Quality details make a brand, not just a business

Published On: July 1, 2019Categories: Exterior, Shop Techniques

Details and quality make the difference. 

By Dave Elliott, MFC

As a founding member of the Australian Marine Fabricators Association (MFA), I’ve spent many years talking to and mentoring other fabricators, as well as doing presentations in the U.S. and Australia for our industry. My general observation is that trimmers and upholsterers lack business knowledge and a sense of self-worth. Fabricators are confused about how much our work is worth, which causes them to undervalue our experience and knowledge. If a plumber or auto mechanic can charge $120 per hour, then the knowledge we hold as quality fabricators is worth at least that
or more. 

This all-weather sailboat enclosure by David’s Custom Trimmers won a 2019 MFA Outstanding Achievement Award. The rear curtains needed to be interchangeable and adaptable to allow for various combinations of zipping together clear and mesh panels. Airflow was an important request, so the curtains were terminated on the bottom life line. Three of the front dodger windows are removable for extra airflow in the tropics. Each window and mesh panel in the aft enclosure have matching zippers to allow for a combination of fixing scenarios.

When I do presentations or write columns like this one, I try to emphasize the value of the knowledge we are offering. Some of the tips in this column are from a deluxe enclosure workshop I presented with Steve Szenay, MFC, Serge Ferrari North America Inc., during the 2019 MFA Conference onboard the Queen Mary. The 80-plus years of knowledge we passed along to other fabricators was worth a great deal. The tips you’ll find in this column are valuable as well.

I don’t offer my expertise so that you can undercut the competition. Rather, it’s meant to add value to your business, so that you can improve your skills and enhance the quality of your projects. 

Creating a brand versus making a sale 

I have created a brand with the motto, “quality only with no compromise.” An important part of that is selling confidence and product knowledge to customers. Selling a particular fabric to a client relies on knowing and explaining its characteristics, product details, applications, strengths and weaknesses. This gives the client a great picture of why a fabric will suit a certain application. The design of a cover or enclosure, and all the choices available for different clear and border fabrics, threads and zippers, is where the knowledge helps with selling myself and getting a higher price. 

I use only quality fabrics and accessories. Customers don’t get cheaper options to choose from. I test all new products and have done so for 40 years. I have an outside test wall that has fabrics, thread, clear and clips, all dated and exposed to all seasons. I also have return clients who bring back work that is 10–15 years old and ask to have the same again. The quality of my work is always the same; that is part of my brand. 

Right size, right customers

My business currently has myself and two tradespeople and my wife in the office. In the past, I have had five tradespeople and realized I was losing quality control. I find the size of the business now is a great balance of quality and profit margin. A big thing is finding a balance between work and happiness for you, your family and your employees.

I don’t try to please too many customers by taking on all available jobs. Ensuring a quality project for us and our customers starts with the initial customer contact. Our first question is always the time frame and where the boat is located. All customers are advised what the wait time is
to see if that fits with their schedule. This helps eliminate time wasters. 

All quoting is done face-to-face and onboard the boat. Estimates are given via email and “ballpark” phone calls. We tell potential clients to send us an email with photos, the jobs required and all contact details. Once received, they are in the system from the date of the email, with the finish date yet to be booked in. If they require “just a quote” or “only a ballpark figure,” we tell them we are one of the most expensive shops. If they don’t supply photos and details, no further action is required and no more of our time is wasted. 

The challenge for fabricators is to increase their business smarts and gain confidence to properly value their work. In the end, what we do as fabricators is work to make money for our families. The one thing true to my heart is to raise the standards of our work and help people in our trade understand how much effort it takes to become masters in our field. 

Dave Elliott, MFC, owns David’s Custom Trimmers in Wakerley, Queensland, Australia.