Turn on the radio, read the newspaper, or watch the evening news and you’d be hard-pressed not to find articles and news segments discussing the ongoing financial woes our nation is facing. Many financial aficionados will agree the past two years will go into the economic history books as unforgettable, as progress toward a renewed economy is slow at best. For marine fabricators, the economic downturn is two-fold, with many facing the slowdown in the economy as well as the seasonality of the industry, when the “off season”—most often during the winter months—can alter their bottom line and level of profitability.
Marine fabricators have one thing in common—a desire to optimize profits, inventory and shop efficiencies. But during the slower times of the year, that can be challenging.
For Jay Hanks at Allerton Harbor Canvas in Hull, Mass., their “off season” begins in December of each year and continues through February. “We try to encourage customers to contact us in September or October for winter projects,” he says. “During this time, we work on jobs that are patterned, as well as cushions and repairs.”
So what do fabricators classify as “slow time”? It really depends on whom you ask, where they are located, and the size of their business. For Hanks, the “off season” is when customers are not expecting their completed project immediately and scheduling can be done to fit the company’s workload.
While Tom Matson and his team at Afton Marina & Yacht Club in Afton, Minn., really don’t have an “off season,” they do have small slow downs between fall and winter, and again between winter and spring. “‘Slow time’ for us is defined as having a work load where we are out no less than two weeks,” Matson says. “Winter and early spring is normally a transition time when the boats are either going into the water or coming out of the water.”
And while winter is traditionally seen as when boat fabricator projects slow to a trickle for fabricators within Minnesota and the greater Midwest, Matson has a unique situation at Afton Marina.
“By being employed by the marina, we have access to the entire facility, including the use of the travel lift and hydraulic trailers,” he says. “Late in the boating season, our sales approach changes. We start lining up our winter work projects.”
These projects usually include the larger fabrications, such as those involving biminis with full enclosures and larger bridge covers.
“We attract potential customers with a labor discount, free storage, and free handling of the boat,” Matson says. “And we explain the best reason for the winter work is that they will not be without their boat during the short boating season.”
Afton Marina’s service department still charges for winterization of the boat, and it is the canvas department that shrink-wraps the boat, but these costs are usually similar to the charges the customer would pay at their own marinas.
“Late in the fall, the customer will bring their boat here to Afton Marina from their home marinas,” Matson explains. “The service department will winterize their boat, haul it out of the water, and block it on land. The boat is then shrink-wrapped for the winter.” Shrink-wrap is one of the services offered by the canvas department at the marina. “We typically wrap around 150 boats, starting the first of October and lasting sometimes until Thanksgiving,” Matson says.
When it comes time to work on their customers’ projects during the off season, each boat is picked up off of the blocks with a hydraulic trailer and moved into one of Afton Marina’s service bays, where the shrink wrap is rolled forward and the canvas fabrication project is completed.
“Once the customer approves and pays for the project, the shrink wrap is then put back in place on the boat and the boat is put back outside where it stays until spring launch,” Matson says. “Usually while the boat is here, additional work is authorized—ranging from mechanical to fiberglass work. This is a good way to increase revenue for all of the marina’s departments.”
Many fabricators take advantage of the slower time to assess their procedures and make necessary changes in their processes with the goal of streamlining their operations and efficiencies.
For instance, Afton Marina uses DockMaster software, a program that allows them to assign an operation code to every type of product that they make. “This allows us to evaluate how many of each product we produced in the year, and it also allows us to anticipate the next year’s potential,” Matson says.
To further improve the revenue during slower months, Charlie Klein, owner of Dorsal Sails and Canvas in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., offers a 10 percent discount after Labor Day to further encourage their customers to book their work during the quieter months. “We are open year round, which surprises some people at 45 degrees north,” Klein says. “I sometimes have my staff—three young folks—on reduced hours of 32 hours per week in December and January, but usually by late February our season is off and running. Up here it is all about having peoples’ boats ready for the short season.”
Klein says he and his team are lucky to be working for most of the marinas in the area, all of which have heated indoor winter storage facilities, making winter the ideal time for large enclosure replacements.
“We have also been lucky to have a fair amount of both new sail projects and new upholstery projects in the winter,” Klein says.
Carl Pellegrini, owner of SeaCanvas in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., says their “off season” begins in December and runs through mid-March. While SeaCanvas has never closed for the off-season, starting in the fall the company begins fabricating their “Exact Fit Winter Covers” for sailboats and small powerboats.
“As December comes, those covers are usually completed and we begin to concentrate on interior and exterior boat upholstery,” Pellegrini says. “In the Northeast, a fair amount of powerboats are shrink-wrapped with u-zipper access ports. We start to schedule our spring work in the early fall and, when possible, we will pattern complete enclosures inside the shrink-wrapped boat. A 40-degree sunny winter day is comfortable inside a wrapped boat. Of course, these boats are hardtop boats and not bimini structures.”
Taking the time to market
On the strategic level, marketing and the “off season” go hand-in-hand. For many marine fabricators in colder climes, the short, busy season simply doesn’t allow them to establish strategic marketing plans—essentially identifying a company’s short- and long-term objectives in terms of profitable product and service-area development, company positioning within several market segments, and the targeting of prospective customers.
That’s why more and more fabricators recognize that the quiet winter months are ideal times to market their company, connecting with current, former and prospective clients. “We plan on sending an email blast or two in September or October to encourage our customers to contact us to avoid the spring rush,” Hanks says.
Indeed, for Afton Marina, once winter hits and the snow starts flying, they don’t usually get any more boats coming to the marina. “We do, however, continue to offer repair services for canvas,” Matson says. “And in January, we have an exhibit in the Minneapolis Boat Show. This is a good way to talk to potential customers and to show examples of our products and services.”
Klein with Dorsal Sails and Canvas says they rarely have the time to evaluate or predict next year—even during their short, quieter “off season.” “We pretty much just react to stuff as it comes through the door,” he says. “QuickBooks and my accountant let me know how we are doing.”
This fall Pellegrini plans to market his company’s “Exact Fit Winter Covers” idea to marinas and boat owners with the idea they can secure more work and complete the enclosures in the winter and have it ready to install the first possible day in the spring.
Because SeaCanvas’ slowest period falls in January and February, Pellegrini and his team spend one week in January at the annual MFA event and one week in February is spent at the Atlantic City International Boat Show.
“Fabricating those windows patterned under the wrapped boats is now our focus, while we also meet with new customers at the shop to schedule spring work,” Pellegrini says. “Every winter we evaluate how the shop could be more efficient and how we can fabricate a better product. While I believe we have our style and fabrication steps in line, we still will try a different approach. You just don’t know when a new process will work better than the current if you don’t try. Winter is a more relaxed time, a time to be creative and have some fun.”
Maura Keller is a freelance writer from Plymouth, Minn.