Chris Ritsema, owner of Canvas Innovations in Holland, Michigan, loves a challenge. That’s one reason he rarely turns down a job and his projects have consistently won awards from the Marine Fabricators Association.
“We like doing unique custom jobs,” he said. “I like the customer who is out in left field and makes us figure things out.”
He and his team of eight certainly did figure it out when a customer requested a nine-bow bimini top to cover an entire bridge. Using Stamoid® Open and 1 ¼-inch tubing, Ritsema and his team fabricated a new bimini that integrated the existing frame that they extended to the boat’s arch. The crew trucked in 30-foot lengths of tubing during the installation. The two tops connect using a zipper flap.
The project won a 2014 Award of Excellence from the Marine Fabricators Association.
Word-of-mouth brings a lot of new business to Ritsema, including a customer whose 55 Searay Sedan Bridge was damaged in a fire. Over the course of four months the Canvas Innovations team refurbished all of the interior and exterior upholstery, flooring, ceiling and wall covering.
Customers can see exactly how Ritsema and his team transform old or damaged boat cushions and coverings on the project page of the Canvas Innovations website, which features a series of before and after photos. In one set of photos, a raccoon’s handy work can be seen in the form of foam spilling forth from torn vinyl seating. The next photo shows a like-new image of the seat, repaired by Ritsema’s team.
“My web manager suggested the before and after photos and they are valuable to show customers just how beautiful their boat can be with new upholstery,” Ritsema said.
He also takes advantage of the good word-of-mouth to develop testimonials for use on the website.
“We started realizing people were sharing how they felt about our work, so we decided to start gathering these comments,” he said.
He has since started a referral program in which all customers with projects over $1,000 receive a thank you note and a rating card from which additional testimonials are created. The note also asks for permission to add the customer to Canvas Innovations’ e-newsletter list, so they can receive updates about new products.
“I believe in keeping in contact with our customers,” he said. “Right now we send out five or six e-newsletters per year, but my goal is eventually do a newsletter per month. We also do an open house with food and drinks each year, which is a good way to get people to visit and reconnect.”
Reconnecting is key to maintaining a steady flow of work. Ritsema not only reaches out to customers on a regular basis, he also makes sure his employees feel connected to the business.
“My mentality is to treat people the way you want to be treated and they’ll want to stay,” he said. “I take each employee to lunch on their birthday and a couple times a year do a dinner cruise or fishing to make it fun, not just a job.”
He also makes sure the people who work in his sewing room have a chance to see their finished work on the water.
“They sit behind a sewing machine 40 to 50 hours a week, so throughout the year we take field trips to the storage facilities and the docks because they love to see their handy work on the boats,” he said. “It also helps them see how things fall into place from the cutting tables to the boats.
“I have a young shop – most are in their 20s – so I’m looking at the long term future of the business to keep it alive and thriving,” he said.