Q&A with SureShade LLC business leader and co-founder Dana Russikoff

Dana Russikoff, who co-founded the rapidly growing marine company SureShade with her husband, Ron, did not grow up boating.
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Dana Russikoff, who co-founded the rapidly growing marine company SureShade with her husband, Ron, did not grow up boating. The northeast Philadelphia native began boating after she met her husband 25 years ago, and it quickly became a big part of her life.

“He introduced me to the boating community on the Delaware River, and everything changed,” Russifkoff says. “I couldn’t believe this amazing resource was literally right in my backyard — a pure escape from city commotion just minutes from my house.”

One day while out on their boat, she asked why she couldn’t press a button to move the shade, and before she knew it, Ron was designing what would become SureShade. An indication of the company’s growth in the decade since it was founded is that SureShades were factory-installed on just one boat at the Miami International Boat Show eight years ago, but they were on 100 this year.

We sat down with Russikoff to learn how she and her husband were able to launch a business and penetrate the marine industry at the height of the Great Recession.

Q: Can you tell me about your boating background with your husband?

A: Our first boat was a 1992 Rinker 300 Fiesta Vee, which we bought in 1997, and it was our ‘home’ on the water for over 15 years, cruising the Delaware River, Chesapeake Bay and Jersey Shore. It was truly our wonderful boating experiences with friends and family that were the inspiration for SureShade, spawning an unexpected career path, as well as a commitment to revitalizing an underdeveloped and underutilized waterfront. We are now proud owners of a Boston Whaler 280 Outrage — the “Shady Lady” — which, of course, proudly boasts our product and branding.

A SureShade installation on a Sea Ray SLX 400.

A SureShade installation on a Sea Ray SLX 400.

Q: Can you talk about the idea for SureShade, and then how you launched? I know IBEX [the International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference] was a big piece of this, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard the whole story.

A: When it was time to replace the canvas on our own boat, Ron — a manufacturing professional with a side business in traditional boat canvas replacement — surprised me with a new canopy design that wouldn’t limit our views of the bay with conventional bimini support poles. I have to say, the first pass at a new type of shade was impressive. It did give us the unobstructed view we were looking for, but the shade was fixed in place; there was no flexibility to open and close it like you could with a traditional bimini. So I jokingly challenged Ron to make it move — wouldn’t it be cool if the canvas could easily retract by hitting a button when we wanted to be in the sun?

So Ron, always looking for creative ways to solve a problem, got busy sketching out a new design that met those criteria and more. When we realized that we clearly had something unique, we filed for patents and a business was born.

But, what to name it? The brand, in my opinion, is just as important as the patents, and it had to be compelling and ubiquitous. While I did spend a lot of time overthinking what the name should be, the name SureShade popped into my head when I was least thinking about it. I guess that validated the notion that this was meant to be.

Our go-to-market strategy was simple — find the industry’s major trade event and set up a booth. So that’s what we did at the 2007 IBEX. As complete industry newcomers, we launched SureShade’s ATF electric shade, with its cambered roller system. Interest was immediate — by noon of day one, we had secured a meeting with a target prospect.

Q: So many people have great ideas and think, ‘Someone should make that,’ but they’re really not sure how to materialize it themselves. How did you turn the idea into a reality?

A: It really came down to the pairing of an idea with a vision. Ron and I make a great team in that respect. He’s the idea guy, the inventor. When he sees a problem he figures out how to engineer a solution. I have years of global sales and marketing experience, so I guess you can say I had the visionary plan for how to grow his idea into a viable business.

We were also fortunate to have access to manufacturing resources to build the prototypes. That’s probably the biggest obstacle for most people because it can be a costly effort. Ron’s varied manufacturing background enabled him to build his own prototypes, and an upfront investment in 3D engineering software was vital to our ability to prototype on our own.

We certainly had our initial challenges. For one, we were starting a new business during one of the most challenging economic times in history in an industry that was experiencing a major downturn. We even questioned whether it was the right time to do this, but then we realized two things that kept us going. One, as long as there is water, there will be boats, and two, as long as there is sun, people will need shade. So armed with that insight we focused on our main goal to simply get one boatbuilder on board — one who would recognize that this could actually be a differentiator. And sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. SureShade was commercially launched on the groundbreaking Boston Whaler 370 Outrage at the 2009 Miami show.

But getting that initial client was just the first of a million next steps. Every goal you achieve brings about a new set of goals, challenges and opportunities. There’s no instruction manual for this — you literally learn as you go. Persistence, tenacity, determination — all those buzzwords apply here for sure, but what I can confidently say now is that you have to absolutely love what you’re doing. No matter what each day brings and how far outside your comfort zone you’re being pushed, you have to find ways to maintain that passion that caused you to shoot for the stars in the first place.

The Russikoffs’ personal boat, the aptly named Boston Whaler Outrage 280 Shady Lady, “proudly boasts our product and branding,” Dana says.

The Russikoffs’ personal boat, the aptly named Boston Whaler Outrage 280 Shady Lady, “proudly boasts our product and branding,” Dana says.

Q: In eight years SureShade went from being on one boat in Miami to 100 this year. Can you talk about that growth? Rapid growth can be tough if it’s not well managed.

A: Thanks. It has been amazing growth in a relatively short time. And I’ll tell you, it never gets old when we walk the docks of a major boat show like Miami or Lauderdale and see our product on so many boat models.

The first few factory installations of our shade really got the industry’s attention. And then, of course, the fact that SureShade has been so well received by boaters really helped generate demand for more builders to carry our shade. The visibility of our shade on early boat models has fueled the market demand for more boat models with the shade.

A viral growth effect got hold of the product, and things really started to take off. As more boaters saw the shade, either on aftermarket installations or new model options, they began to ask for it. So more builders started getting on board, and existing builder clients started adding more models. That momentum has really increased our OEM portfolio over the last few years, doubling the number of new factory debuts year over year.

At the same time we’ve worked hard to manage our growing pains and we try to resist the temptation to grow too fast. We’ve been able to ramp up our production capabilities in a very lean, scalable way to meet the increased demand. And when we roll out new products, like our RTX Pull-Out Shade, we do it in a very controlled way to ensure the product meets customer expectations.

Q: I know some new companies, or even old companies that don’t have a marine background, can have a tough time breaking in. How did you penetrate the industry?

A: One word: IBEX. IBEX was and still is the door opener to this industry.

Q: What’s the distribution model beyond working directly with OEMs? I think you do aftermarket sales and retrofitting, too. Is that correct? Do you have dealers in the network? How much of that accounts for your business, if so?

A: Every one of our shade products can be retrofitted to an existing boat with the appropriate overhead structure. Our very first SureShade sale was an aftermarket sale. It’s been a strategic growth component of our business model from day one. And it’s important that we develop a strong network of aftermarket marine entities that can effectively promote, sell, install and service all of our shade products.

This year we are working on a more in-depth dealer development program to ensure both current and prospective dealers have the information, resources and support needed to make SureShade a sustainable revenue stream for their businesses. No one doubts the demand is there, especially after this [year ’s] Miami [show], but word on the street is that the industry wants more training — [so] we’re listening.

But for a product that did not exist 10 years ago, I will say that we had many marine entities as early adopters. They really stepped up during a time of economic uncertainty, and honestly, we couldn’t be prouder of this. We have worked with aftermarket marine businesses all over the world — from sole proprietor marine technicians to large multi-location boat dealerships. As with any new product, things are not perfect, and these folks were on the front line in experiencing the SureShade learning curve.

Q: How are you planning growth ahead?

A: This year we are beginning the transition from an early-growth phase of the business life cycle to the expansion phase — in product, markets, capacity and human resources — to further capitalize on our growth potential.

The key to a successful expansion is the ability to do it quickly — the buzzword for that is scale, and to scale quickly you need to have your [stuff] together. So we’ve been growing and expanding in the most manageable way possible that doesn’t put the business at undue risk.

Successful expansion also requires investment, and we’re currently investing in each of our growth areas. We continue to invest in building our team, from engineering to production to sales. We’re happy to announce we now have boots on the ground in the busy Florida market with the recent hire of our new business relationship manager.

We’re expanding our market presence internationally with the support of our European rep IMDS and marine distributor partners like Indemar in Italy.

And we’re developing new products, as well as building enhancements into our current products, which we look forward to debuting at this year’s IBEX. We’ll be celebrating the 10-year anniversary of our IBEX launch, and it will be the perfect time to reveal the next generation of our systems.

Q: Has finding workers been an issue? It seems a lot of manufacturers have been having a hard time on that front.

A: Yes, it’s a national problem, for sure. I participate in a number of manufacturing networks, at both the local and national level, and it’s the primary topic of discussion. We’ve had our own challenges and had to come up with creative ways to manage them — from working with an industrial temp agency to developing very skills-focused interviewing techniques. But I’m excited about the future. There is a strong, renewed focus on the hard skills of creativity that teach you how to design and build something with your own hands, especially at the high school level. Two major local high schools here in Philly have implemented advanced manufacturing and engineering programs in the last few years — the first graduating class is 2018 and we’re looking forward to working with this next generation of skilled workers.

Q: The industry is doing great right now. Would you like to comment on what you’re seeing? Where do you see the industry going?

A: I love how the industry has evolved their designs to meet the changing needs of boaters, and the industry’s rapid acceptance of our product is a testament to its commitment to the boating experience. We are excited to be part of the industry at a time when it’s growing — it’s actually a new experience for us [because] remember we started at the beginning of the downturn.

And it’s such a great feeling to see all the new-model debuts that feature our shade product. And when a new model with our shade wins an Innovation Award, that’s a win for us, as well. In fact, two brands that won NMMA Innovation Awards at this year’s Miami show, Sea Ray 400 SLX and Scout’s articulating rocket launcher on the 380 and 420 LXF, feature SureShade. Scout’s articulating rocket launcher actually serves the dual purpose of easier access to fishing rods and the use of SureShade’s sunshade system in conjunction with their rocket launchers, which is pretty cool.

The crossover trend — building boats that meet multiple purposes — is one that I particularly like. A new boat is a big investment, and multi-use crossovers that combine performance and luxury without compromising comfort are appealing to a wider boater demographic, which of course is a sweet spot for SureShade, too.

Q: Any numbers you can share that would quantify growth?

A: Over the past three years we have experienced an average growth rate of 76 percent, and this past fall we were ranked as the sixth-fastest-growing company in the Philadelphia region by the Philadelphia Business Journal. We have doubled the number of factory-install models from 50 to 100 over the last 18 months.

Aftermarket sales, which includes demand at both the dealer and private boater levels, is an area where we still have huge potential for growth, particular in the smaller boat segment. And new products we intend to launch later this year will secure our position in effectively meeting that demand.

Q: I know boat designs have changed for products like SeaKeeper gyros, for example. Have boat designs evolved to accommodate SureShade?

A: Over the years we have watched boat designs evolve to include more robust overhead structures like fiberglass arches, towers and hardtops. The timing of this design trend coincided nicely with the launch of the SureShade system because while a fiberglass hardtop could shade the helm seating area nicely, the aft cockpit remained open and exposed, and the need for shade was more than obvious. But the last thing builders seemed to want to do was clutter the deck area with canvas support poles, and so the burden of how to figure out a solution for shade was on the shoulders of the boat owner. SureShade conforms nicely to the curves of the boat. Both builders and boaters like that, and we have been told by leading industry design engineers that shade is no longer an afterthought, but rather an initial design consideration.

Q: Can you talk about what it’s like being a woman in manufacturing today — boating industry manufacturing? What do you think it would take to draw more women into this field?

A: I actually began my career over 25 years ago in manufacturing, so it’s a dynamic I’m familiar with. But honestly, for me it was never about being a woman in a male-dominated industry. It’s always been about getting the job done and moving the business forward, and anyone who meets me understands that right away.

That said, it’s still important to serve as a role model and demonstrate that women in this industry do make a real difference. That’s one of the reasons why I get involved in industry groups like NMMA’s BoatPAC, why I co-hosted the NMMA Day on the Water in Philadelphia last year and why I continue to put myself out there speaking about women in manufacturing on local business panels.

As a newcomer to the industry, I was actually intrigued to see that there were already many women in prominent leadership roles. From Grady-White president Kris Carroll and Regulator president and NMMA chairperson Joan Maxwell to supply chain leaders like Jan Morton and the many other women leaders in a variety of operational, sales and marketing roles — I do think the industry does a good job of welcoming, promoting and celebrating women. That being said, we can always use more women in manufacturing and engineering roles. Women are clear influencers in boat purchase decisions, so it’s important that women aspire to leadership positions that ultimately impact boat design and ensure that boats offer features, products, accessories, access and storage options that women desire on a boat.

Q: Is there anything you’d like to add?

A: Well, I’m truly honored to be featured in this piece. It’s just another indication that we truly are living the American dream. Thank you!

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue.

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