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Pros and cons of mobile marine shops

Features | January 1, 2023 | By: Michelle Miron

Photo: Dreamstime.

When you’re a marine fabricator with a mobile unit, you’re often at a competitive advantage.

Not only can you offer customers fast, convenient repairs and service, but you’re often able to recruit business from other boat owners who notice you at their marinas. Vendors who are fully mobile can save money on brick-and-mortar mortgages or rent, and their vehicles act as advertising tools in and of themselves. 

In some cases, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), they’re even able to treat expenses associated with their vehicle operations as tax deductions. 

That’s not to say there aren’t challenges. Buying and outfitting a mobile unit can be expensive. Gas, maintenance, repairs, insurance and sometimes the selling fees imposed by marinas can take a chunk out of profits. Fabricators need to stay mega-organized to ensure they have access to the right tools and materials at the right times. And there’s often no predicting how traffic conditions or weather will affect productivity. 

That said, mobile marine shops are believed to be part of an upward trend in mobile businesses spurred by Wi-Fi technology, the lure of low overhead and the appeal of relatively low startup costs.

For some, going mobile means simply outfitting a truck with the tools needed to measure and otherwise prep for a project. For others, it could mean customizing a trailer or similar vehicle to create the capacity for sewing and finishing entire orders on-site. 

To learn how mobile marine fabricators are faring these days, we talked to a few ATA members about the nuts and bolts of their operations. 

Rick Berkey, Rick’s Custom Marine Canvas and Sail Repair, spent $23,000 to buy and customize this Ford van with a good-sized work table, sewing machine, storage space and an awning that protects him from weather as he works. The machine runs off the van’s battery. Photo: Rick’s Custom Marine Canvas and Sail Repair

Rick’s Custom Marine: “Time is money”

A year after Rick Berkey established Rick’s Custom Marine Canvas and Sail Repair in Cornelius, N.C., he realized he needed an addition: a more convenient way to complete off-site sewing projects. That was 12 years ago. 

Luckily, he had multiple contacts from the Marine Fabricators Association who were able to offer advice. Once he researched his options, he spent more than $23,000 buying and outfitting a four-cylinder Ford van that offers up to 28 mpg. An engineer friend used a CAD system to lay out the schematic, which includes an easily removable worktable; his Sailrite straight-stitch zigzag sewing machine; and a 5-foot drawer along with side-mounted storage pouches to hold supplies and tools. 

Three weeks later, it was ready to roll. Now he’s able to drive directly into marina parking lots, where he opens his back doors, slides out his table and machine, plugs it into his van battery, pops up his weather-protective awning and completes clients’ projects right on-site. 

Photo: Rick’s Custom Marine Canvas and Sail Repair

Typically, he limits his territory to sites 30 minutes away from his brick-and-mortar shop, and the work involves the touchups or adjustments needed for a final install, perhaps a last zipper or reinforcing patch. He works in all seasons except winter, when low temps interfere with his sewing machine’s operations. 

His customers appreciate the fast turnaround. He saves time and money by minimizing trips back and forth to his shop. And, as a bonus, his on-site setup often attracts the attention of new clients who are in the area.  

“This way we’re not delaying jobs or risking customers having their boats exposed to the daily thunderstorms we can have in the southeast,” he notes. “And I can go out and hit one marina, and maybe do two or three jobs at once, so the rate of return is much better.” 

He remembers setting up his mobile shop at one weekend sailboat race and conducting repairs for several participants, ultimately gaining new clients from across a seven-state area. 

John Kissel’s well-equipped work vehicle lets him accurately measure, pattern, mark and cut on-site, then complete the sewing back at his home-based shop. Photo: Kissel Boat Covers LLC

Challenges cost money

The mobile setup is not without challenges, including the occasional reality of having to work in cold, windy or rainy weather. Traffic can eat up work time, which is why Berkey doesn’t venture out on Fridays. Then there’s the level of organization needed. 

“I have to make sure I load the van correctly for the project we are going to complete. If I forget something, it’s a long way back to the shop.”

Another issue is that marinas increasingly demand that outside vendors register and show proof of insurance just to be on-site. And many also demand a share of his on-site revenues—typically 10% to 20%. That’s a surcharge Berkey must pass on to customers. 

Overall, though, he says the mobile unit has been a huge positive for his business. 

“The return on time is the biggest piece,” he says. “If the sewing machine isn’t running, we’re not making money. And our money outlay hasn’t been as big as some of our competitors’. I’ve seen some 32-foot work trailers, plus the trucks to pull them, that must have cost $80,000-plus just to set up.” 

He adds that business has been absolutely booming. 

“We have such a shortage in this field,” he says. “Nobody wants to do canvas work, so the volume of demand is very high. People who wanted boat covers in July didn’t get them until Thanksgiving. People didn’t like hearing that, but it’s the economy and the time that we’re in.” 

Kissel Boat Covers: “Getting rid of my storefront was my best move”

At Kissel Boat Covers LLC of North Olmstead, Ohio, owner John Kissel has outfitted his truck to be able to handle multiple on-site repairs, pickups and installations. To make that happen, he keeps his tools and materials carefully organized into eight separate crates. 

That allows him to meet clients on-site before completing tasks like measuring, patterning, marking and cutting on board, then transporting all the elements back to his home-based shop for the sewing and detail work. His business serves the Greater Cleveland area and much of northeast Ohio, including most of the Lake Erie shoreline. 

“I’m on the higher end, and everyone knows that,” he says. “But I get work because people know what they’re going to get—service and quality.” 

An industry veteran of 48 years, Kissel notes that his brother once operated an even better-equipped mobile shop that enabled on-site sewing at marinas. The problem was that once he set up to help established clients, he was overwhelmed with requests from other boat owners who saw him working and tried to immediately enlist him for their own projects. 

“I like to sneak in and out,” says Kissel, who has always run his business independently. “I like to have my privacy. The really mobile guys have sewing machines, and they do it right, but I’m a really lucky guy because I get to work out of my basement. Getting rid of my storefront was the best move I ever made.” 

This customized F-150 pickup truck features multiple storage units in addition to a rack that enables Charlie Kees, the owner of Mister Sew-N-Sew Custom Boat Canvas, to transport boat frames as needed. Photo: Mister Sew-N-Sew Custom Boat Canvas

Mister Sew-N-Sew: “That’s how I get new jobs” 

Charlie Kees, owner of Mister Sew-N-Sew Custom Boat Canvas in Halfmoon, N.Y., considers his Ford F-150 pickup a mobile unit of sorts. 

Since his 22-year-old shop frequently works on larger crafts, he uses the truck primarily to travel to clients for measurements. It’s customized with a rack that allows him to transport boat frames, along with stabilized storage space for his toolboxes and a protective tonneau cover he fabricated and installed himself. 

He notes that the truck has doubled as a great publicity tool and has often generated additional work for him. Kees’ range of products includes all manner of marine covers; windshields with U-zippers and/or screens; window replacements; seating and other upholstery; instrument panels and multiple other custom-fitted items.

“I’ve gotten away with not buying a trailer setup, another sewing machine, and more fabric and supplies that I’d need to carry with me all the time,” he notes. “But many times, I’ve been at a marina and another boat owner asks if I can do work on his or her boat. That’s how I get new jobs.”  

Michelle Miron is a freelance writer based in Hugo, Minn.

SIDEBAR: Advice from a mobile veteran

Asked what helpful information he might share with newcomers to the mobile fabrication biz, Rick Berkey of Rick’s Custom Marine Canvas and Sail Repair offers the following thoughts: 

Consider the size of the boats that make up most of your business. Products for larger boats may be nearly impossible to complete without access to large-scale worktables. 

Think about whether you could get your work done in a van or delivery truck, or whether you really need the space offered by a big-box truck. 

Check whether the marinas in which you’d be working allow outside fabricators to park there. Typically, if they accept boat mechanics, they’ll accept marine fabricators. 

Draw walk-in traffic by making sure regular and prospective customers can recognize your vehicle. “That’s definitely helped me on the marketing side,” he notes. “I don’t advertise in anything except for one free magazine, and I’ve been backlogged.” 

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