In a three-car backyard garage in 1954 Detroit, retired bus and streetcar driver William Parks, his 18-year-old son and his wife decided to start a business that made and sold boat covers.
Parks and his son, Ken, who says he talked his father into launching the company, did the patterns, the cutting and the bow bending for their custom-made canvas, and Ken’s mother, Wilma, did the sewing.
It would be three years before Great Lakes Boat Top moved into its first factory, a rented 1,200-square-foot facility in suburban Redford Township. The business, which also made covers for snowmobiles and pop-up trailers, started by selling directly to consumers, then shifted to working with dealers and eventually became what is now one of the country’s oldest and largest original equipment manufacturers of marine canvas covers and enclosures for boatbuilders.
This year, Great Lakes is celebrating its 60th anniversary — dating from its incorporation in 1957 — as a supplier to 46 boatbuilders, including such prominent brands as Boston Whaler, Sea Ray, Grady-White, Scout and Four Winns.
The company makes a variety of boat tops, including mooring covers, bimini tops, bow covers, side curtains, seat covers and sunshades.
Today Marine Accessories Corp. owns the company, which is based in Vonore, Tenn., and private equity firm Blue Sage Capital owns MAC.
Ken Parks, who took control of the company in the early 1970s after buying out his mother and his brother, Donald, (William Parks died in 1968), says that as a young company Great Lakes would offer dealers a discount and install its boat covers at the dealerships. As its business grew, the company acquired more room for itself at the Redford Township location by taking over the space of adjacent businesses that moved out.
In the late 1960s, Parks says, the family decided to become an original equipment manufacturer for boatbuilders, recognizing that working with builders would bring work not only during the boating season, but year-round.
“[Boatbuilders] were working in the winter, and we weren’t,” Parks says. “The only companies buying boat covers [in the winter] were the ones manufacturing boats. We were extremely green about being in business,” he adds with a chuckle.
Great Lakes Boat Top’s first OEM customer was the Dorsett Boat Co. As the company grew, Parks says, Sea Ray came to be its largest customer. Whenever the boatbuilder added a new production plant, the canvas company would follow — adding facilities of its own in Tennessee, Florida, Arizona (as Westland Industries because the family didn’t think the name Great Lakes would play well there), and even Cork, Ireland.
“I would move wherever they were,” Parks says. “And as I moved, I would try to pick up other customers in that area.”
Great Lakes Boat Top was based in Plymouth, Mich., in 1985 when it opened its first facility in Tennessee. In 1987 the company expanded the Tennessee facility to 60,000 feet.
In 1991 Great Lakes closed the Michigan plant and moved to Tennessee, where it is based today, although Jim Wilson, Great Lakes’ current president, says the company also has a facility in Cocoa, Fla., “to be closer to some customers for prototyping and customer service.”
Wilson acknowledges that the Great Recession, which sharply reduced boat sales across the country, hit Great Lakes hard.
“We went from 188 employees down to 36,” Wilson says. “We survived. A lot of companies didn’t.”
Wilson says the recession “made us look closer, cut our costs and get more efficient.” Starting in 2010, he says, sales began to rise again and they have increased each year through 2016 as the industry has climbed back to consistent single-digit annual increases in boat sales. The company has about 160 employees today.
“Our [sales] growth last year was a little over 11 percent,” Wilson says.
Great Lakes can provide retail customers with replacement canvas for boats that date from 1993 for which it made the original covers, a service that came in handy during the downturn.
“We really focused on replacement canvas during the recession,” Wilson says. “People were refurbishing their boats instead of buying new ones. It’s still a huge part of our business today.”
Wilson joined the company 32 years ago as a truck driver. He not only came to work for Great Lakes, but he also joined the family, marrying Ken’s daughter Victoria. Four of Ken Parks’ five children have worked at the company.
“It is a privilege to be part of a company dedicated to exceeding customer expectations for more than six decades,” Wilson says. “That kind of longevity speaks volumes for the quality of work of the people at Great Lakes Boat Top, as well as the solid business relationships we’ve developed with customers throughout the years.”
Wilson is happy with the industry niche the company chose for itself. He says one of Great Lakes’ competitive advantages is its speed. Custom canvas shops charge two to three times as much as Great Lakes, he says, and can take as long as 12 weeks to deliver a cover.
“We take orders and ship our product in seven production days,” he says.
Parks, who is 81, retired in 1995. “I gave the business to my children,” he says. “They were doing quite well, and they didn’t need me any longer.”
He lives today in Cape Haze, Fla., on the Gulf Coast and stays in touch with the company through his son-in-law.
“I keep my finger on it through Jimmy,” Parks says. “He and I discuss things.”
Great Lakes had a 60th anniversary celebration on Jan. 17, and the company flew Parks and his wife, Kay, up from Florida for it. Each of the employees received an embroidered jacket.
Parks says with obvious pride that the company is doing well, and he is waiting to see how the economy and the recreational marine industry fare under the Trump administration.
“We’re hoping for the best,” he says.
This article originally appeared in the March 2017 issue.