Plan ahead and stay busy all season
When the day-to-day crunch deadlines keep you going 90 miles an hour at this time of year, it's hard to sit down and plan for the winter. But if you want to avoid the off season “dry spell” that is such a challenge for marine fabricators in the North East, there are some ways to plan for it now. Here are a few ideas that we’ve used with success:
I started Custom Marine Canvas in June of 1985. It was actually during my sister's graduation from Harvard, so I wasn’t even home for my first order… I got home from Cambridge to find it on my answering machine! To celebrate our thirtieth year in business, we handed certificates to our customers as they picked up their orders giving them $30 off of their winter work. We also gave sleeves of cups printed with our logo commemorating the anniversary to help them remember us, and hopefully, that coupon.
During the heady times of never looking for work, we never advertised. We would support local school projects philanthropically, but that was it. Times have changed, and so have we.
We began advertising in our local sailing monthly periodical with a full color ad. We began this when we hired Aaron Norris, a full time sailmaker. Other sail lofts in our area were downsizing or closing, and we wanted to scoop up their customers. It's always exciting to see new customers come in our door with the ad in their hands. That's a great indicator of how effective the advertising is.
In addition to print ads, we also are using Constant Contact (although not as much as we should! See Mike’s article from June about how email has helped the NECPA). The first email we sent was on a Friday, and low and behold we received TWO calls in response to it by Monday!
During the Volvo Round the World Sailing Race stopover in Newport this past May, we showcased photos of our work from the 1997 race (then known as the Whitbread). We earned work on five out the ten boats in that event, which was a great return. It was also fun to put out a retrospective, showing our history in the industry.
Our current advertising, both print and electronic, encourages customers to schedule their repair work by November 1 to receive a 10% discount. We will also offer the discount on their new work, too, if they schedule by that date.
When it comes to larger projects, we used to take a 50% deposit for new work with the balance due upon completion. But because of the length of time between completion and installation, we change this policy for winter work. We describe the process of getting patterns before they cover the boat so that we can build over the winter, and install when the boat is uncovered. We ask for the 50% deposit to place the order, then another 40% when the item is completed. The final 10% is paid upon installation. This helps us manage our cash flow in the slow months, but doesn’t put too much burden on the customer unfairly.
In thirty years of business, I cut employee hours only once, in January 2011. We hadn't aggressively marketed our winter work, and it showed. Connecticut employment law allowed me to furlough my five employees for six weeks by just filling out a one page form. By stating a return date, inside a maximum of six weeks, the employee doesn't have to go look for another job. For us, it worked out well. Had we received a big job during the furlough, they would have needed to report for duty. But without it, they still received about 70% of their pay, which got us running by the return-to-work date.
I also established a line of credit at our LOCAL bank to help during periods of slow cash flow. I emphasize a local bank, because it's important to form a face to face relationship. I serve on the Chamber of Commerce board with our Branch manager, and it helps to have that contact.
With ninety degree heat and ninety percent humidity, it's hard to think about snow flying. But it will, that's certain. And Spring, no matter how hard it may be to believe, always follows, happily!