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The New Rush To Repair

Dealers and marinas in supply-chain limbo for new parts and boats are turning to on-call services that fix everything from vinyl to engines
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Jeff and Kim Gebhart, who own a Fibrenew franchise just north of Houston, had about a dozen marinas and boat dealers as clients before the pandemic began. They would average calls from those clients two to five times a month, whenever a boat needed on-site repair of leather, plastic, vinyl, fabric or upholstery.

That volume of business skyrocketed to almost a boat every day, and sometimes three boats a day in one location, after Covid-19 became a factor in everyone’s lives. “We did nothing but boats the first month of the pandemic, somewhere in April or May of 2020,” Jeff Gebhart says. “We could still do the boat work because it was outside and not in contact with people. Even if people were afraid of the virus, we could still work and not expose anybody. We could social distance.”

Michael Carrigan, who owns the Fibrenew North Naples franchise in Florida, says that he saw a 50 percent jump in calls from marine businesses around the same time — and that even today, the demand remains high. As dealerships continue to struggle with supply-chain issues on parts and a lack of new- and used-boat inventory, more and more dealers are continuing to turn to on-demand repair services like the kind he offers.

“A lot of times, it’s much more cost-effective,” Carrigan says. “Just one of the panels that I’m going to work on right now, if they could get it replaced, it’s probably going to be close to $400, if not more. If 90 percent of the panel is good and there’s a nick on the edge that I can take care of, and if the owner is aware that we can do this at a fraction of the cost, then usually they’re into that.”

Windshield manufacturers are so busy supplying new builds that many are unable to offer replacement glass.

Windshield manufacturers are so busy supplying new builds that many are unable to offer replacement glass.

Moving to a business mentality of fixing what’s broken versus ordering a new part to replace it is becoming commonplace for everything from vinyl panels to engine parts, according to businesses that provide on-demand repair services for boats. It doesn’t matter whether the boats are power or sail, large or small, fresh or salt water. Increasingly, dealerships and marinas that don’t have certain kinds of repair expertise on-site are keeping local service providers busier than usual with routine and emergency needs alike.

“Dealers are trying to fix more things,” says Andrew Barberis, owner of On Scene Marine Service in Suffolk County, New York. “That’s the way it should be, but now it’s changing. They have no choice. They can’t get the product.”

Barberis focuses on engine repair, arriving in a stocked trailer with computer diagnostics software so he can complete most service calls on the first trip out to the boat or dealership. He says he’s seen about a 20 percent increase in business that hasn’t let up since the pandemic began.

During the first wave, there was the crush of people buying boats — and many new owners breaking things, or buying what turned out to be junk parts and engines that needed to be fixed. The current wave of business, he says, includes calls spiking from boat owners and dealers who are enduring long supply-chain waits for replacement parts and engines.

“Since the pandemic started, it’s the busiest we’ve been in all our years in business,” he says. “It’s about a six month to a year wait, so a lot of people are repairing their older stuff to get by until the supply chain opens up and they can get new motors.”

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The same forces are affecting marine glass repair, too. Paul Plaggemars of Glass Enterprise Auto Glass in western Michigan says his region was already struggling to find replacement glass two years ago after a heavy snowstorm broke the windshields on boats that were stored outdoors without reinforcement for the tarps. The pandemic has since compounded that backlog, with companies that make replacement windshields so busy trying to deal with new-boat orders that they’re no longer supplying replacement glass for older boats.

“We’re taking marine acrylic and bending that to fit windshields to get people back out on the water,” Plaggemars says. “Boats, after seven years, they’re no longer manufacturing those windshields, so the people don’t have much of an option. But you can make it out of marine acrylic.”

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The acrylic is a type of plexiglass, he says, and is not as good as original glass, but will last around a decade if boaters are careful with it and keep it clean. Requests for that service are up around 50 percent, he says, and show no sign of slowing.

Carrigan says the past couple of years have also taught a lot of dealerships about the various services that companies like Fibrenew can offer. Those dealers, now that they understand what’s possible, are adding quite a lot to the work orders, sometimes on the spot.

“I do a few [dealerships] here and there when they call me, but I have one that’s my bread and butter. They call me all the time,” he says. “As I’m here doing this emergency, they’re like, ‘We have another boat in the back that we want you to look at.’ ”

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Gebhart says he’s seeing a similar kind of uptick in business from individual boaters who, like the dealers and marina operators, are realizing that they can sometimes repair or restore a damaged item instead of getting into the long supply-chain line for a replacement.

“We’ve seen an uptick in new business from individuals,” Gebhart says. “We get that a lot. There will be a customer who didn’t even realize our business existed. They say they would’ve called us years ago. A lot of people don’t think about repairing those things; they know they can be recovered at an upholstery shop, but just repairing things, people don’t usually think about that.”

Gebhart is also getting calls from dealers who, when they can get new inventory, want to repair any minor damage that occurred during shipping. In years past, those same dealers may have waited for the manufacturer to resolve the issue, but nowadays, getting the product into the customer’s hands after an already-long wait is taking priority. “We fix it before the customer sees it,” Gebhart says. “That way it essentially never happened. Their new boat is in perfect condition.”

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Barberis says that going forward, he thinks inflation is going to become yet another factor adding to the need for on-demand specialty repairs of all kinds. While 2020 was the year of everyone buying boats, he sees 2022 shaping up to be a year when at least some of those people sell them — with those particular boats being in the kind of condition that will necessitate repairs by the new owners or the dealers who capture the brokerage listings.

“I do see a lot of people now selling their boats because they realize they can’t afford them; they don’t have the money to maintain them,” he says. “As long as I can get the parts, we’re OK.” 

This article was originally published in the February 2022 issue.

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