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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 17, 2020 6 months ago

Niche boating industry firm manages strong growth

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After two decades in business together — and one recession survived — a pair of former competitors are in a good spot.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributor

Although it isn’t taking on water, Premier Performance Interiors is at a tipping point.

The Sarasota-based manufacturer of upholstery and seating systems for the boating industry, founded in 2001, has made a name for itself with boat builders located in Florida and nationwide. It has earned a reputation for a quality product and on-time delivery, and the company has been growing about 20% a year for the past several years.

That’s a good thing, but it also presents new challenges. “If you’re going to continue to grow 20% a year, you’re going to hit different levels as you go,” says Lee Wingard, president and co-owner of PPI, which does about $8.5 million a year in sales. “And we’ve come to that next level. We’re taking all the steps needed to keep up with demand.”

In addition to demand, the company also seeks to avoid a repeat of 2017, when it turned down a significant amount of work, more than seven figures. Executives say they passed on the jobs because they didn’t have the space or capacity, problems being solved with additional space and greater efficiencies, including new software to track inventory.

All told, the potential is there for PPI to get even bigger than it already is. But it will take some effort, and a new and different way of thinking, to get to that next level. That’s why Wingard and co-owner/vice president Jim Cowan have been working with Sarasota business consultant and financial planner Jeff Speers on a plan to position the company to tap into that growth.

Wingard and Cowan, for starters, are working to improve inventory control. They’ve purchased new equipment including a cutting machine for use with vinyl fabric and a state-of-the-art CNC router. Speers also connected Wingard and Cowan with Tony Gamelin, a Sarasota-based CFO consultant who’s been working with PPI for about five months.

“When I got there, I said to them, ‘You really function and operate kind of as a mom-and-pop company, and there’s nothing wrong with that,’” Gamelin says. “It’s a culture they’ve created, and there are a lot of pros to that. However, they’ve grown to a deciding point of, do they want to stay in this mom-and-pop culture, which is probably going to stagnate their growth, or do they want to transition out of that culture into a mid-tier company and take the next step? And they said they were ready to take the next step.”

Gamelin has found not all business owners are willing to accept the changes needed to take those steps. For PPI, it means things like moving from paper to automated computer systems for tracking their orders and manufacturing processes.

“That’s what I love about Jim and Lee,” Gamelin says. “They are extremely receptive to help and guidance and to putting these things in place. Because they’re so receptive to it, it’s going to make it a lot easier. But it will take time. All of these things will take several years to put into place.”

As those changes are being made, Wingard and Cowan plan to continue offering the high level of quality and customer service that’s gotten them to this point — an important element of managing growth. “You do people right all the time,” Cowan says. “Do what you say, and say what you mean. That’s what we try to do. So we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.”

The right chemistry

Wingard and Cowan first joined together in 2001. They both had already spent many years in the upholstery and boating industries. Wingard did a stint at area boat manufacturer Chris-Craft then ran his family’s local upholstery business. Cowan learned upholstery at JC Pontoon in Indiana and was later an owner and partner in other companies. They were “friendly competitors” in Florida when they decided to join forces.

“We had a few people tell us we shouldn’t do it,” Wingard says. “But it’s all a matter of who the people are and what kind of chemistry they have with each other.”

For Wingard and Cowan, that chemistry is a winning combination. “Jim is high energy and passionate about what he does,” says John Cosker, founder and owner of Mystic Powerboats in DeLand, who has worked with PPI for at least 10 years. “Then you’ve got Lee, who’s a little bit more of the pragmatist who stands back and looks at it all carefully. I think because they’re so different, they work really well together. Jim is the front man dealing with the customers, and Lee is kind of the magic behind the curtain that makes it all happen.”

Their years of experience and the relationships they had already developed helped the company start fast. They also knew how to build and support a strong workforce — something they say has been a major component of their success.

‘You do people right all the time. Do what you say and say what you mean. That’s what we try to do’ Jim Cowan, Premier Performance Interiors

“Since we’d worked for someone else [during our careers] prior to being owners, we knew what it was like to be the worker,” Cowan says. “So we wanted to make sure —and still do — that all of our workers have everything that they need. We would go out there and work next to anybody; it’s what we did. We treat [our employees] like us, and we’ve never not done that.”

So it’s no surprise that many of the company’s 56 employees have been there for a decade or longer. Wingard and Cowan are flexible when employees need to deal with family issues and offer competitive pay and benefits. That has helped them navigate the tough labor market of recent years.

“If you treat your employees right, if you treat them like human beings, they end up bringing people here,” Wingard says. “All of our recent hires are from people recommending workers, telling people to leave where they’re at and come here.”

Ability to adapt

PPI turns out about 40 to 50 boat upholstery kits a week and works with about 40 different boat manufacturers, including area companies Barker Boatworks, Nor-Tech, Sheaffer Boats and Yellowfin. Some boatmakers contract PPI to do everything when it comes to upholstery. Others have PPI do the more difficult work and take care of the easier elements themselves. They can work from a boat builder’s own designs or help them come up with concepts.

“I can go down and sit with Jim or Lee and tell them this is my idea on this project,” says Bryan Lucius, president of Zephyrhills-based Century Boats, which has PPI handle about 70% of its upholstery work. “They just have so much experience that they can interject with a recommendation, and we end up going that way, and it works out great. They’ve been doing it for so long, and it’s nice to have that knowledge to pull from.”

PPI operates out of about 60,000 square feet of space spread out over five buildings in an industrial complex near U.S. 301 in Sarasota. It’s enough space to support future growth, and it’s set up in a way to help them weather any fluctuations in business. That’s a key lesson they learned during the tough years of the recession, when they had to drop their staff down to 11 people and went from 32,000 square feet down to 8,000.

“We don’t own all of our buildings,” Cowan says. “We rent some, and we own some. You don’t keep all your eggs in one basket. Those are things you keep your eye on to make sure you’re diversified, so if anything bad happens, you can keep rolling.”

Mark Wemple. Lee Wingard and Jim Cowan founded Sarasota-based Premier Performance Interiors after running competing boat upholstery businesses.

Staying nimble is important in this industry, where other suppliers might cause a project to get pushed back or sped up. “A boat builder might call us up and say, ‘I don’t have the motors for this boat yet, so can we put it back a week?’” says Cowan. “We have a schedule, but the schedule has the ability to be constantly adjusted. What’s made that easier is when we started off 18 years ago and were slow, we grew a little at a time. You develop systems and ways to do things.”

The PPI system seems to work. “The biggest thing with them is they meet their delivery dates,” Cosker says. “We’ve never had a boat held up for delivery by PPI.”

Constant communication is key to keeping everyone happy. “We don’t lie to people,” Cowan says. “Lee’s real good, and he tells them, 'If it ain’t going to be done, it ain’t going to be done.' Then everybody knows where they stand. If people know what they need to, they can plan around it. The unknown is what the marine industry doesn’t like.”

“At the end of the day, they’re good honest people, and that’s who we like doing business with,” Lucius says. “When they tell you something, they do it, and that’s important. You get that small-business feel with a medium-sized or big-business performance.”

Now PPI has one eye on the future as it also keeps up with current customer demand. Wingard and Cowan recently made a 10,000-square-foot R&D/prototype department to create and test new designs and techniques. That emphasis on innovation will work in tandem with their efforts to improve processes and systems to increase efficiencies and productivity levels.

“They are set up to be very successful and to be two or three times their size and much more profitable in the future than they already are today,” Gamelin says. “They are the go-to company for upholstery for boat manufacturers and have really created a great niche company. The sky’s the limit for them in terms of where they want to take this company. I’m very excited and bullish about their potential for the future.”

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