As one can imagine, a marine fabrication shop in Alaska can face some pretty extreme seasonal ups and downs, making diversification critical to survival. Consequently, when Devlin McKee and Eric Walton, co-partners of Fairbanks-based Custom Canvas Alaska LLC, opened their business in 2005, it wasn’t long before they began exploring additional markets.
They started the business from scratch, purchasing the necessary equipment and tools, such as benders, welders, sewing machines and needles. Initially, their focus was marine fabric, especially for the “river-type boats, jon-boats, flat-bottom boats, etc.” common to their area, says McKee. Marine fabrication made up about a third of their business, with the other two thirds consisting of awnings (which they build from the ground up), insulated covers for heavy equipment, winter fronts/grills for vehicles, and any other small jobs the company could fit into their space and time.
Now, in addition to those offerings, the company also provides portable shelters, custom bags, RV bras and skirts, side-by-side enclosures for ATVs, outdoor RV seats and covers, boat upholstery and replacement panels for fabric structures.
“Fairbanks is a pretty small town, and we had a small customer base, so we had to expand to other markets in order to be profitable year-round,” says McKee. “At this point, we’re about one-quarter marine, one-quarter portable shelters, one-quarter insulated covers and one-quarter other.”
Housed in the center of Fairbanks, the business draws from a very large area, from the North Slope down to Valdez in the south. Work from the North Slope comes to them, but about two years ago, sensing opportunity, McKee began traveling one weekend a month in the summer to Valdez (350 miles away), working on about three to five large boats during the season.
Another strategic decision was partnering with a company to make replacement panels for fabric structures. In order to take this on, they needed a larger facility. Custom Canvas Alaska moved from a 2,000-square-foot workspace to a 6,000-square-foot structure that is half tensioned fabric and half insulated panels, provided by that partner and rented by the company.
This has also allowed them to expand their season, since prior to moving into the structure about 10 years ago, much of their work took place outside. Now they’re able to pull the boats and other vehicles indoors, greatly speeding up the projects and getting the boats back on the water faster—important considering the short boating window, says McKee.
Making little steps here and there has been a good growth strategy, he says, adding they don’t want to stretch themselves too thin. Labor factors into this. Although the company has gone from one employee up to its current five (more are hired in the summer), McKee is the only one doing the patterning, not an ideal situation.
“It takes a really skilled person to do this,” he says. “I’ve tried to take on new guys but retaining them has been a challenge, especially in a small town where there isn’t a big labor force to pull from. So right now, we’re eyeing more advanced technology and equipment, and focusing on refining things, doing more things better and faster.”