Figuring it out

Since 1983 Rob Eriksen and his wife, Lynne Webster-Eriksen, at Wausau Canvas Co. Inc. have solved problems and helped turn great ideas into useful fabric products. At the time, Lynne’s family owned a canvas business in Manitowoc, Wis., now Dowco Inc., and was looking to expand, Rob Eriksen says. But the company goes back a long ways before that. Founded in 1897, and a charter member of IFAI, it has changed hands several times but maintained an uninterrupted presence in the specialty fabrics industry.

A good knowledge base

Today, 50 percent of the company’s business is in custom work, including prototyping and short runs. “We do a lot of really diverse products,” he says. “We’ve dealt with just about every kind of material out there. In the beginning product diversity was a negative; by the time you got good at it, the job was finished. It provides more work, but continuous setup and training was inefficient. Now that we survived that period, it’s become a good knowledge base for other opportunities.”

“We solve problems,” he says. “That’s the biggest thing. We get people that contact us because we can usually figure out a better way to do it. We select fabric, determine what the costs are; we do drawings. A lot of people know what the end product’s use is, but they don’t know how to get there.”

Eriksen is in charge of sales and development, but he also handles the design work, figuring out how to make something when a customer comes in with an idea, which is an interesting career move for someone with college degrees in psychology, history and computer science who worked as a systems analyst. “But I do have a strong mechanical background due to personal interests. Back in the old days we used to rebuild car motors, and I worked in manufacturing environments while going to school.”

Which also helps when he has to be the guy who fixes things. “That’s the hard part about being a smaller business. I have to do equipment repair, the programming for the equipment, the digitizing, the graphics work. You can’t hire a person for every one of those things.”

Although they have a few long-time, core employees, the number of full- and part-time workers varies between 10 and 20, depending on the time of year, primarily. Their market area goes “all over the state,” he says, and with digital technology, they also have customers worldwide. “Some are customers we’ve never met,” he says. “It’s pretty simple to communicate digitally and ship products for approval.”

Recuperate and reconnect

As a family operation, they even bring the family dog to work. Their mastiff named Mason “guards” the place, he says, but is friends with everybody, except the mailman. They don’t take a lot of time off, but when they do, they enjoy recuperating at their home in the woods on the Wisconsin River, or visiting friends and family on weekends.

But the Eriksens still make time to go to IFAI Expo as often as they can, primarily to search out suppliers for specific projects they have coming up. “We want to see what new materials and new fabrication methods are out there,” he says. “IFAI has been a great partner over the years. I remember contacting INFOcentral in the earlier years to find materials and suppliers; now we get leads from member inquiries. This year alone we have about $8,000 in extra graphics work attributed directly to IFAI referrals.”

By Janet Preus, editor, Specialty Fabrics Review