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Through the Storm

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  • | 6:50 p.m. April 1, 2010
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One of the Review's Best Managed Companies of 2010.

Managing a company through a severe downturn often takes more skill than when the economy is growing.

Consider Matt Chambers, who joined Marine Concepts of Cape Coral as president in 2006. Even four years ago, Chambers and company owner Robert Long suspected that the economic expansion would slow, leading to a decline of the highly cyclical boat-manufacturing industry.

Marine Concepts makes precision molds used to create hulls and all sorts of fiberglass parts for the boating industry. Into 2007, 99% of the company's sales were to boat manufacturers. Today, that's down to 27% of sales.

The trick was to start diversifying without worrying marine customers about whether the company was abandoning them. Now, the company must make sure marine customers who survived don't forget Marine Concepts.

That's why Chambers didn't cut his advertising and marketing budget despite the fact that sales last year fell 62% to $5.9 million. The company attends and exhibits at half a dozen trade shows a year. “If you don't show up, people think you're out of business,” Chamber says.

Even as the company laid off half its staff in the downturn last year, it kept in touch with them because Chambers wants to rehire the well-trained employees when business picks up again. All the laid-off people were invited to the company's Fourth of July picnic last year. “The good businesses that survived take care of their people,” Chambers says.

Meanwhile, the company created JRL Ventures, which uses the same technology to make molds for different applications. For example, it now makes molds for theme-park waterslide manufacturers, cockpits for flight simulators and protecting covers for giant wind turbines.

The company has also embarked on obtaining ISO certification, a standardization process that calls for documentation of every function of the company. “It eliminates the voodoo within the organization,” Chambers says. What's more, Chambers believes the designation will lead to a doubling of revenues from customers who contract with the government.

The company has separate marketing materials for JRL and Marine Concepts so that longtime marine industry customers don't feel abandoned and new customers aren't misled into thinking that the company only serves boat manufacturers. “That will always be a challenge for us,” Chambers says.

Chambers and his sales staff scrambled to find new customers wherever it could find them, making 450 new contacts last year. His hands-off management style allowed the manufacturing operations to function smoothly while he was chasing new business and reducing costs. “I was spending no time on manufacturing,” Chambers says. “You've got to let them do their jobs.”

Sometimes, the hands-off approach isn't so easy. “You have to bite your tongue,” Chambers chuckles. “We set goals and they tell me how they're doing and how I can support them.”
—Jean Gruss


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