Archive for » February 8th, 2018«

Van Dam family builds world-class business with custom boats

Editor’s note: This story was published in Grand Traverse Business magazine’s Winter 2018 issue. For more stories from the magazine, click here to read GT Business in its entirety online.

BOYNE CITY — The first wooden boat Steve Van Dam ever built was a small sailboat for personal use, and it wasn’t long before someone noticed the vessel and wanted one of their own.

“A fellow saw it and tracked us down, and he wanted to have a 30-foot custom boat made from modern wood,” Steve said. “It was just a very fortunate break for us.”

That’s how Steve and his wife, Jean Van Dam, got into the boat-building industry.

Van Dam Custom Boats started in a small, two-stall garage in Harbor Springs in 1977. Steve and Jean hand-built the garage next to their mobile home that sat on five acres of land.

“It’s a fun memory. Who loves living in a trailer? It’s fun to look back on,” Steve said.

They now have an extremely successful custom boat company that employs 16 people, including their son, Ben Van Dam, who is now president of the business. Ben grew up watching his father build boats, and he went to the University of Michigan and got an engineering degree in naval architecture.

If it weren’t for that first custom boat commission they landed in late 70s, Steve isn’t sure if the Van Dam legacy would be what it is today.

“It made us legitimate, and it led to another one. Somebody saw the quality of what we were doing. It just kind of took off from there,” Steve said.

To date, the Van Dam team has built 60 custom boats that are anywhere between 20 to 55 feet long. Sale sale prices start at around $200,000 and go up into the millions. Most customers order boats between 20 to 40 feet long. Each one takes roughly 18 months to complete.

They currently are building three boats in their warehouse.

“We can do simple. We never do sloppy. We never do shoddy,” he said. “We can do extremely complex with the highest standard anywhere. We like a challenge. We have the capabilities to build anything we want.”

The Van Dam Custom Boat team consists of highly-skilled and trained craftsmen who have worked for the Van Dams upwards of 15 years. Every mechanism of a boat is crafted on-sight, including installation of the engine, in a 16,000-square-foot warehouse in Boyne City on 16 acres of land, all of which is owned by the Van Dams.

Hiring and retaining employees is tough for Jean, Steve and Ben, as not everyone is cut out for the years of training it takes to become a custom wooden boat builder.

The Van Dams have an apprentice program where new hires are required to complete 8,000 hours of training — which equals four years — before they graduate to the craftsman level and experience required by Steve.

“The way we practice boat building takes a lot of skillset. It’s like going to college. You have to learn building a boat from start to finish,” Steve said. “You have to have the aptitude and the desire. We have an extremely high washout rate on that.”

Building a larger team is a main focus of the company as it works to expand.

“In the near term, we’re trying to grow a little bit in terms of physical numbers of employees,” Ben said.

Although the company is small, it does offer health insurance, 401Ks and paid time off.

Ben now is in charge of the day-to-day operations of Van Dam Custom Boats, and Steve helps on the sales and advisory side.

Jean handles the books — a job she’s done since the beginning. Jean and Steve’s goal is to slowly transition out of the daily operations, and Ben is helping with that transition. They recently hired a chief financial officer to eventually take over the accounting for Jean.

“Our mission is we build the world’s finest wooden boats. My mission now is to build the world’s finest business. Not in the sense of money. Just a great group of people. How do we make this a really good business,” Steve said.

The Van Dams didn’t get where they are today without the help of Steve’s brother, who is an attorney and still represents the company legally, and also the help of two brothers who invested in them grow from a small business in Harbor Springs to a larger business in Boyne City.

Before they moved to Boyne City, Jean and Steve transitioned out of their small garage into a 4,000-square-foot commercial building in 1991, giving them more room to build boats. By this time they had their son, Ben, and daughter, Brie. Both loved growing up around the shop.

Steve and Jean knew they’d eventually have to expand again, and they were looking for a place that had waterfront property where they could launch their boats.

One of their friends notified them that there was property in Boyne City for sale as the result of a bankruptcy — 16 acres of land with a boat storage and service facility, along with a small patch of land near a marina. The two parcels of land were not connected, but that didn’t matter to Steve and Jean.

They got a screaming deal from the bank.

“It was a big place for cheap,” Steve said.

They got financial backing from two brothers who believed in their business.

“We bought those two brothers out after five years,” Steve said.

Included in the land purchase was a boat storage and service facility that the Van Dams still own and operate today, although Steve hired someone to oversee that portion of the business so he can focus on custom boat building.

Over the years, Steve learned many business lessons with the help from groups like Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE).

“We asked them to come in and look at how we market. Up until that point, we really were just word of mouth,” Steve said, noting that SCORE also encouraged them to build a better website, which they did.

Aside from growing their employee base, Steve and Ben also want to construct a new main building that’s classier. They’re in the preliminary stages of bidding for contractors and designers.

Jean said she’s overwhelmed with the wonderful relationships they’ve built with customers over the years.

“When I think about this business, I think about our customers so much. They have become a part of our lives,” she said.


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SkipperBud’s dealerships will offer new Barletta pontoons

Midwest marine dealer SkipperBud’s will start carrying the recently launched Barletta Pontoon Boat line.

“When we were approached by Barletta to discuss the possibility of carrying their line, we were immediately intrigued,” said SkipperBud’s President Mike Pretasky, Jr. “Everything about the company was a concept – they hadn’t even produced one pontoon boat – but there was a buzz in the air about their entry into the industry,” he said.

Barletta conducted its initial product launch in January. Led by Bill Fenech, a recreational vehicle industry veteran of 30 years, and supported by a team from around the marine industry, Barletta Pontoon Boats was awarded a National Marine Manufacturers Association Innovation Award at the Minneapolis Boat Show.

The annual award recognizes groundbreaking, new consumer marine products.

“SkipperBud’s is exactly the type of dealership we are committed to partnering with,” Fenech said. “They invest in their business, they invest in their people, and ultimately, they take care of the customer the way we would take care of the customer. We couldn’t be more excited to be partnered with the team at SkipperBud’s. We’re going to do great things together.”

During the development of Barletta’s initial floorplan offerings for the Barletta Luxury Class, the company was actively pursuing dealer representation in major markets around the United States.

Barletta is now receiving retail and stock orders that have accelerated the production ramp-up plan to meet demand.

“Retail and dealer response to the Barletta L-Class pontoon boats has simply been overwhelming,” said Jeff Haradine, Barletta’s vice president of sales. “As a start-up company, you expect to bring your product to market, and then come back to the drawing board on items where you may have fallen short of expectations.That list has been surprisingly, and pleasantly, short. We are full-steam ahead with our dealer fulfillment plans.”

Despite extremely low unemployment levels in the Elkhart and Bristol areas of Indiana, Barletta has enjoyed a steady in-flow of employment applications, where other manufacturers may be experiencing difficulty.

Fenech said Barletta has filled positions in the welding, fabrication and assembly departments to meet current demand, but expects to continue hiring to meet future demand.



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96000 Square Feet of Boats: Hartford Boat Show Exhibits Latest In Maritime Craftsmanship and Ingenuity

Snow drifted past the convention center’s windows, but within its halls was a dream of summer, of sultry days spent drifting in a pontoon — a dream the Connecticut Marine Trades Association will sell to the thousands it expects to draw to the 49th annual Hartford Boat Show.

From Thursday to Sunday, the Connecticut Convention Center will host 125 vendors selling boats and every conceivable boat-related service and accouterments.

On Wednesday, the center’s exhibition hall resembled a drained harbor, 94,000 of its 138,000 square feet covered in boat. On display is anything that can float and support a human — 36-foot cabin cruisers, sleek speedboats, inflatable dinghys, paddleboards, 400 watercraft in total.

February is prime boat show season, Kathleen Burns, the Marine Trades Association’s executive director said.

Segway. The 10-foot vessel, which resembled a cross between a paddleboard and an elliptical machine, had handlebars and pedals that turned a propeller beneath the board. The “pedalboard,” as such a vessel is billed, can reach speeds of 8 mph, Van Ness said.

Said Burns: “Connecticut has a long maritime history, from shipbuilding and whaling in the 1800s to the modern day with Electric Boat and the submarine industry.”

This is the Hartford Boat Show’s 49th year, and its 13th and last at the convention center. Previously, the Marine Trades Association held the show at the XL Center; next year, the show will move to the Mohegan Sun Exposition Center.

Outside the ballroom, Greg Dubrule and a crew of Connecticut National Guardsmen were trying to wrestle a 17-foot fiberglass shark onto a display for Dubrule’s fishing company.

The shark, a model of one Durbule caught off Block Island in 1983, teetered precariously on the Guardsmens’ shoulders. Dubrule said he was close to a heart attack. After a few tense, wobbly seconds, they succeeded in shoving the monstrous fish onto the five-foot mount.

“I’ve been in the fishing business 51 years, and I’ve caught a million sharks,” said Dubrule. “But what gets me is that at all these conventions, people still want to see this thing. They don’t get tired of it.”

It took Dubrule five and a half hours to reel in the shark, a male great white between 15 to 18 years old that weighed 3,500 pounds. He gave the carcass to scientists and made a fiberglass model of the fish, which his daughter named Walter the White Shark. He keeps Walter’s silver flanks glistening, his two-foot gills scarlet, and brings the shark to boat shows to advertise his Niantic fishing company.

Some people, believing the model shark to be the one he caught 35 years ago, will pry off its plastic teeth as souvenirs.

He pointed to the first of four rows of teeth: Walter’s front tooth was missing.

Tickets for the Hartford Boat Show are $12 at the door and children under 12 are free with an adult; On Friday, tickets for seniors are $8.


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