Two If By Sea

Steve Kaulback and David Rosen combine a quality product with the romance of the Adirondacks at their guide boat company in Charlotte

by Sean Toussaint

David Rosen (left) and Steve Kaulback take a break from their sales and production schedule at the Adirondack Guide Boat Inc. in Charlotte before heading out on Monkton Pond.

Steve Kaulback and David Rosen are complimentary business partners, with one acting like the screws that hold a boat together and the other like the varnish that draws in the wandering eye.

At The Adirondack Guide Boat Inc. in Charlotte, Kaulback is the designer, spending untold amounts of time crafting wooden and Kevlar guide boats to the point that he says he rarely has a chance to take his creations out on the water. Rosen is the salesman, logging more than 100,000 miles a year on his odometer visiting boat shows and introducing people to the beauty and uniqueness of the Adirondack guide boat.

Rosen tells a story of the first time he set out for a boat show shortly after investing in The Adirondack Guide Boat Inc. in 1995. As he loaded lights into the back of the station wagon, Kaulback inquired what he intended to do with them. Use them to light up the boats, Rosen replied. This was news to Kaulback dubbed a perfectionist by coworkers who said he usually found the darkest place on the floor to hide any imperfections or dust on the boats.

"What we have here is a clearly defined product with a story and a bit of romance," Rosen says as the din and clatter of tools echoes in the production area. "It's just a case of doing more than we've been doing. If you have a boat vocabulary, you can tell the difference and quality in our boats, but a lot of people can't."

Originated in the mid-19th century by hunters and sporting guides in the Adirondacks, the guide boat varies from other paddle and row boats by riding lower in the water and allowing occupants to sit lower in the boat, giving them more stability and making the boats less susceptible to wind. Kaulback's contribution to the design of the guide boat among other refinements is the curve of the bow, making it faster and more stable. By his own account, his boat is undefeated in open water rowing races.

Kaulback has been designing guide boats for more than 20 years and has built a reputation of being one of the most accomplished boat builders in the country. Such outdoor enthusiasts as National Public Radio's Willem Lange and Professional Boat Builder magazine's Brooks Townes own Kaulback guide boats and have praised him for his attention to detail.

He's not done honing his designs. The company is experimenting with a sliding seat in its 12-foot Kevlar pack boat (44 lbs.) to give the sensation of a rowing machine. The company also manufactures a pack boat with a stationary seat, a 15-foot Kevlar guide boat (63 lbs.) and a 15-foot wooden boat (70 lbs.).

Peter Barton, co-owner of Blue Mountain Outfitters in Lake Placid, N.Y., said he has two guide boats in his shop one for sale, the other for rent.

"I just had a couple in here who were undecided on what they wanted to try out," Barton says. "They tried a canoe and a two-person kayak and then we showed them the guide boat. So many people want to get out on the lake that it's nice to have another option; and they're more affordable now that they come in fiberglass."

The Adirondack Guide Boat Inc. makes two types of boats: Fiberglass (left) for about $4,000 and wooden for about $14,000.

When Kaulback started his business, he dealt strictly with wood, enraptured by the design and lure of the 19th century guide boat. "I realized that if I wanted any depth to my operation, I needed to start selling fiberglass boats," Kaulback says. He moved to Kevlar composite one of the latest boat building technologies and the fabric used in bulletproof vests. Kevlar has proven popular with women, children and the elderly because of the light weight and durability.

Kevlar boats sell for about $4,000 and have a production schedule of four days; wooden boats take up to 10 days to build and cost about $14,000. With those kinds of prices, the owners admit they have a limited clientele. "I'd say most of our clients are in the financial industry," Rosen says. "The rest are lawyers."

The company sells boats to a couple of retail shops, but Rosen says not enough people are familiar with the quality and design of guide boats and might be put off initially by the price range. Advertising in boating magazines has helped, as have building classes Steve teaches during the summer.

While wooden boats exude a romance of a different time, Kevlar boats have proven more popular with customers' checkbooks and are easier to make. Builders start by spraying a mold release on a fiberglass boat mold and laying in sheets of Kevlar. They pick a color to pigment the Kevlar, which will show on the outside, and reinforce the boat in strategic places by adding extra layers of Kevlar. After the fabric hardens, workers apply an interior gel coat, paint the inside and easily pop the boat out of the mold.

Because of the limited room at the shop, a prefabricated metal building on U.S. 7, the hulls of the boats are transported to a leased workshop up the road where woodworkers fasten the trim and ship them back to the boat shop for varnishing and finishing touches.

Behind a door bearing a sticker with a picture of a woman in a kayak and a caption that reads, "A woman's place is on the water," Mona Tatro and Mike Graves churn out Kevlar boats. "It's not every day you hear someone tell you he's a boat builder," Graves says.

"I like building boats," Tatro says. "I repair canoes sometimes, but it's not the same as building a guide boat."

Wooden boats are fastened entirely at a shop in Ferrisburg in the back of Kaulback's home. This building process is more involved, more expensive and accounts for a fraction of the company's sales. Cedar strips no more than an inch wide and a quarter of an inch thick are screwed into each of the 16, or so, ribs that run perpendicular to the bottom board, or keel. About 50 strips of cedar are fastened to each boat, attached to each other by epoxy resin. Matching strips on both sides of the boat are symmetrically designed and similar in color. Finally, the boat is sealed inside and out with a light fiberglass.

Despite the need for skilled labor, Kaulback and Rosen say they have had no trouble hiring employees on the production side. "We ran an ad for administrative help and hardly got a response, but we had more qualified applicants for our boat builders positions than we knew what to do with. There's something emotional about building boats," Rosen says.

Michael Day applies industrial adhesive to a wood boat at one of the company's three workshops.

It was a challenge to keep all 21 full-time employees busy throughout the winter, but Rosen says the fact the company sold a record 150 boats last year has provided a need for that many workers. Sales carry through the winter, as well, Rosen says, because "in the winter a whole lot of people are looking for something to do and wishing they were out on the water."

The more boats The Adirondack Guide Boat Inc. sells in the winter, the bigger problem the company has with space. Rosen and Kaulback agree to store boats for their clients and charge them when they come in to pick up the boats.

At the beginning of May, boats were piled in the back of the shop and filled two trailers on site just before delivery season began. The summer is a steady time for boat production, Rosen says, but it's also boat show season along the East Coast. Both owners visit local shows, usually with Rosen selling and Kaulback building. "Basically what we've done is given the impression of building a boat when most of the pieces have been put together in the shop," Rosen says.

Rosen visits boat shows as far away as Chicago and is planning a trip to California at the end of summer. Most of the sales stemming from boat shows are to people living in the Northeast, but they have been shipped as far away as Europe. While the shows are a confidence builder, they're also a point of frustration because it reveals a market the boat company can't accommodate. "In terms of production, we need to move into a place where we can do everything at one site to open ourselves up to the opportunity," Rosen says. The Adirondack Guide Boat Inc. is in negotiations for a larger, consolidated manufacturing area.

Enter David Bicknell, the company's new chief financial officer. Bicknell stopped at The Adirondack Guide Boat Inc. to look at boats about three months ago. He talked shop with Rosen, who eventually revealed the company was in search of capital funding. The following week, Bicknell signed on as CFO and started working on the $2 million capital campaign to support the company's move.

"We had no skill in that area," Rosen says. "We were so ignorant about going to investors and asking for money. Now we have a former vice president of J.P. Morgan that adds a lot of weight to our cause."

"Coming out of J.P. Morgan, I had a philosophy of doing something once and doing it right," Bicknell says. "These guys have a great niche; the next step is proper capitalization."

Rosen and Kaulback are adamant about not wavering from their niche, a lesson Kaulback says he learned from trying to break into the canoe market with a former company.

A graduate of the Pratt Institute inNew York City with a concentration in fine arts, Kaulback moved to Vermont in the late-'60s, which he fondly refers to as part of the "back to the Earth movement." His first full-time job was as a foreman for Vermont Furniture Co. in the Maltex building on Pine Street in Burlington. "I came out of college and wanted to work with my hands," Kaulback says, "and that's where I wound up working." He carries lessons from that supervisory position with him today, handing out tips not orders to his employees.

He saw his first wooden guide boat when his former father-in-law gave him one, and fell in love immediately with the design. "It was the perfect example of form vs. function made out of a specific need with materials indigenous to the Adirondacks," Kaulback says.

He built a shop in the back of his house and finished his first boat while working at an apple cider factory. It took two more boats before he felt comfortable enough to visit his first boat show. "I didn't feel like my craftsmanship was there yet, so there wasn't any reason for me to go bragging about it." He sold two boats at that show.

From there, Kaulback moved into a little shop in Waterbury Center but wasn't set up six months before the landlords decided they wanted to move and ended his lease. With his shop closed and his last boat sold, Kaulback set out for New York to make what he thought would be his final delivery.

"I remember driving down, thinking this was my last hurrah," Kaulback recalls. "I stopped in Lake George, N.Y., to take in a boat show and wound up selling a boat. When I got back in the car, I thought, 'I couldn't leave this job even if I wanted to; it's where my talent lies.' It seems like I've had so many ups and downs, it's remarkable I carried on."

Kaulback's next store was more-or-less a storage room on Battery Street that was so small he had to open the door to cut long boards. Moving to downtown Burlington gave him exposure and he joined up with a few acquaintances to start Rainbow Boat Works. That's when he started making fiberglass boats.

The company moved to a building on the waterfront and then to the Rossignol Ski building in Williston. Rainbow Boat Works had branched out from guide boats and concentrated mostly in canoes, a market which was difficult to break into with competing companies like Mad River and Olde Town, Kaulback says.

The company disbanded. Kaulback reclaimed his tools from the joint venture and went into the house remodeling business. He soon moved into a building on Ferry Road in Charlotte, where he made and sealed fiberglass boats. "It was a struggle, but after all of the time I had put into it 10 years I started building up a reputation," Kaulback says.

In the early '90s, Kaulback said people stopped buying boats so he sealed his supplies in a storage unit and went to San Diego where he was a carpenter and had a chance to work near the water. "I thought I'd wait around a little bit for things to change," Kaulback said. "I eventually came back to Vermont and unlocked the door to the business and the phone started to ring."

The electric company threatened to close down the building he was in so he moved down the road into his current U.S. 7 location. He carried on there for a few years with a one- to two-person operation until David Rosen walked through the door in 1995. "It dawned on me as a one-person operation, there was only so far I could go. There was a lot more work to be done than I could do on my own, especially on the office side. I guess I've always been more of a builder than an office person."

That might be why Rosen makes such a good match. Sitting in his somewhat cramped office with piles of promotional materials and pictures of the company's boats, Rosen spends most of his time on the computer before heading out to spread the word about The Adirondack Guide Boat Inc.

A former Green Beret, Rosen went as far as preparing a dissertation in sociology at City University in New York City but left in 1985 without delivering it because "it didn't feel right." He was introduced to the retail business when his ex-wife opened a sweater shop, Angel Baby's Knitting, in Middlebury. She would knit and he would sell. He says he picked up the tools of the selling trade at craft shows by wandering among booths after setting up his wife's.

When the business closed, Rosen moved into a wood shop in a barn on his property. When the barn burned down in 1995, he found himself in The Adirondack Guide Boat Inc. shop with an insurance check he could invest.

Rosen, 55, and Kaulback, 54, admit most of their time is spent building and promoting their product an effort that seems to be paying off right before their eyes.

"The perplexing thing is how quickly things change," Rosen admits. "We've always been selling quality boats, but there always seemed to be a ceiling. Now, we have all of these different directions we can go. It has a lot to do with Steve being a high-profile builder regionally for more than 20 years."

Originally published in June 2001 Business People-Vermont