a four, 10-hour day work week, an approach they had unsuccessfully tried in the past. “The first time around, my wife, Pam, and I and a few others often ended up working on the day everyone else had off,” Erickson says. “Our ‘day off’ was Friday and that was our big error. Everybody wants their boat project completed by the weekend so they can go play.” This time around, the shop is closed on Monday, stays open Tuesday through Friday, and Canvas Designers and the employees are feeling the benefits.

Smooth sailing

One unanticipated benefit to the company is that they’re seeing a decline in overtime. “People tend to come in early or stay a little later to work on a project when they’re working an eight-hour day,” Erickson says. “But with the four-day week, people seldom do that, since after 10 hours, they want to go home.” The new approach also simplifies project management scheduling in that there is far less unanticipated personal time taken for appointments. Most times employees are able to schedule engagements on Mondays—making for less fluctuation in the work schedule and leaving PTO available for vacations or illnesses.

Part of Canvas Designer’s employee dedication stems from Erickson’s holistic approach to running a business. He believes in what amounts to “sharing the wealth,” which includes product discounts, making company tools available for employees to work on their own boats, and allowing “test drives” of Canvas Designer-owned boats. It also includes a barn-raising approach to hurricane preparation. When a hurricane alert is called, Erickson and his employees crew up to ready each other’s homes for the storm. “When we were preparing for the double hurricane year, we got it down to a system,” Erickson says. “All the employees would show up, we’d load up the work vans with drills, and we’d go around as teams to put the plywood up.”

Erickson seems to take it all in stride—his personal, professional and civic successes, and his drive to be responsible and innovative in his approaches. And Canvas Designers’ employees? If it’s Monday, they’re probably at home.

Sigrid Tornquist is a freelance author and editor based in St. Paul, Minn.