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Pricing, costing and estimating

Pricing, estimating and costing are tricky for many marine fabricators, but running a successful business requires having a firm grasp of these operational essentials.

Features | May 1, 2023 | By: Pamela Mills-Senn

Expertise plays an important role in a successful marine business. However, a fabricator might be highly skilled, with lines of customers and a backlog of projects, and that’s still no assurance the business will remain viable in the long run. If pricing is at odds with costs, the effect on the bottom line could be devastating—affecting profit margins, project quality and customer satisfaction. 

This East Coast-style dodger was designed by BayView Canvas. Most quotes don’t require a visit to the marina. Instead, customers are provided with a ballpark estimate based on texted or emailed photos of the project. If they’re comfortable with the pricing, customers receive a formal quote they have to sign. A deposit is then required to get them on the production schedule. Photo: BayView Canvas

Getting a handle on estimating, costing and pricing is essential, and yet, these are areas where many shop owners struggle. We asked several experienced fabricators how they approach this aspect of their operations, and here are their insights.

Better skills mean higher prices

At first, Jamie Marozzi, owner of BayView Canvas in West Creek, N.J., and also a sales rep for Keyston Bros., would go to each job to measure and calculate the materials and labor involved. But now he’s gained sufficient experience that he can give customers a “ballpark quote” without visiting each jobsite. 

“I will request pictures be texted or emailed to me and I’ll let the customer know the price will be between X and Y to make sure they’re comfortable with my pricing. If they are, I’ll send them a formal quote they have to sign,” he explains, adding customers must also send a deposit to get on his schedule.

When determining pricing, Marozzi considers time and materials but also the job’s complexity. For example, is the boat in the water or on land? Is there a good chance certain components will be corroded or broken and need replacing? And what about the cushions; do they have wood or plastic backings? Are they easily accessible, or would he have to maneuver his way through tiny openings to remove them?

This BayView Canvas project involved constructing a full bridge bimini and enclosure and an aft enclosure. Multiple factors are considered when figuring pricing, such as overhead, job complexity, if the boat is in the water and if there’s a good chance certain elements will need replacing, among other calculations. Photo: BayView Canvas

Marozzi doesn’t use pricing or estimating software. For jobs he’s done many times—such as an average-size enclosure panel—he basically knows what it will cost. When calculation is required, in addition to time, labor, materials and job complexity, he factors in weather, location and overhead. As for his shop rate, he takes into account his local competitors but also his own skill level.

“The more skilled I got, the higher the price tag went as demand also increased. My pricing increased every year as I got better and better at putting out a higher-end product,” Marozzi says, adding that other shops should do the same, since each year in business means they’re getting better at their craft.

Charge your worth 

Kyle Van Damme, owner of Marine Tops Unlimited Inc., which is headquartered in Omro, Wis., and has three locations in the state, bases his pricing on a list developed years ago. He says that over time, pricing has changed considerably, driven by material and labor rate increases. The three shops have also revised boat size categories and added various items and options as the market has evolved.

Pricing is based on the size of the boat and the desired items, he explains. Also factored in are material or upgrades and travel distance to the boat, among other variables.

“For example, we have pricing for a three-bow bimini top and a four-bow bimini top,” he says. “Those items have boat-length categories that go up in price as the boat gets bigger. Each item has either a price based on the length of the boat or a flat rate, like in the case of adding screen options, which is a set amount for each one.”

Marine Tops Unlimited created this new interior for a 42-foot Fountain boat. Pricing is based on boat size and desired items. Over the years the company’s price list has changed because of labor and material increases but also due to revising its boat size categories and adding various items and options.

The three locations will give estimates by phone, email, in person at the shop or at the marina. Their price list enables them to provide quotes for a large custom enclosure, sight unseen, in a matter of seconds, Van Damme says, although they typically request photos or will Google-search the boat to confirm what they’re looking at.

Also providing help is a software program they’ve used for nearly 20 years called Invoices and Estimates. In it, they’ve built a database of all the items and options listed in their price book, which enables them to quickly generate professional-looking customer invoices. Van Damme says they’re planning to replace this tool with software that will allow them to do even more.

All their materials are factored into their price list, except for upgrades that exceed their “standard materials” for each job type.

“For example, our standard clear material for enclosures is a .030 roll glass,” he says. “We almost never use that for any sizable enclosure, so we have upgrade charges to go up to the .040 Strataglass®, .040 Makrolon® VR4, .060 Makrolon AR2 and the Makrolon Marine 5 materials. We would also be happy to use something else if the customer insists.”

Because they’re not measuring materials exactly—length of zippers, amount of thread and binding, webbing, etc.—Van Damme says their estimates aren’t “anywhere near 100% accurate.” Still, their system is efficient. Very little time is spent generating their estimates and almost no time is spent driving around to marinas to meet with customers only to have them pass on the estimate, he explains. If the potential customer seems “ready to pull the trigger,” they’ll meet at the boat, trying to measure and pattern that day to save another trip.

“We more than make up for any small mistakes or misses when quoting jobs in the fact we can spend more time fabricating and having more billable hours,” he says. “We also feel that some of our quotes probably end up too high and some end up too low, but they all balance themselves out in the wash.”

Shown here is a new interior designed by Marine Tops Unlimited for a Donzi 38zr. Estimates are provided by phone, email or in person at the shop or at the marina. The company uses a software program called Invoices and Estimates to quickly generate professional-looking invoices for its customers. Photos: Marine Tops Unlimited Inc.

Just say ‘no’

At Signature CanvasMakers in Hampton, Va., quote requests come in by phone or via a form on its website. Customers are asked to email photos of their boats to speed the estimating process, says owner Chandler Clark, explaining that the majority of quotes can be handled this way. 

However, there are exceptions.

Signature CanvasMakers receives quote requests by phone and via the request form on the company’s website. Customers are asked to provide photos of their boats to expedite the process. For high-value customers, the company will schedule an in-person appointment. Pricing is adjusted based on job complexity and scale. Photo: Signature CanvasMakers

“If the project is unusual, more complex or if the customer is determined to be a four- or five-star customer, we will set up an in-person appointment,” says Clark. “We also have a list of jobs we will not do, which allows us to focus on and prioritize our largest customers.”

Recreational customers receive a “quick quote” through a standardized email template providing the pricing, a basic description of what the quote includes and the current lead time for new jobs. Quotes going to government, commercial, commercial marine and insurance entities are more formal, sent from QuickBooks.

“All of our products, with pricing and descriptions, are built in QuickBooks,” Clark says. “We also have a quoting spreadsheet in Excel that we’ll use to calculate jobs that are outside of our standard pricing catalog.”

An employee of Signature CanvasMakers is shown working in the production area. The company uses the MFA Time Standards as a benchmark for pricing but also to establish proficiency training guidelines for team members. Photo: Signature CanvasMakers

Signature CanvasMakers has set pricing for its main products, which is either by the foot, by the piece (such as a cushion or panel), or occasionally just time and materials. This process simplifies the quoting process, he explains, while the set pricing helps establish a baseline for more complicated or unusual projects. Quote requests and follow-up are handled through Shopflow, a shop management software program for marine canvas and upholstery shops.

Signature CanvasMakers’ shop rate factors in its average per-hour cost of labor—including taxes, benefits and paid time off—plus the average per-hour overhead and a markup, says Clark. 

“Marine fabrication is an extremely challenging craft to master,” he says. “Those who have put in the effort to do so, should be compensated for their skills and knowledge. But those skills alone will not make you successful. It also requires discipline and mastering the business side, which can be equally, if not more, difficult.” 

Pamela Mills-Senn is a freelance writer based in Seal Beach, Calif.

SIDEBAR: A timely tool

Many fabricators find the MFA Time Standards Manual to be an excellent resource. Published each January and updated every few years, the guidelines help shop owners set fabrication times and establish competitive labor costs. You can find the 2023 MFA Time Standards Manual at 

“The time standards are a great reference and benchmark, especially for newer shops, but it’s also important to establish your own shop time standards so you can ensure you’re pricing correctly to maximize your profitability.”
—Chandler Clark, Signature CanvasMakers

“The manual is a great tool to help you establish a starting point. By using it as a guide and not necessarily as gospel, you can get a pretty good idea of where you should be on your pricing. Everyone costs their jobs differently but, in my case, it does equate pretty closely to what I would charge a customer.”
—Jamie Marozzi, BayView Canvas/Keyston Bros.

“I think this can be a great way to start creating a price list or pricing system. [However], many fabricators are slower than what is written in the manual and many are faster. It’s important to realize it is an estimated average and a benchmark to try to get to for those taking longer to do certain projects. You can always apply your own time standards to the organization of the [manual] and then use that as the foundation to create your price list.”
—Kyle Van Damme, Marine Tops Unlimited Inc.

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