Hit the road with a mobile shop

Published On: July 1, 2010Categories: Features

Mobile shops accelerate business opportunities and drive new customers.

Marine fabricators that serve customers who keep their boats on the water must take their workshops on the road. For some, going mobile is as straightforward as tossing a tool bag into the back of a truck for a quick measure or installation. For others, it could be as complex as outfitting a large trailer with sewing machines, tube benders and a complete inventory of tools, fabrics and fasteners.

Going mobile isn’t simple or inexpensive. There are investments to make in a vehicle, duplicate tools and materials, and time to plan and organize trips. And there’s the cost of missed opportunities for walk-in business while working on the road. Yet, the flexibility of a mobile shop makes it possible for a new canvas business to break into a local market, or for an established canvas shop to expand its service area and customer base.

Steve Griffith of Marine Tops Unlimited in Madison, Wis., serves several cities over a wide area. He uses his mobile shop to do pattern work and installations. “Neither one of our shops are located on the water,” he says. “A lot of times, we’re traveling upwards of 20 to 30 miles to get a job and then do the work. So having the mobile shop is a necessity.”

Seth Hetherington of Mobile Marine Canvas Co., in Harpswell, Maine, is a licensed manufacturer for EZ2CY and travels the east coast from Maine to Connecticut and Rhode Island in order to provide service to his customers. Justin Jones of Custom Covers in Salt Lake City, Utah, added travel to his business when local economic conditions changed. Jones says, “We used to do everything in-house; our market was all trailerable ski boats.” When that market collapsed with the economy, Jones expanded his customer base to include the larger boats and houseboats on area lakes. “We’ve since started doing work in places like Lake Powell, which is a five-hour drive from here, or Flaming Gorge, which is about a three-hour drive,” he says.

Jeff Viehmeyer of Alameda Canvas & Coverings in Alameda, Calif., relied on his mobile shop to help establish his business. Viehmeyer says his website promoted that convenience for his customers. “We would come to you,” he says. “The ability to do that and the fact that you come equipped and look professional is reassuring.” Viehmeyer’s new shop is located in a boatyard with docking facilities, so he rarely takes jobs that require travel. “I still keep the mobile setup in the van, and I do, about once a month, end up using it for something very useful,” he says.

Van go

Viehmeyer uses a Ford E-150 conversion that has a van body with a finished interior, complete with carpeting, heat, large side windows, electrical wiring and an auxiliary battery. There is an extended top for standing headroom inside, good for moving around when working and storing tall items. “I found that going up in height was just as good as going longer, and it’s easier to drive and park a standard-sized vehicle,” he says.

Viehmeyer added an inverter for the sewing machine and has fabricated complete covers on site, but said it is difficult to maneuver large canvas pieces and window panels in the van. “For the odd emergency, for the repair, for the little goof that you want to fix, it’s very practical,” he says. “To do much more, you need a larger, specialty purpose vehicle or trailer. In the Bay Area with the heavy traffic and restrictive parking, it’s not so practical.”

Hetherington has a diesel Dodge Sprinter with 80 inches of standing room inside, which he is setting up for on-site metal work, including the machinery and tools necessary to build complex frames: a drill press, tube cutters, notchers, crowners and benders. His Sprinter will be equipped with a battery system and inverter to power a small 20-amp, 110-volt welder and two crowners. “I’ll be able to install the frame without having any frame bent when we get there,” he says. “The first step in the process of fabricating a major system is getting a frame in place. From that point, we get all the patterns.”

Packed and loaded

Hetherington decided to hold off installing a sewing machine in the Sprinter and use the van for delivery and installation, with all the fabricating done in his Harpswell shop. His current vehicle is a 2003 Volkswagen Eurovan with a modified interior and tooling bench. “We use this Volkswagen Eurovan as a quick-run vehicle to the job site when we don’t need the Sprinter,” he says. He plans to use the Sprinter exclusively in the future. “I’m actually installing a house battery system that will invert a pretty good size golf-cart battery to 110 volts so I can run drills, heat guns, pretty much any kind of equipment and charge the batteries for our drills,” he says. “It even has a diesel heater that uses the fuel that the vehicle runs on to heat the inside of the Sprinter shop in cold weather.”

Jones uses a Ford cargo van on his multi-day trips. “When I first started, I put a regular sewing machine in the van,” he says. “Now I just have a portable machine that I can even take right on the boat with me.”

His mobile shop configuration is restricted by the limitation national park regulations place on businesses and concessionaires within the park. A large van or trailer just isn’t an option. Jones’s typical trip starts in Salt Lake City, takes five hours to get to the north end of Lake Powell, four hours to the south end of the lake, and seven hours home. He plans to trim an hour off an upcoming trip from one end of the lake to the other by using his ski boat instead of driving. “We’d really like to get a little pontoon boat geared up with our tools and equipment,” he says. “We can leave it docked to our houseboat at the north end and just take it south whenever necessary.”

Mobile convenience

Griffith’s mobility is key to his business. He has carved out a section of the market by providing better customer service than his competitors.

“We spend a lot of time traveling from our establishment to wherever the boat is parked in the water or at the people’s homes, providing a little bit of a niche service industry,” he says.

Griffith’s on-site focus is largely repair work. He said they don’t do a lot of new construction due to the size and not having enough room in a mobile facility to lay things out on a big table and cut things the way they should be.

“If we’re doing an installation on an enclosure or a set of windows and we need to move a zipper or there’s a piece of binding that’s come loose or there’s a cut-out that you forgot, then you have the ability at that time to save yourself a lot of travel time by doing that service or performing that operation at the site rather than having to go all the way back to the shop and sew it over,” he says.

The primary reason many fabricators set up mobile shops is to avoid wasting time traveling back and forth between a boat and their canvas shop after discovering a problem during installation or a tool missing from the travel bag. Just setting up a mobile shop, though, may not eliminate those inefficiencies. Careful planning is essential to avoid wasting time on road trips: plotting the route, deciding which tools and materials to take and laying out the on-site task sequence.

“If you want to pull an eight-hour day and you have to drive three hours to get there, you’ve got to get there ready to go, organized and well thought out,” Heatherington says. The van has to be loaded in a way to facilitate completing all the planned work within the designated time period. Jones organizes his trips around the finished projects’ destinations and makes sure to load the van in the reverse order.

Sudden shifts in the weather can spoil even the most carefully made plans. “If the weather forecast changes and becomes unsuitable for patterning, you’ve lost a huge productive window,” Heatherington says. Bad weather may force him to spend additional days on the job. “Sometimes we have to spend the night, either in the van or at a hotel, and go back in the morning and continue the process until we have the pattern process completed,” he says.

Marketing tool

But, while the weather can ruin plans for patterning and installations, marketing and other customer service jobs can continue any time, under any conditions. Griffith includes marketing and pricing materials with his travel equipment. He can produce proposals on the docks, right from the computer in his van.

Being on site in a marina with a van, truck or trailer emblazoned with the canvas business’ name on the side is one way to build business. A clean and well-organized van assures prospective customers of quality work. It’s a valuable marketing tool, one that people can see with their own eyes. A boat owner may drag a tattered cover to the mobile shop while the fabricator is installing a new cover nearby, ask for a quick repair or a quote for a new cover. These chance encounters provide fabulous word-of-mouth advertising opportunities.

“Hey, see that guy working over there? He just fixed my cover. You should see his van—he’s got a canvas shop in the back!”

Mary Jo Morris previously owned and operated Berkeley Marine Canvas in Berkeley, Calif. She and her husband, Jim, live in Point Richmond, Calif., and sail on San Francisco Bay.