When Gougeon Brothers Inc. president Alan Gurski visited one of his customers in Maine last year, the shop was dead-quiet. The routing machines were off, and only the owner, his dog and one other worker were there.
A year later, the whirring sounds of the CNC routers slicing through a hardtop mold greeted Gurski when he again visited Janseneering, a composite tooling company in Topsham. "All three machines were busy," says Gurski, whose Bay City, Mich., company manufacturers and sells the popular WEST System and Pro-Set epoxies for boatbuilding and repair work. "There were probably six guys in the shop. They had other work going on besides the machine work and, of course, the dog was still there."
Business has improved, but it's far from thriving, says Janseneering owner David Jansen. In fact, he says, things had slowed in early May from what Gurski and two other Gougeon representatives had seen when they visited in late March. "I had a big contract that got cancelled on me," says Jansen. "It's a sign of the times. We'll find other work. We just have to do some scrambling. There's not a whole lot of stuff out there right now."
Still, after meeting with more than 30 custom and semicustom boatbuilders and repair shops in Maine during a 17-day trip, Gurski and field sales executive Ben Gougeon say they saw evidence of an economic upswing. (Gougeon technical adviser John Thomas was also on the trip to resolve any customer issues with the products.)
"I've done this trip for three years," says Gurski. "We get a yearly snapshot of the industry over 2-1/2 weeks in Maine. We feel we have a lot better gauge or bellwether of what's going on than the builders themselves."
Based on last year, he says, things are much better. "It's night and day," he says. "It's probably not back to where it was in June '07, even into '08, when I would argue we were spoiled as an industry, but there are more cars in the parking lots; there are more guys in the shops. The phone was literally ringing. Attitudes are better - the owners and the employees."
Last year's trip was "pretty abysmal," says Gurski. "It was a sad trip, so the industry, at least in Maine, has come a long, long way in a year."
Outside of Maine
What about other parts of the country? Soundings Trade Only talked with Gougeon customers in Florida and the Mid-Atlantic, and these businesses pretty much echo what their colleagues to the north are reporting.
"Is it improving?" asks Doug Blount, president of DLBA Robotics in Suffolk, Va. "Yes. Is it improving much? No. We have seen a little bit of an uptick in the marine world. The first half of last year was absolutely horrible, marine-wise. In the last third of the year we started doing marine work again. We've seen a little motion with the smaller boats, like in the Carolinas, say, under 25 feet."