Archive for Interviews

Jim Wilkie – At The Docks, Marine Electrical

Happy Halloween everyone! Sorry I didn’t have time to post anything last week. I’ve been really busy with my engineering classes. Soon I’ll write a post on time management, so you can learn how to do 80 things at once like I do! Anyway, I have a real treat for you for Halloween! This interview was really instructive for Scott and I. Jim and his wife Lori are a really great example of what it’s like for normal people to catch the entrepreneurial spirit and start up a business. Their uses of marketing, networking and customer service are worthy of emulation by anyone in business. Jim’s customer service is so extraordinary and his services so desired, he was making a profit within a month and now spends next to nothing on advertising. The interview turned into more of a group discussion, so Scott’s and my questions are in bold, Jim’s and Lori’s comments are not. Without further ado…

Cat: Describe yourself and your business.

Jim: My name is Jim Wilkie. My business is called At the Docks, Marine Electrical.

Cat: What kind of work do you do?

Jim: The customer will call me and tell me basically the problems he or she is having with their boat. Normally it’s, “The boat will not start.” That’s the first step. What I do is make an arrangement to meet up with the customer, and I take my equipment down to his boat, at his boat. Most companies will have the boat come to the technician or the engineer. I go out to the boat, which is a niche market that I’ve developed. I go out with my equipment, and I troubleshoot his problem, figure out what the customer’s problem is and get that solved. At the same time, I’m surveying the boat, looking for the electrical problems in the boat. The three things that are most important to me are to make sure that the boat is safe, that the boat is reliable and that the customer understands their own boat, because no customer has ever taken me out on their boat on a two-week vacation out in the ocean. So I want them to be able to troubleshoot their own problems. I have a very good rapport with my customers, with my suppliers, with other technicians, and when I started the business, I told myself that I would treat everybody like they were my most important customer. When I show up to work on their boat, I concentrate totally on their boat, and I try to get the boat fixed as efficiently as possible and with the least amount of money coming out of the customer’s pocket. Everybody seems to appreciate that.

Cat: You mentioned to me before that you had obtained your scuba license. Do you actually scuba dive to work on the boats?

Jim: No, I have my scuba certification and I’m qualified. I originally was going to go that route, where I’d take care of everything on the boat. My business is so busy, that I can only handle electrical and electronics on the boats. I’m not a scuba diver per se, that’s not my full training. My training is 30 years of electronics and electrical technical work for Lockheed Martin, and before that it was four years of electronics equipment aboard the A6A bombers, the aircraft that fly off the air craft carriers. I had four years of that, 30 years of electronics troubleshooting, and then, I figured I might be ready to start my own business working on people’s boats.

Cat: (Laughing) How did you realize that there was this niche, to actually go down to the docks to work on the boats?

Jim: My wife Lori and I bought a boat, and every time I was down on the boat working on something, every time other boaters saw that I had a multimeter, they would say, “Oh, do you do electrical?” And, I would go down and help them out with their little problems that they would have, and it turned out that I couldn’t get enough time to work on my own boat, because I was working on other people’s boats. We’ve only had our boat out twice this season.

Cat: What specific skills that you gained from your past experience apply to working on boats?

Jim: At one point I got myself transferred to a different part of the calibration lab for Lockheed working on submarines surface craft, and tugboats. At that point I started thinking, “I want my own business.” I transferred my information of how to troubleshoot a circuit or a system to what I’m doing now.

Scott: What’s the biggest boat you’ve gotten to work on?

Jim: Fifty-eight foot power boat. I also worked on the Bremerton Foot Ferry that goes from Port Orchard to Bremerton and from Bremerton to one of the islands.

Lori: You also just worked on the University of Washington research vessel.

Jim: I did! That was interesting. They put about $10,000 worth of electronics gear on a $3,000 boat! The boat is small, 16 foot tide runner. Little dinky boat with all this electronics gear.

Cat: How long has your business been in operation?

Jim: Three years next April.

Cat: You mentioned that you didn’t start earlier, because you were still gaining the skills you now have. Was that the only reason you didn’t you start earlier?

Jim: I didn’t start earlier, because of the risk of it. Most people are worried about getting a paycheck every week, getting the benefits (medical, dental and eye care are real expensive) and putting your kids through college. So you stick with a job until you get certain things done in your life, and the things you want to get done in your life are to make sure your kids are okay, they’re through college, they have a life of their own and they can stand on their own two feet financially. I think that’s what everybody is concerned about.

Cat: How do you market your business?

Jim: I started marketing my business by going to all the marinas in my area, and my suppliers. That would be West Marine. I have several suppliers in Seattle, Tacoma…that’s about it. I let them know what I was doing, gave them my background, kind of like a little resume, and I did a tri-fold brochure and business cards. It went from there. I started April 1st, April Fool’s Day, the day after I left from Lockheed, early retirement at 55 years old. By April 30th, I was making money. In most businesses you lose money for the first two years, and I think it’s 60% of small businesses that fail. And I think it’s because people don’t plan ahead. They hit upon a good idea, and they jump on it without getting a good base.

Lori: But your marketing now is different.

Scott: Do you have any active marketing or advertising that you’re doing now?

Jim: None.

Lori: Phone book, you do a one-liner.

Jim: That’s it. It’s all word of mouth. I’m lucky I think, because Kitsap County is surrounded by water, but we have three military bases. A lot of these other guys and women that are working in the same area I was, could do the same thing I’m doing, but they’re a little bit nervous about taking the jump. Getting into your own business, it’s a gamble, but it’s exciting.

Lori: The other marketing is that he drives an ambulance, and it’s the only one in town that says “At the Docks” on it. The rest of them are, well, ambulances. So, he gets probably more marketing through that than advertising.

Jim: It’s an oddball vehicle. In fact the next vehicle I want to buy is one of these ugly little Scions, it’s this odd looking car, people will notice it, and I’ll plaster my name all across it. Because I get eight miles to the gallon in the ambulance!

Everyone: (Laughing)

Jim: Yeah, so it’ll be a little bit cheaper to go to Seattle to get my supplies.

Cat: Do you have any plans for expanding you business?

Jim: I’ve thought about it. Right now I could expand. I’ve set up a network of scuba divers, mechanics, wood workers, and ship rights. We all kind of work together right now, and there is the possibility that if I was a little better organized on my bookkeeping, I would be able to subcontract out to other craftsman. But right now, I’m up to my eyelids with work.

Scott: If you’re working on someone’s boat, and you get down in there and see that there’s dry rot or something, you know a guy that you could recommend to fix their wood problem?

Jim: Absolutely, exactly! In my day planner…you have to have your day planner with you all the time, and a good cell phone with all the numbers in it. I’ll call up my friend or a couple of them that do dry rot or whatever, and I’ll tell them, “I’m going to send a customer your way.” I’ll tell the customer, “Here’s a good person,” and give them the phone number. That way I’ve already pre-warned my friend that it’s one of my customers, so they can try their best to squeeze them in if they can and take care of them. All my friends know that I am very honest and that I want to save my customers money. And that is the main thing, honesty and saving them money.

Cat: Do you have any future plans for your business? Are you just going to work until you drop and that’s it, or are you going to start subcontracting out?

Jim: Haha, this is good, you’re making me think about what I should be doing! Sometimes I feel like I’m going to drop at the end of the week. To expand the business…I haven’t researched it enough yet. I think its 75% of the boat fires that occur are electrical problems. So every boat that I work on, I’m taking a little bit of a chance, and I want to be able to control those risks as much as possible. If I subcontract out to somebody else, that also works under my name, that subcontractor is not going to get sued, it’s going to be me. I just want to get sued for stuff I do. (Laughing)

Cat: What has been the most valuable lesson that you’ve learned starting this business?

Jim: My business isn’t the most important thing in my life. I’ve set aside my family and I’ve set aside my own life to help other people on their boats. When I first started out, I was working Saturdays and Sundays. If anybody gave me a call, I’d feel bad for them, and I’d go to work. I finally decided to change, when my wife said, “Most of the things you work on are toys.” And really, in my line of work, they’re things that people don’t absolutely need. I mean if, your car breaks down, and that’s the only car you have, that affects you, but a boat is a toy.

Cat: What important advice would you give to a young entrepreneur just starting up?

Jim: Try not to jump into a business too quickly. Research, research, research. Then go to your competitors, not on the same block that you’re setting up your business, but go to them and talk to them. They will help you out more than you can imagine. They will tell you, “Business isn’t that great in this last three years,” or they’ll say, “You have a good idea, I’d like to help you out.” And most of the time they will help you out. Get as much information as you can before you jump into something. My wife and I jumped in…we were very lucky…we jumped into an ice cream business. In one week from the time we saw that ice cream truck in Seattle we had ice cream trucks in Kitsap County forty miles away. We didn’t have any ice cream trucks before that. It was one week, and we were on the road. We were lucky, very lucky. We could have gotten hammered. I was lucky with this one [At the Docks] too. I made money within the first month.

Cat: Is there anything else you’d like to add? That’s all the questions I have for you.

Jim: Good luck to both of you. You guys are going to have a blast!

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Alan Boeckmann – Fluor Corporation

Okay, so this one’s not really an interview, but I had the opportunity to listen to a presentation and question and answer session given by the CEO, Alan Boeckmann, of one of the Engineering and Construction Industry’s most successful companies, Fluor Corporation. It is very valuable and interesting to learn about how a business functions in general and how we can apply this to startup businesses. Additionally, I’m sure there are many of you who, like we will be once we’re out of school, are still working your proverbial nine to five job. You might as well know how to do it right.

Alan Boeckmann is chairman and chief executive officer of Fluor Corporation and has been with the company for nearly 33 years. As a young electrical engineer he never dreamed of becoming CEO, but his aspirations were high. He desired to become the head of the electrical department and joked that he never actually achieved that goal. His practical experience in construction from earlier in his life helped him to better understand the designs he made as an electrical engineer. Throughout his career, he accepted assignments overseas, promotions and transfers to other departments, and finally got into one of the company’s executive training programs.

He advised young engineers that wanted to progress in their career to be responsible for their own careers, and develop a network of mentors. Future CEOs will be those who are flexible to experience new situations, are mobile within the company, and are team builders. Working hard to make your group succeed will get you much farther than playing by yourself.

Apparently now is a great time to be young and starting out. Companies are hiring new graduates to be the future managers and executives, as baby boomers near retirement and leave high-level positions open. Boeckmann stated that it is decision and willingness to step into those roles that will get you promotions. Get on the ball guys, take advantage!

Boeckmann stated that talented employees in industry help a company get a jump on its competitors in both design and execution of a project. At the same time, a company and all its competitors receive a boost or a drag from the market. He estimated that market trends account for fifty to sixty percent of a company’s growth and profits, while talent accounts for forty to fifty percent.

What can a company rely on in times of market fluctuation? The same as anyone will tell you about investing in stocks…you have got to diversify. This is not the easiest thing for startup businesses who want to stay in a tight niche, but as you grow your business it is a concept that should be applied.

Maybe it is just my newfound love for business that’s talking, but hearing Boeckmann speak made me think, “Man if I ever work in industry, my goal will be to become CEO of my company.” Executives have all the fun driving a company towards progress.

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