By Terri Madden
When I moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, and registered my business 23 years ago, I had only $2,000 in my pocket. It bought me the key to the door of an 800-square-foot space with a few worn-out tools and tables. I paid the lawyer who drew up the paperwork in the form of fresh tuna from the dock. Since then I have weathered hurricanes, earthquakes, a 15-year recession and a bankrupt government. My shop has grown into an awesome 3,200-square-foot space and our services have expanded thanks to customer requests as well as upgrading our equipment, improving our skills and networking with fabricators around the world.
Even during a pandemic, sun, wind and rain take their toll on every imaginable material. Like everyone, we were unprepared for COVID-19, but we have realigned, counted our blessings and adjusted our expectations. Every crisis our shop has encountered has created new markets and opportunities. When I look back, I see that each setback strengthened our business and opened new profit lines we were “too busy” to consider before.
So, here’s my hard-won advice about how you and your shop can successfully navigate these currently stormy seas.
Reevaluate budget items and expenses
Make a new short-term, mid-term and long-term budget: Consider what you planned to do in 2020 versus what has changed and what you can do differently to reach your financial and business goals now. Adjust and reevaluate your personnel needs, training, equipment upgrades, advertising, etc.
Apply for loans and emergency aid:This includes local financing opportunities and SBA debt-forgiveness loans. Are there other options to consider for making ends meet during loss of income?
Monitor your expenses carefully: If you don’t enjoy a deep dive into your books, hire a bookkeeper. Even though the additional expense may seem unaffordable, it can liberate you to do what you like to do, which creates more income and profit.
Continue marketing: Update your website and increase the wow factor of the work you show online. Have an easily visible link that prospective customers can click on to send you a request. Create flyers to generate excitement using impressive images of your profitable projects. There are online freelance marketplaces, such as Fiverr (www.fiverr.com), where you can find people who will provide business services for a fixed price.
Get serious about making a profit: Carefully plan and review each project based on a set time and price for each phase/step as well as the materials used. Compare these figures to your actual time and materials budget to see the actual total expense. Achieving a 65 percent profit is the only way to ensure your business will grow.
Rethink your shop areas: Rearrange your shop for the best flow based on your most frequent projects. We reconfigure areas of our shop almost yearly as equipment and storage needs change.
Renegotiate your ongoing expenses: This includes your cell phone contract, your internet service, even your electricity. Discuss reduced lease or rental payments. Our landlord offered to cut our April and May rent payment before I even inquired.
Contact vendors and salespeople: Building good relationships with vendors and salespeople helps you ask for flexibility and renegotiate credit terms, if necessary. This is especially helpful for timely turnarounds and special offers.
Source the best shipping rates and delivery options: We use various shipping services—by boat, overnight air and 3-5 day mailing services—as well as USPS. Check out IFAI member discounts that may work for your location.
Consider other revenue sources
Hospitality: Historic low occupancy rates could present opportunities for fabricators. Investigate hotels’ needs for interior and exterior furnishings. Build a good relationship with purchase managers and consider walking around hotel premises to evaluate their needs so you can offer solutions and build confidence.
Restaurants and shopping malls: These commercial venues have an ongoing need for interior and exterior enclosures, seating repairs and upgrades. What would it take for you to provide these services? Consider how you could provide for bulk pickup and delivery, as time frames are often tight, at night or prior to opening hours.
Residential work: Every boat owner has an office or home. Someone is providing services when their furnishings require upgrades. Tap into this market by upselling your talents and offering ideas for walls and interior and exterior furniture. Build relationships with interior designers. They invariably subcontract all their custom work, why not to you?
Aviation and antique car services: These customers take great pride in their interiors and frequently use leather for complex seating, headliners and flooring similar to marine upholstery.
Online business: Do you make anything that could be sold profitably online?
Government contracts: You need to be an approved vendor for bidding on government contracts on invoices more than $3,000. If you haven’t applied before, there are online guidelines for you to follow. IFAI also offers sources and tools for bidding government contracts (www.ifai.com/covid-19).
Expand your skills and network
Consider joining forces with other fabricators: Signature CanvasMakers in Hampton, Va., teamed up with Beach Upholstery, Virginia Beach, Va., and local furloughed sewing talent to produce 1,600 protective masks with a one-week turnaround for the crew of the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship based in Norfolk, Va. The ramp-up effort assisted not only the Navy, but also the fabricators and local sewers unexpectedly furloughed from their jobs.
Investigate new resources: There are many sources for foam and vinyl you may not have considered using, and many of them are IFAI members. For example, Reliatex Inc. is a diversified family business with three locations in Florida. It provides more than 135 boat manufacturers with OEM vinyl and foam and keeps OEM patterns for five years. Existing customers can source replacement materials and/or submit patterns for CNC foam cutting. The company has a large selection of all types of products, including marine flooring and 137 types of foam (www.reliatex.com).
Increase your know-how: If you have some downtime, schedule staff training to upgrade skills. Take advantage of IFAI’s Video Technical Library, where you’ll find numerous how-to training videos on sewing, tools, equipment, patterning and automation (www.ifai.com/video-library).
Add shade sails to your lineup: IFAI member Wholesale Shade in San Marcos, Calif., offers free courses through its Shade Sail University. This is a complete guide to shade sail design and installation (www.wholesaleshade.com).
Look to the future
Reevaluate tomorrow based on today: How or what will you change to prepare for a future disruption to your business income? What lessons have you learned? What are your most significant vulnerabilities?
Prepare for the new normal: Are you set up to handle requests when boats are back on the water? Can you pivot to a new revenue stream? Can you keep producing PPE products in addition to marine products?
Consider expansion opportunities: Now is a good time to plan for growth. A fellow fabricator recently purchased a large rural space near several large lakes that included buildings to house vessels during the winter months. Now he has year-round projects conveniently located on his property. He rents storage space to out-of-state boat owners and works on their boats no matter the weather.
The courage to forge ahead in the aftermath of COVID-19 requires perseverance, resilience, tenacity and resourcefulness—all things marine fabricators are known for. Marine fabricators often use their skills to fabricate something from almost nothing, benefiting their own and others’ lives. Stay safe, Stay healthy. Stay focused. Stay scrappy. You’ve got this!
Terri Madden owns Sand Sea & Air Interiors Inc. in San Juan, Puerto Rico. www.sandseaair.com