Shop talk with Jeri Perillo of Custom Canvas of Charleston Inc.

Published On: March 1, 2012Categories: Industry News, Management

Product focus

Because Charleston is home to so many large pleasure yachts, we tend to focus on those types of jobs. We do some smaller trailer boats, but most of our work centers around the many large yachts that call Charleston home, and the constant stream of transient yachts that like to stay in Charleston for a few months at a time to enjoy the culture and climate here. Charleston is home port to large and small Coast Guard ships, and we have worked with them for many years.

We love large, challenging jobs that involve some creativity and problem solving. Our son is now working with us and he is able to help with the large jobs that require two people to lug huge frames and panels. I am then able to stay in the shop along with our two seamstresses.

Staying diversified

We are strong believers in diversification and will not turn away a job because it is not a marine project. I feel like Rick on “Pawn Stars” who says, “I never know what’s going to walk through that door.”

You just never know what small project might turn into a lucrative relationship. One customer asking us to fabricate a cover for his 22-foot-long tandem kayak turned into a successful online business.

I would advise every fabricator to think of an original item they can market online so they have an additional stream of income without having to set foot on the docks.

On another occasion, a gentleman walked through our door and asked if we could fabricate a tent for him out of Phifertex mesh. He had been to a few other shops and no one could do what he wanted. He never really said what the tent was for but we made it for him—and he asked for six more. We found out he worked for SPAWAR, and this little tent turned into a nice government job.

A similar thing happened when a gray-haired, slightly disheveled older man walked into our shop with an old suitcase he asked me to repair. It was a small repair that took me a few minutes. I felt bad charging him for it so we just let it go. A few days later he showed up with some fabric and a drawing and asked us to build a trampoline for a small sailboat. It turned out he owns American Sail, a manufacturer of small sailboats, and since that day we have fabricated all his OEM canvas, including covers, trampolines, bags and cushions.

We also build quite a few porch enclosures, canvas sails and pieces for a playground equipment company, bright orange flaps for Department of Natural Resources and equipment covers.

Getting started

I wish I could say we did massive research, worked up a comprehensive business plan and followed a long-term dream of owning a canvas shop. Not! We got started in the marine canvas business quite by accident.

My husband, Jim, had just ended a two-year stint working for a large trucking company in Charleston as the driver manager and safety director for more than 100 trucks. It was the first time in his life he had not been self employed and he was burned out.

I was enjoying myself working as a tour guide and training horses for a carriage company in downtown Charleston, but I wasn’t planning on doing that long term.

Jim just happened to be looking in the “business for sale” section of the local paper and saw a one-person canvas shop for sale. “You like to sew and I grew up around boats, so let’s do this,” he remarked.

Within a couple months we had purchased the business. At that point the business was not big enough to support a family of five so Jim took a job with another trucking company and I took over the canvas business. Within a year and a half we had grown the business enough that Jim was able to quit his job and be part of Custom Canvas full time. And here we are now.