By Kathryn J. Maisto, MFC
Whether your business is merchandising, servicing or manufacturing in the marine canvas industry, owners of small businesses often share the same primary concerns: how to keep busy in the off-season and how to effectively hire, train and retain quality employees without breaking the bank. But knowing the warning signs of when not to grow your business by hiring additional employees or taking on additional product lines can be just as valuable. Drawing from the growing pains I’ve experienced in my own business, this article will provide insights for both one-person canvas shops and businesses with a handful of employees about how and when to expand your business.
Identify your challenges
It is important to identify what specific challenges your business is facing, particularly when you’re encountering workload inconsistencies. Is competition overload bringing you down? Are your struggles due to geographic location or inadequate marketing strategies? Maybe your problem is related to substandard product quality or limited customer relations. Unfortunately, many young businesses will suffer a variety of these issues at the same time. Bringing in more employees does not always guarantee a higher volume of work, and this move can be quite costly.
Well-seasoned business owners have learned the art of workload consistency and use it to their advantage. Operating a full-time marine canvas shop in the seasonal Midwest location of Racine, Wis., has forced us to wise up about how our geographic location and competition were contributing to the highs and lows of our workloads. We responded by implementing different planning strategies in financing, peak time workload scheduling, and hiring and training practices. Operating a full-time business in a seasonal climate creates many challenges, and it has taken time for my company to identify and solve them.
Year-round workload consistency is key
Most marine businesses have peak and slack times. Peak season can be stressful, usually involving larger volumes of work with shorter periods to complete projects. Making a financial or expansion decision, or even taking on work that normally is out of your company’s realm during peak times can be catastrophic, if you’re not properly staffed. Many marine canvas shops start out operating with one or two people. Usually these shops will run hard and heavy during their peak season, sometimes working 12- to 14-hour days and weekends. Then they hit a brick wall with no work lined up for the off-season and they struggle terribly.
Being located on Lake Michigan, we have a peak season from April to November. Because our season is so short, we concentrate on marine canvas only during peak months. All upholstery, cleaning, repair and odd projects are done in the off-season, which evens out our inconsistent workload.
Prioritize money makers
Start with prioritizing your product line for peak and slack times; then separate the “money makers” from the “time wasters.” Every product should have its own set of standards, even if you are a one-person shop. Standards should include geographic perimeters—in other words, determine how far you will travel for a job before you lose money. For example, we will travel two hours to Chicago for a full enclosure but would never go there for just a bimini top.
Establish guidelines for how that product will be patterned, fabricated and delivered. Educating your clients on this process reassures them you have standards. Be consistent. Boaters talk and word gets out!
Create ways for the time wasters to become money makers. For example, our guideline for repairs is we do not pick up or deliver—it’s a time waster. All repairs have a minimum one-hour labor fee, no matter how minor the repair, which now makes it a money maker! Setting aside a day each week for repairs is another way to maintain consistency in your shop and with your clients.
If you find yourself so overwhelmed during your peak season that you’re turning work away or not returning phone calls, remember that project could be an off-season job. Peak season products for any company should be offered year-round, but it takes foresight. Set aside time each week to reach out to those prospective clients to bid the job. Explain you will pattern their job toward the end of peak season and fabricate during the winter/slack time. This locks in your contract. As our season nears its slack time, we concentrate on patterning all the jobs we secured over the summer to give us a consistent 12-month flow of work.
Know the right time to grow
Here are some signs your business might be ready to grow:
- You are proficient in fabricating and delivering your products, yet find you are turning work away because you can’t meet the deadlines.
- You are continually scheduled out months in advance, maintain a consistent cash flow, and manage your income to reflect a consistent monthly year-round income.
- Your clients are asking for products you do not offer.
Whether you choose to hire an additional employee or take on a new product line, timing is everything. Grow your business during the slack time of your season. When I hire or bring in a new product, I do it during the winter months. I have found that hiring a new employee under normal workload conditions allows for more in-depth and less stressful training, with a higher success rate for that employee.
Train employees and yourself
Enhancing your product line will bring value to your bottom line and help generate consistency to your workload. Sometimes, however, this requires business owners to go through training themselves. Often, a business owner’s fear gets in the way of expansion. Invest in yourself and others will invest in you. Let’s face it, if we were trained in every facet of our business from the beginning, inconsistent workload would not be a problem. Learning new and advanced techniques as an owner, and training employees, brings value to your company. I look forward to our off-season because I know I will be implementing something new each year. I can address something lacking in the industry and uncover a way to expand the business.
Expanding beyond the bottom line
After running an established, profitable business for so many years, I felt a desire to share my knowledge and experience with others wanting to pursue work in the marine canvas industry. And so, Fairwinds Canvas Training Center was formed. My qualified staff maintains a steady workload in our canvas fabrication area during our off-season, while I train students from all over the country in the art of marine canvas. The programs we offer have proven to be very successful, and we are seeing many canvas shops opening due to our training programs and techniques.
Over the years, I have realized our industry requires more extended hands-on training, so we have implemented a paid internship program for our students. We offer a full-time position that lasts from one to four months. This allows interns to develop their skills and experience the nuts and bolts of our trade. They bring in fresh ideas and supply us with short-term support. Interns often bring enthusiasm and motivation to the workplace, while we offer them the confidence to continue in the artful trade of the marine canvas industry. It’s definitely a win-win for everyone.
Kathryn J. Maisto, MFC, of Fairwinds Canvas/ Fairwinds Canvas Training Center, Racine, Wis., started her career as a one-person shop in 2000. Now she is a certified Master Fabric Craftsman operating with employees and teaching the trade.