In the Wake of Success
Saturday, Jan 28th, 2002. The Chicago Boat Show. – A tanned Zane Schwenk steps forward, reaches out and shakes the hand of Jim Schultz. “Great job, man. Really great job.” Schultz is visibly pleased with the show of appreciation from Mastercraft’s in-house talent.
Schwenk is a top-ranking World Championship Pro-Wakeboarder and X-Games Gold Medallist. When he introduces himself to Schultz he’s standing next to the tool of his trade: a scarlet Mastercraft X-Star speedboat. As a member of the Mastercraft wakeboarding team, Schwenk covets the X-Star – the best ‘tool’ available.
With a look of pride, Schultz is also eyeing the X-Star. Above the flawless contours of the hull, bridging the beautifully appointed cockpit and looking not unlike a racecar roll cage, is what is referred to in the Mastercraft literature as the Zero Flex Flyer Tower. Its primary purpose is to provide a rigid tow point for the wakeboarder, but it’s also a cool place to hang chrome-plated audio speakers, spotlights and an integrated board rack.
As the tow-point, the Flyer Tower is one of the most stressed and functional parts on the Mastercraft, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be beautiful. Jim Schultz’s Lake Zurich (IL)-based company, Gere Marie, has seen to it that this prominent and vital component not only does its job, but also augments the visual impact of an already stunning creation.
Jim Schultz started Gere Marie in 1998. “I don’t want to give the impression that the idea to start Gere Marie was just a joke,” he states, “but there was certainly no business plan. It just happened.”
While working as a product development engineer, Schultz had become closely involved in the layout and design of his employer’s manufacturing facilities, an involvement which helped to nurture a general interest in manufacturing technology.
“I’d driven by the Haas Factory Outlet in Elk Grove Village on a number of occasions,” he says. “One day, during my lunch break, I just stopped to take a look. Out of curiosity, really.
“I found myself in front of a Haas VF-4 vertical machining center. To be honest, I had no idea what I was looking at. I didn’t know anything about CNC machine tools, and I’m not a machinist. I’ve never bought a machine, but I had a friend who had a sheet metal shop, and I’d seen the kind of thing he was doing. I just thought, Well, how hard can it be? I went for it; I just bought the VF-4! I didn’t know what I was going to do with it. I didn’t even know where I was going to put it.”
Schultz soon found a home for the Haas machine, subleasing a small sheet metal shop in Elk Grove Village, Illinois.
“I took the training class at the HFO,” said Schultz, “and that’s when it hit me. I thought, ‘Oh, man, what have I done?’ That’s the point at which I realized that I was probably in over my head.” When the initial shock had passed, Schultz booked himself up for a real fright: a G-code programming class.
“I had no idea about G-code,” he says. “The HFO training class was great, but I was struggling to learn something entirely new to me. In the meantime, I’d managed to secure some sub-contract machining work through an agency. So, the pressure was really on.
“I continued in my full-time job, running the machine whenever I could. This went on for 18 months or so, and all the time I was thinking we were going to lose money. But we hung in there and, against all the odds, found ourselves making a small profit. That’s when I decided to quit my job and run the machine shop full-time. The next thing I knew, we’d bought a Haas VF-0!”
The agency continued to supply enough work to keep the fledgling company busy, sufficiently so that 18 months later, relocation to its current, larger premises was on the cards.
“We bought this building in April 2000,” says Schultz. “At the same time we also bought the Haas SL-20 lathe. We stretched ourselves to make the move and buy the extra equipment. Suddenly, we had three machines and more space than we ever thought we’d need. We’d come from a hellhole machine shop to the new place, and I remember thinking, ‘This is it – this is the beginning of the end!’ Amazingly, we managed to tread water for the first six months, thanks to the jobbing work we were doing.”
It’s often possible to identify a number of defining moments in the history and development of a company or a venture. Inflexion points, turning points, moments of truth, call them what you will, they represent coordinates in time and space when ideas, talent and chance come together to create something new or, at least, to change the old beyond recognition.
Defining Moment Number 1: The genesis of Gere Marie was in Jim Schultz’s seemingly rash decision to follow his gut and buy the VF-4. To continue the gastric theme, he bit off more than he could chew, then he chewed it!
Defining Moment Number 2: Most people in Schultz’s position would be happy they’d escaped a potentially ruinous predicament with little more than a raised pulse and a few sleepless nights. Not Schultz. The purchase of the VF-0 was an audacious move, but it wasn’t to be the last. The company’s moment of truth was looming large.
“I have a Mastercraft boat,” says Schultz. “I’d been looking for an opportunity where we could make something for boat owners and bring it to market ourselves. Some sort of product we could advertise in the back of the ski magazines. The plan was to make it and see where it led.
“I talked to my local Mastercraft dealer and asked him what he sells a lot of, anything he would like to cost-reduce or simply to make better. He showed me a particular item – a board rack. I took it away and spent some time and money redeveloping and prototyping it – then came up with something better.”
Schultz took the prototype back to the surprised Mastercraft dealer and left it with him. A few weeks passed, but he heard nothing.
“I called him up,” says Schultz. “Imagine my shock when he tells me that he passed it on to Mastercraft in Tennessee. ‘Just hang loose,’ he said. My immediate reaction was ‘great,’ but then I’m thinking, ‘all my hard work and this guy gives it straight to the factory.’
“So I waited, and sure enough, around February 2000, I got a call from a gentleman in Tennessee who wanted to meet me at the Grand Rapids boat show.
“His enthusiasm was infectious,” says Schultz. “We walked around the boat and he was throwing ideas around, and he finished by saying OK, let’s see what you can do.”
Gere Marie continued to work on the prototype board rack. “We gladly spent a lot of time and money making the parts and shipping them to Tennessee,” says Schultz. “We were getting pretty involved, pricing stuff up and making plans for production. Then it just went very quiet.”
Until, that is, the day the phone rang and Jim Schultz heard what he hoped he wouldn’t: Mastercraft had decided to take another direction with the part – a complete change of philosophy.
“You could tell that this guy just didn’t want to make the call,” says Schultz. “He was almost as disappointed as we were. It turned out that they’d decided to use some kind of extrusion arrangement to do the job.”
Despite his obvious disappointment, Schultz listened carefully to the new plans. “As the owner of a Mastercraft, I just wasn’t convinced that the new arrangement was in keeping with the Mastercraft image. I looked at the job and thought about it for a while. Before we could stop ourselves, we’d come up with a solution which I thought would look much better than an extrusion.”
The solution involved machining the X logo of the boat from a solid billet, integrating it into the frame of the Flyer Tower and mounting the board-rack fingers on the logo. “I called Mastercraft back and told them my idea. They were very polite, listened to my idea, but I could tell that the love was gone.”
This is the point at which most people would throw in the towel. Not Jim Schultz.
“We were pretty discouraged. I came back to the job shop and things were quiet. We’d purchased a Haas VF-7 at IMTS in September 2000 and it wasn’t all that busy, so I thought, ‘What the hell.’ We started to lay out the idea on our CAM system, and by 10 that evening we’d finished machining it.”
With the prototype in the trunk, Schultz made a dash for the last Red Parcel flight out of O’Hare.
“The following morning I got a return phone call from the customer. He was very apologetic and suggested that we should submit my idea as soon as we could and they’d take a look. He asked when we could get it to them and I said, ‘Well, what time is it there?’ ‘About 10 am’, he said. ‘In which case,’ I told him, ‘it’s on your desk right about now.’”
“I was like the nervous boyfriend all day,” continues Schultz, “thinking they were going to call any minute.” But the phone didn’t ring until 10 o’clock that evening. “They’d been in a production meeting all day. Finally, that night, they’d agreed to go for it.”
Defining Moment Number 3:
Gere Marie set to work, post-haste. “We prototyped a number of different parts,” says Schultz. “Including speaker housings, spotlights, board racks, etc. We had four days to make and finish the parts, to be delivered on day five.”
Everything went well until the parts were ready to ship. “I got a call from the polisher – they’d lost the clamps. None of the parts could be fitted without the clamps. I rushed down to Elk Grove Village, to the polishers. I found the clamps within ten minutes of looking, and headed straight back to the shop to get everything packed.”
Despite his efforts, the last Red Parcel flight had already left.
“So now I’m thinking, ‘What do I do – call with my first excuse, or try to find a way of getting the parts there in time?’ The customer had already called earlier that day, to make sure everything would be ready.”
At 5 a.m. the following morning Schultz was checking in at O’Hare. “I gave everyone the day off, jumped on a plane and got down to Tennessee around 9 a.m. Just after I’d landed, my cell phone rang and it was Mastercraft asking where the parts were.
“I asked the caller if he wanted to hear a funny story. He didn’t. He just wanted his parts. It turned out that it was photo-shoot day. All of the new model boats were there, the wakeboarders, photographers, etc.
“‘Don’t worry,’ I told him. We missed the flight last night so I brought the parts myself. I’ll be there in 20 minutes.’ Boy, was he pleased!”
Schultz is convinced that the two events (defining moments 2 and 3) were what clinched the Mastercraft deal. “There’s a lot of loyalty between us now,” he says with modest understatement.
Once Gere Marie had secured the Mastercraft business, Schultz bought a Haas VF-4 with 10,000-rpm spindle, followed soon afterward by another Haas VF-4, also with 10,000 rpm and with 1,200-ipm rapids.
“Now we have six Haas machines,” says Schultz. “The second VF-4 being a real ‘hot-rod.’” Since then, the Haas machines have been busy 14-16 hours a day, six days a week, making prototypes and parts for the 2002 model year, including board racks, the X logo, speaker housings and the light bar.
“It’s been an interesting few months, but if it hadn’t been for the partnerships with the Haas Factory Outlet and the CAM company,” says Schultz “we absolutely would not be here today. No question about that.”
When asked what it is that differentiates the Gere Marie product, Schultz responds without hesitation: “Fit and finish. It all starts with the design, but we also bead blast, bright dip anodize, polish and chrome plate the parts. We’re RS232 downloading programs directly to the Haas machines,” he says. “We have a lot of geometry in the X’s, so the programs are pretty big.”
Schultz is pretty pleased with the performance of the Haas machines. “In seven months of machining at this level, we’ve had just one reject! The volume of work is great,” he says. “We have four production jobs on five different models of Mastercraft boat. We have 32 projects currently open, and we’re preparing to build a new 15,000-square-foot facility on the corner of this site. We’re going to need at least another four Haas machines!”
And to keep those machines busy? Jim Schultz is just as cool as the day he walked into the Elk Grove Village Haas Factory Outlet. “We’ll just keep trying new stuff,” he says. “And keep doing a good job.”
How hard can it be?