At 24 years old, Steve Powers was on top of the world. He and a business partner had a real-estate and development business that was doing $8 million in annual revenue in Shreveport, La. He was driving a Porsche and living the good life.
Then the oil industry crashed. “We went from selling 12 to 15 houses a month to selling zero,” says Powers, who is now 62. “We lost everything that we had and went broke.”
One day, when he and his friends were commiserating over a beer, one of them told Powers about a possible business venture. “He said that there was an opportunity in small stainless-steel boat propellers, and nobody was focused on it,” Powers recalls. He happened to be dating a woman who invited him to spend a weekend in Washington, D.C., so while Powers was in town, he went to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to research propellers.
He didn’t find much, so when he got back to Shreveport, Powers talked to local boat dealers and found there was a demand for stainless-steel props for smaller engines — not so much for speed, but for durability. The anglers who used these boats weren’t known for being easy on the equipment, and aluminum props couldn’t stand up to running across sandbars and hitting stumps and other objects.
PowerTech Propellers launched in 1986, selling about 15 propellers per month. They were 10¼-inches in diameter and were available in three pitches. They paired with 40- and 50-hp Mercury outboards. By the end of the year, sales jumped to 50 props a month. Powers had an electric buffer, and he hand-stamped the diameters into the hubs with a hammer.
Today, the company produces about 40,000 propellers annually and covers everything from 9.9-hp outboards to sterndrives and inboards. PowerTech is still based in Shreveport, where it employs about 30 people at its 30,000-square-foot headquarters. The company also has a foundry in Guadalajara, Mexico, staffed by 100 people. That location occupies 50,000 square feet.
From the start, Powers has made it a point to take on the work that other propeller manufacturers and repair shops don’t want. For example, PowerTech got a call from a customer in Australia who wanted a propeller for his Thundercat inflatable raceboat.
“The market for those propellers is super small, but we have to be able to help our customers,” Powers says. “If we find a 25-prop-a-year market, we’re happy with that.”
Trial and Error
Powers paid $100 a month to rent a shack where he could keep his inventory. He talked a local store into machining props on credit, but he knew he needed to offer more diverse products if PowerTech was going to grow. The problem was that he didn’t have the money to invest in propeller molds that cost $10,000 to $15,000 each.
The machine-shop owner told Powers to talk to a local retired propeller maker named Billy Lupton. He was around 70 years old, and Powers says they made a deal. “He took a shine to me and said, ‘I’ll give you instruction and let you work in my shop for free.’ ”
Lupton taught Powers how to build an inexpensive propeller mold, which was basically two halves made out of plastic and epoxy. Each mold had to be sanded by hand, and had to fit together perfectly to hold the wax that would become the form for the propeller. Every night when he got home from a day of sanding propellers, Powers would crack a beer and sand molds. It would take him about six months to finish the molds for a single prop.
Sales grew to about 100 props per month, but Powers knew he needed a better way to come up with new molds. He bought a used CNC milling machine and perfected the process. Soon, PowerTech had 25 molds instead of a handful.
Building a Family
With the business continuing to build momentum, Powers’ mother, Mary, took a fall and could no longer sell real estate. She had both hips replaced and went to work with her son at PowerTech, becoming his business partner. “I was stronger in engineering than I am in sales, and Mom handled the money,” Powers says. “We divided our responsibilities and worked side by side for almost 20 years.”
During that time, one PowerTech vendor was Marcus Clements, who called on companies in Louisiana and Texas selling business supplies. Clements says the only person who intimidated him was Mary, but little did he know that the Powerses were impressed with how Clements carried himself. They asked him to come work for them. Decades earlier, when Powers had enjoyed his successful real-estate run, Clements had been the carhop at the local dry cleaner, running suits out to Powers’ Porsche.
Clements, now 57, had just turned 40 when Powers made him the offer, and his family wanted him to get off the road. He was also a former sailboat racer, and was well-versed in hydrodynamics. Today, he is Powers’ right-hand man and has helped establish an environment at PowerTech that encourages employees to thrive.
“I didn’t have any formal education, and I tended to be a smart loner,” Powers says. “Marcus helped me understand why it’s so important to pull together your people in a real team.”
Customers also become part of the PowerTech family. The company offers free tech support to anyone who calls, and remains willing to take on small projects that no one else wants.
The commitment to service has paid off for Powers and Clements in ways that can’t be measured in dollars or units sold. When the deep freeze spread across the Southern United States in February, people from around the world texted and emailed to check on them.
“When I was 16 years old, I wrote out the goals for my life, and I said I wanted to be the richest man in the world, monetarily,” Powers says. “I am far short of being a superwealthy guy, but I have a rich life in the ways that truly matter with my PowerTech family.”
This article was originally published in the April 2021 issue.