If a college friend hadn’t had extra space in a harborside building he was renting in downtown Bellingham, Greg Keeler may have never started up Bellingham, Wash.-based marine canvas company Oyster Creek Canvas Co.
After earning a degree in environmental policy and assessment, the lifelong boating enthusiast had spent several years in a related desk job. When the $300/month rental space was offered to him, however, he had been laid off and was happily working in diving and boat maintenance, with no particular plans to become an entrepreneur.
“I was working for my friend’s little dive company raising sunken boats, doing underwater salvage, cleaning boats and zincing boats,” remembers Keeler, now 51. “It was supposed to be an interim thing before I got back to a real job, a cubicle and an Amex card like I had before.
“I didn’t even know what I was going to do with this new space I rented, but then I acquired an old antique sewing machine and started learning to use it.”
Studying craft to learn the craft
That was 21 years ago, and back then Keeler had no experience in marine fabric construction. But he did have a couple decades of experience boating the San Juan Islands area—his idea of “one of the most beautiful boating places in the world.”
Taking a leap of faith (but keeping his diving/maintenance job to pay the bills), he optimized small loans and gradually taught himself enough sewing and production skills to make his business viable. Initially, maintaining cash flow was his greatest problem.
“The prices people paid for my work back then probably reflected the quality of the work,” he remembers. “It didn’t look perfect, but it worked. I flew by the seat of my pants.”
The majority of his business then—and still today—has come via word of mouth from boating club members and other tradespeople around the wharf.
“Somebody sees something and asks, ‘Who made that enclosure?’ and that’s our marketing—our product and customer testimonials. We’ve spent nothing on advertising other than small brochures.”
Sewing up profits, product by product
Through the years, Keeler has been able to expand his one-man, one-machine shop to a 15-machine operation employing five full-timers and one part-timer. Projects have accordingly become larger and more complex, spanning a wide variety of custom-made boat coverings.
“Sometimes we say we can do a job; then we end up having to buy tools to do it, even if it’s a $10,000 machine,” he explains.
That’s not to say the way forward has always been smooth.
Early on, Keeler wasn’t sure of success and thought his venture might fail. “I was working so hard, I didn’t know if I could make money and I wondered whether I should go looking for a real job,” he says. It took at least a decade of screwing around, I swear. I’d tell customers, ‘I can do that’ then immediately ask myself, ‘Why did I say I could do that?’”
One game-changer about a dozen years ago was participation in his first Marine Fabricators Association (MFA) conference.
“This is not just a plug, but it changed things big time for me,” he reports. “I met all these great people, and it showed me that this is an actual industry. People were building all this cool stuff, and had pictures up … and some of those people were like legends to me.
“Before that, nobody around here could talk to me about the craft. For so long marine canvas was viewed like a tarp, just a cover for your boat. But these people were billing at a high rate and creating something unique that isn’t viewed as lower on the hierarchy of expenses for your boat. That stuck with me.
“Everybody benefits by sharing innovation. I came back glowing, like ‘Game on.’ I had resources, I saw what other people were doing and I could call people. That’s when a real shift started happening.”
After that, he says, the company began to run like a well-oiled machine.
“From phone call to finished product, it’s a smooth, well-defined path,” he says.
Navigating through the pandemic
For Keeler, the COVID-19 pandemic was a threat to both his business plan and his personal life. Fortunately, he was able to pivot quickly by securing an “essential business” ranking so he and his crew could prevent layoffs by manufacturing a full line of personal protective equipment (PPE) gear.
His company also established a Vancouver Island subsidiary called Clear Advantage PPE that serves two purposes: it generates more PPE product and helps cut through the COVID-related red tape that can ensue when he crosses the border to see his Canadian wife. Though the couple has been married three years, and each person has dual citizenship, she remains in Canada to optimize the country’s health-care benefits while Keeler lives in the U.S. to be close to work.
Even at the start of the pandemic, however, Oyster Creek continued making marine products in anticipation of future demand.
“It was unknown what was happening and when this thing was going to end, so we concentrated on where we want to be when this ends,” Keeler explains of his business strategy.
Riding the wave of demand
It’s a good thing Oyster Creek kept moving full steam ahead with marine fabrication because these days Keeler describes sales as “through the roof” as affluent clients continue to embrace boating.
His primary customer base? Custom boat manufacturers, boat brokers and high-end boaters based in northwest Washington or the San Juan Islands.
“These are million-dollar boats—they’re not cheap,” he confirms. “The custom builders we work for are years out on their orders. Talking to dealers and brokers, they’ve never seen anything like this. We’re scheduling six or seven months out, and normally it would be like three.”
Though others in the industry have complained of lengthy lead times on materials, he says Oyster Creek has had few problems securing the goods it needs.
“We’ve had a few delays, but for most larger projects we book so far out that we order materials early even if we’re not going to start for six months,” he explains. “That gives us some time.”
Despite heightened demand, he has no plans to add employees or try to boost production volume since shop capacity is at “the sweet spot where we want to be.”
That said, he doesn’t expect industry demand to slow anytime soon.
“I think people love boating, and no matter what happens they’ll always have some money to throw at their boats. It might be different for new boat sales, but from a fabricator standpoint, if they don’t have the money, they’ll find it.”
Asked about his company’s claims to fame, Keeler says he’s particularly proud of an MFA award he won several years ago in recognition of an innovative boat top he designed.
He also points to an unconventional Oyster Creek policy that allows employees to work on their own projects in the shop, after hours, at no charge.
“Our claim to fame is our positive culture—it’s a really fun place to work and a unique shop,” he notes. “I want my employees to do well, so if they want to generate more income, I say by all means do it. It helps with employee retention and happiness.”
On the horizon
All things considered, Keeler foresees no sweeping changes for Oyster Creek at the moment.
“We’re going to continue focusing on what we do best. We have a really good system, and I think rather than branching out, and learning new things, we have enough work to focus on what we already do.”
Someday, he says, his 18-year-old son Fin may be interested in taking over his business.
“But I want him to go out and see the world a little bit and do something else for a little while,” he notes. “Then if he likes, he can come back.”
These days, it’s easy for Keeler to laugh about his parents’ skepticism when he first started his thriving venture.
“I think for a long time they were like ‘You just did four years of college and now you’re washing boats?’ Now it’s different, and suddenly I’m the guy with the cool company, and I get paid to screw around on boats. I’m 51, but I still feel like a kid.”
Michelle Miron is a Minnesota-based freelance writer with a 30-year background in journalism and marketing content.
SIDEBAR: Advice for new fabricators
“Go talk to other shops and don’t be afraid to ask questions. If I had it to do differently, I’d get somebody into a management position sooner. I’ve tried to have bookkeepers and accountants, whose services can be quite expensive for a small business.”
“You can’t run everything. It’s really hard for one person to do every single aspect unless you have low overhead and you’re a one-person operation that only takes on select projects.”
“One of the things that helped our team come together was when we started making job titles with tiers. It helped define people’s roles and helps with expectations.”