In 1969, two students at Stanford University’s business school decided to put their meager savings together and buy a business. “We didn’t have much capital, maybe enough to last three months,” says Bob Selig, CEO of Davis Instruments. “We looked around to buy an existing business, something with filing cabinets and a few typewriters.”
Selig and his partner, Jim Acquistapace, found a small company called Davis Instruments in Hayward, just outside of San Francisco. “It was started by Bill Davis, a tool maker, and had just a handful of employees and products,” says Selig. “The main product was a plastic sextant.”
Though the name has become a leading marine brand, Selig and Aquistapace had not necessarily set out to be part of the boating industry. They were more interested in running their own business. Before starting his MBA at Stanford, Selig had been an officer in the U.S. Army for six years.
“We knew we didn’t want to interview with McKinsey & Associates for corporate jobs like most of our fellow Stanford students,” says Selig. “We quickly found out that we didn’t know how to run a business. We spent that first year down in the trenches, learning and working hard. We did everything.”
The two partners added new products to their fledgling business and, over the years, made a number of acquisitions to beef up the Davis line. “It might be one or a whole line of products, but we were strictly a marine accessories company in the early years,” says Selig.
In 1980, Selig and Acquistapace added a small handheld anemometer to their line by acquiring Digitar Corp. This small product opened the door to weather instrumentation which, in turn, opened doors to other industries like outdoor recreation, automotive and agriculture. “We took that company and began to develop new weather instruments,” says Selig. “We’ve since become a major player in weather instrumentation and software.”
Davis weather instruments are now used by agronomists, meteorologists, municipalities and home hobbyists around the world.
The company also began to expand beyond marine in the 1980s as sales of new boats peaked in the U.S. “It was clear that seismic shifts were taking place across the industry, so we moved ourselves into other interesting niches,” says Selig.
One of those niches included fleet-management. Davis became a major brand in automotive tracking tools. That venture, however, was shuttered when Verizon came into the business. “They were just too big and powerful to compete with,” says Selig.
These days, Davis Instruments has grown from its original five employees to 110—a number of whom have been with the company for 25 and even 40 years. Many of the employees are software engineers. “You wouldn’t recognize our business now, compared to when we started,” says Selig. “For us, it’s all about providing information and interpreting it. We make all this weather equipment, but it’s not just boaters using our stuff. We have farmers and many other industries that are dependent on it.”
The company is also heavily involved with contract manufacturing for hundreds of its products at facilities in Asia and Europe.
Selig said it was critical that Davis expand out of marine and into other sectors. “Boating wasn’t growing that fast, so we needed to spread out,” he says. “The world has changed and the demographics of the boating industry have also changed. We moved from supplying dozens of small distributors around the country to big companies like West Marine, and eventually Amazon. We’ve always adapted by keeping an eye on the future. There are big forces changing the world.”
Despite the move by Davis into other sectors, Selig says the company will stay entrenched in marine. He describes his time in the boating industry as “great fun” over the last five decades. “It was a very good run for me personally,” he says, citing his time as chairman of the NMMA’s accessories division.
Selig and Acquistapace remain active with the business, coming into work each day. “It’s not totally dependent on us as it was in the early days,” says Selig. “We have a strong team in place. We may retire at some point, but not just yet.”