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Business Observer Wednesday, Jul. 21, 2021 2 months ago

Shrewd decision sets up boating business to make big waves

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Thanks partially to o a $5 million investment, IMM Boat Lifts is set up a boating industry business to make big waves.
by: Beth Luberecki Contributor

Like many other people in this area, Michael Nanda had tried his hand at real estate, flipping homes and buying rental properties. But when the housing market crashed in 2008, he sought a new venture. He and his father, Ashok, began looking for a business to purchase. And that’s when they found Fort Myers-based IMM Boat Lifts.

It was a great fit for everyone involved. The owner wanted to sell but was willing to stick around for a while to teach them how he did it. Ashok had a manufacturing background, and Michael had an MBA and previous business experience he could apply to running and growing the company. “We thought it was something we could learn about, and also have some support from the previous owner who didn’t want to just get out of the business,” says Michael, 46.

The father and son bought the company in 2008. Later that same year, they purchased Quality Boat Lifts, a competing company located about a mile away, with the plan to merge the two businesses together.

“I think we have something very good going. We’ll probably become one of the largest companies in this industry down the road. That’s what we’re working toward.'  Ashok Nanda,  IMM Quality Boat Lifts

Today, that combined company, IMM Quality Boat Lifts, employs almost 40 people and manufactures about 2,500 boat lifts a year in Fort Myers, making many of the components used for them in-house. Sales through June 2021 are 44% higher than the same period from 2020, an increase spurred by a pandemic-related boom in boating. (The Nandas declined to provide specific revenue figures.) And the company is working to set itself up for even more growth in the years ahead.

“I think we have something very good going,” says Ashok Nanda, 78. “We’ll probably become one of the largest companies in this industry down the road. That’s what we’re working toward.”

Build a brand

Success didn’t happen overnight. When the Nandas bought the two businesses in 2008, they had high hopes based on the companies’ past numbers. But the recession didn’t just affect the housing market. “When we got into it in 2008, that was probably the worst year for boat lifts in general,” says Michael. “Everything dropped. We thought combining the two companies would be great, but we really struggled in the first years.”

Much of the company’s growth has come in the past several years. That coincides with Mike’s brother, Steve Nanda, joining the family firm. Steve works on the financial side of the business and has also been instrumental in expanding the company’s marketing.

Stefania Pifferi. The Nanda family, Steve, Mike and dad Ashok plan to continue growing Fort Myers-based IMM Quality Boat Lifts.

“We continue to grow every year, and each year is our best year ever,” says Steve, 49. “Our sales today are roughly three times more than what they were a few years ago. And we hope to continue that trend, which is helped by the organic things we’ve done to improve the business and get new contactors and customers.”

IMM Quality Boat Lifts makes lifts for everything from kayaks and personal watercraft all the way up to large yachts. A lift raises a boat out of the water at a private dock or marina, and using one can help prevent damage and maintenance issues.

The company sells its products worldwide through a network of dealers and marine contractors. Those contractors are the ones that actually install the lifts, and the company has been working to make sure they know why a lift from IMM Quality Boat Lifts is a good choice.

“I think early on we weren’t getting the message out as well as we could have,” says Steve. “So we’ve worked to educate our primary customers and make it easier for homeowners and marine contractors to understand all the different features our boat lifts have that other manufacturers’ don’t that will make them last longer and perform better.”

One of those features? The company makes most of the components used in its lifts. It buys American-made motors, because it’s not worth the time to figure out how to make those. But almost every other metal part for the lifts is made from raw aluminum in the company’s machine facility, and everything is assembled in Fort Myers.

“When we bought the companies, we were buying a lot of parts sourced from machine shops,” says Michael. “But we had a couple of CNC machines and we brought in more. We started making all the parts in-house, and we have a full CNC machine shop that’s basically better than some companies where that’s all they do.”

IMM Quality Boat Lifts has the ability to customize lifts to fit any boat or project. “A lot of boat lift manufacturers do cookie-cutter lifts and tell you to make it work with your boat,” says Steve. “We have the engineering capabilities to customize the lift to suit anybody’s particular needs. If you come to us with an unusual situation, we have the machining capabilities here to make whatever part the engineer comes up with. It works better than trying to force a square peg into a round hole.”

Another differentiator? IMM Quality pre-assembles lifts as much as possible in the factory to make it easier for marine contractors to install them out in the field. “They seem to appreciate that,” says Steve.

Mike Thaler, owner of Thaler Contracting Inc. in Davie, outside Miami, definitely does. “Their boat lifts come fully assembled for the most part, which makes installation much easier than most other manufacturers,” says Thaler, whose company is the IMM authorized dealer for all of Broward County. “They’re pretty much just ready for me to install and get the boats on. They just make a good quality boat lift, and their customer service is great, though I don’t usually have many issues with their boat lifts.”

Ashok calls that pre-assembly the company’s “edge” and worries competitors will take notice and copy the strategy. But Steve says they already know about it and aren’t following suit. “The truth of the matter is our competition doesn’t want to do it,” he says. “We’re using our time to help out our contractors. They don’t want to use their time because it will cut into their bottom line.”

Future outlook

The family didn’t take on any debt to build the company, investing about $5 million of their own money into the business. A good chunk of that came from Ashok’s retirement funds. He says he holds more of an advisory role at the company, quipping, “I just want to make sure I get my money back.”

But he doesn’t have any real concerns about his sons’ talents or their ability to run a successful company. “ “We will take any challenge or any competition,” he says. “And we will drive them away, because we are committed.”

That commitment has helped the company secure work like the custom lift it designed for Gulf Star Marina in Fort Myers Beach. The “smart marina” uses automated stacker crane technology to move boats from storage racks to the water, and it required the creation of a lift tailored specifically to the marina.

“We needed something extremely custom, and IMM Quality Boat Lifts was willing to do all the special fabrication and really create a pretty specialty lift for us,” Gulf Star owner Todd Carroll, says. “They just did a fantastic job.”

The Nandas were willing to take on this complex project when a lot of other boat lift manufacturers weren’t. “What they needed was basically an R&D project from a company,” says Steve. “We kind of like taking on projects like this. They’re learning experiences. As you’re going through the R&D, you figure out new ways and better ways of doing things.”

And the job didn’t finish once the custom lift for the project was created. Even after installation, the team at IMM Quality Boat Lifts continues to analyze the new lift and look for ways to make it even better.

IMM Quality has benefitted from the pandemic-led increase in boating, given it’s a safe, socially distanced activity. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, U.S. boat sales hit a 13-year high in 2020, with retail sales of new powerboats increasing by about 12%. The association expects boat sales to remain at “historic levels” in 2021 as everyone catches up with demand.

That boom in boating business has been both a blessing and a challenge for IMM Quality Boat Lifts. “The hardest part has been labor, sourcing the parts and price increases at this point,” says Michael. “When everything happened with COVID-19, other businesses shut down and it just created a backlog. All the aluminum mills have been backed up, and some mill orders that we used to get in one month at most are now taking sometimes four months or more. We’re having to juggle increased demand with not being able to get parts in a timely manner.”

Even with those challenges, the company keeps moving forward. It introduced a new kayak lift in 2020 that’s proved to be a good seller, and it’s exploring other product lines. One area with potential? Lake boat lifts. That’s an untapped market for the company, and one that would require a different kind of product than the lifts it makes for boats in saltwater, coastal regions.

“It’s a completely different beast,” says Steve. “We’re also considering delving into hydraulic-style lifts. We’re trying to expand into new markets with new products, and we’ll see how that goes.”

The company has mostly maxed out its current Fort Myers space. To help support future growth, the Nandas are in the process of finalizing an acquisition of another Fort Myers business. It’s not a competitor but rather a vendor from which Michael bought parts in the company’s early days. “It will help us increase our production capabilities,” says Steve. “It’s space, it’s machinery, it’s employees. And all of these things are going to help us expand our manufacturing speed and capabilities.”

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