COLUMBIA CITY – Half a century. A golden anniversary. Call it what you will, 50 years is a long time and for one Whitley County family-owned business, that milestone was reached this year.
“This is a family business that started as a husband-wife team,” said Matt Grant, Sailrite vice president. ”It is now three generations and 70 total employees.”
Sailrite made Whitley County home for five decades. Early locations included a barn in the 1980s, among others. Its current location is a 71,000-square-foot facility on U.S. 30 since 2011.
“We like to think of Sailrite as a stable and visible business in the community,” Grant said.
The company, founded by Jim and Connie Grant, has been active in the community, from supporting the local YMCA and child care center to helping families adopt children through the Sierra Foundation and supporting Make-A-Wish to help children with serious illnesses realize a dream.
“We love being in Whitley County,” Grant said. “We have a great pool of employees to work with and the local government is very business friendly.”
Sailrite carved out a niche by appealing to a limited market – giving sailboat owners the tools and supplies they needed to build their own sails. It started with Jim Grant’s successful foray into competitive sailing and his authorship of books detailing the sail making process.
“This is a very small market and one that not many have attempted to infiltrate,” Grant said.
But infiltrate it was exactly what the company has done. Today, Sailrite is distinguished by being the only sail kit manufacturer in the world using modern Dacron and Laminate construction sailcloth to design for yachts up to 70 feet in length.
“Most sailors see sail-making as a mystic art requiring skills and aptitude beyond what any DIY enthusiast is capable of,” Grant said. “Sailrite has worked since 1969 to debunk this idea.”
In fact, the original product line was sail kits and written instructions for making sails.
“We still offer both today,” Grant said.
But the company has also diversified its product line and made changes to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace. Although it counts some locals as its customers, the majority of sales comes from other states and other countries. Grant said California and Florida are two of the company’s largest markets.
“Over the years the business has grown by pursuing heavy duty sewing markets in several areas where DIY makes sense,” Grant said. “The start was an expansion into canvas for boats which has expanded into home upholstery, outdoor living space canopy and shade, window treatments, auto upholstery and even leather work.
“Sailrite is basically a hardware store for anyone interested in do-it-yourself sewing,” he continued. “We sell the tools, the fabric, the thread, and just about anything else required to fabricate complete canvas products.”
President Hallie Grant says the growth of DIY as evidenced by sites such as Pinterest, helped the company appeal to a wider audience. DIY content is an important component of the Sailrite website.
Despite its longevity, it has not exactly been smooth sailing for Sailrite. Technology and cultural changes have posed challenges for company leadership and marketing efforts.
“One big challenge was going from mail order to internet sales,” Grant said. “And with this the changes in marketing have been tremendous. Google, texting, eBay, Facebook and others have made real changes to how and where we market. It is a lot more complex than just magazine ads, catalogs, and newsletters which was the mix in the past.”
One of these changes also deals with the way the company interacts with its customers.
“Recently we started using a service to get messages out to customers through text messages,” he said. “Email is still important but not as immediate as a text message. Reaching the customer in the best way to promote our products is key to future growth.”
Other challenges concern government regulations and global impacts of decisions made by legislators and governments.
‘More recently we are dealing with tariff concerns and expansion of sales tax,” he explained.
Grant credits the company’s focus on innovation and product development as another key to the 50-years of successful growth. He has two patents for successful products which are core tools in the sewing marketplace.
One product that has proved beneficial for the company was the Ultrafeed Sewing Machine, Grant said in a video commemorating the company’s 50 years. It allowed DIYers to take on other projects than simply sail making, such as auto upholstery and outdoor coverings among others.
“Upholstery foam is in demand for our customers who do this type of work and we stock a huge assortment,” Grant said. “To be able to ship this product at a reasonable price and in a safe compact package we use a mattress rolling machine to compress and film wrap foam. Our success is rooted in our ability to adapt quickly to changes and make the challenges our strengths.”
To celebrate Sailrite’s business milestone, the company offered several promotions and produced the first-ever sample book, fulfilling a bucket list item for the Grant family.
“What better milestone for our 50-year celebration?” Grant asked.
The sample book is a showcase of the company’s fabric collection by providing a swatch for customers to see and feel the texture and colors of the 68 available fabrics and six colorways. It fits in with the company’s DIY roots by allowing customers to create their own décor schemes using Sailite fabrics.
But the company’s legacy extends beyond the products it sells to its world-wide customer base. It is rooted in the desire to make life better for its neighbors. Ongoing projects that impact the community include raising $14,540 to grant a local child’s Make-A-Wish request and supporting a need-based scholarship for Indiana student campers attending Culver Summer Schools sailing program in Culver.