As I have grown Precision Custom Canvas Inc. from a single-person operation to a business of four full-time staff and two seasonal positions, I have struggled with the concept of providing a consistent living wage to my employees through the off-season while snow blankets the boats and ice fills the harbors. I have always known that I wanted to grow and have a modest staff. Having been an hourly employee myself in the past, I know how important it is to have a reliable paycheck.
I have invested in my staff by training them and bringing them onto the team; I want them to be confident that their employment is solid and consistent year-round. Part of my motivation for building my own company was based on the poor management and unreliability of the position I held previously, and I did not want to put others in that position. In the current environment, finding and training reliable employees is challenging, so developing a strong business to retain them is very important. This means establishing a good culture, so they are happy and enjoy coming to work, and also a balanced workflow.
In this article, I will lay out how we developed an over-winter payment system that has provided us with a steady and reliable workload over the winter months, steady income to cover all business costs, and a system that softens the high cost of large projects for our customers.
Line up year-round work
Because spring and summer work is easy to fill, covering staff costs during that period isn’t a concern. But we now also use this time to line up work for the winter season as well. For clients with flexibility, whose needs are not immediate, we suggest they consider our over-winter projects package.
As we have grown, the greatest impact on evening out our yearly work cycle has come from offering a winter project payment package for canvas and enclosures. Here’s how our process works: I identify projects starting from springtime inquiries and offer them our winter payment package in order to fill our winter production slots. If clients are planning ahead and their current canvas is still serviceable, we will suggest the project as a candidate for fabrication over the winter. We like these projects to be a typical express cruiser in the mid 30-foot range, with a front and back bimini, five-panel windshield section and seven-panel aft enclosure.
This size and scale are perfect for doing a complete pattern in the fall, and it stores nicely when completed during the winter months. Two key features that sell this option to customers is they can spread the cost over five to six months, and they will have a completely new top and enclosure ready for their boat without any downtime during the active boating season.
Incentivize your clients
The idea is to make this a win-win for you and your clients. If you have the tools and space, there are a variety of customer incentives for over-winter projects you could offer. These include storage, shrink-wrapping, package pricing or a payment system. If you have a storage yard available, consider offering discounted or free storage to get the boats on-site to either pattern and fabricate in the fall, or to have easy access to them in the spring. Offering a shrink-wrap package can do a similar thing if you are working with smaller, trailerable boats. Get them to your shop to pattern canvas and then wrap them for winter storage. The boats can be taken away or stored on-site. Clients always appreciate it if you can make it easier to prepare for winter.
We do not offer storage or shrink- wrapping, but we do offer a convenient payment system. We offer a fixed payment schedule that requires a 25% deposit to book the order, and then a 10% payment is due December through April on the first of the month. The remaining 25% is due upon installation. Our clients like spreading out the cost of their new canvas over time, and we like having a steady cash flow that covers our overhead and staffing costs.
By finishing fall installations and winter cover work, as well as upholstery projects, through November and December, we don’t begin the winter payment projects until January, which means we already have 45% payment on the project, which is very close to the 50% deposit we require for in-season work. With the booking deposit, we take the patterns and order the material, so as the monthly payments come in during the winter months, they can be used to cover the costs of operating the business and wages.
Adapting processes to winter work
Having a proven winter-project system has actually made the winter months our busiest season. We have clients who plan ahead and seek out the winter-project package, and because our winter months are so busy, we can now enjoy the summer months ourselves by reducing our hours and enjoying our own boating pursuits.
To accommodate our busy winter-project season, we have had to make some changes to the shop and to our work processes. We now plan for storage of finished goods that can’t be installed until the warmer weather arrives. We have developed a system of storage carts that can hold rolled and secured enclosure panels, vertical hanging slots for rigid panels, and a shelf for finished biminis and similar components.
Another benefit of this system is that with the extended production timelines, we can group our production so that we set up projects that are all the same color. This allows us to order full rolls rather than cut yardage, which offers cost savings, and we work with the same thread color, zipper selection, etc., which allows us to get better materials pricing and speeds up production as there is less machine changeover and setup as colors change.
Make the idea work for you
There are companies that offer to finance projects for your clients, but we have found that keeping the process in-house gives the client confidence and is easier for us to manage. Depending on the length of the winter in your area, or lack of winter altogether, this payment system concept may need adjustment to work with your business. Adapt it to suit your needs and your clients’ needs, and market it to your customers. Growing your off-season business can reduce the pressure on the main season.
One of the added perks of our winter payment program and strong off-season production is that we are busy installing into late May and don’t have to fight with the challenging spring weather to pattern new projects. We begin patterning outdoor projects again in June, which means the weather has settled, it is warm and we’re happy to be outside.
Jeff Newkirk, MFC, is the owner of Precision Custom Canvas Inc., located in St. Catharines, Ont., Canada. He has been a canvas and upholstery fabricator since 1997 and started Precision Custom Canvas in 2014. The company has grown from a home-based business, to a 2,500-square-foot shop and showroom in 2016, and to 5,000 square feet in 2022.