“Find something you love to do, and you’ll never work a day in your life.” – Harvey MacKay, author/motivational speaker
Long before Steve Van Dam began building boats, he dreamed of building boats. The opportunity to work with his hands, to turn his imagination into reality and create a functional piece of art – it called to him like the irresistible song of the Siren.
But this is a much happier tale than the Greek myth. Van Dam’s Siren hasn’t crashed him into the rocks. Sure, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing, but Van Dam Custom Boats has become one of the most reliable and respected names in the industry. And it all started with a teenager’s dream.
“It’s just something that I always wanted to do,” said Van Dam, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Mich. “We didn’t even live on the water, but my dad and older brother rebuilt a 14-foot sailboat when I was a kid, and we’d sail on Lake Macatawa. I loved it.
“When I graduated high school, my dream was to build a boat and sail it around the world. My brother bought a dilapidated 36-foot sailboat, and I jumped in and started working on it without any training. I enjoyed it a lot, and it kind of got me thinking about learning from someone.”
In 1972, Van Dam married Jean Hodge, an experienced sailor, and she fully supported Steve’s dream – so much so that the couple decided to move to Maine so Steve could seek an apprenticeship. They never reached the East Coast.
“We packed everything into the back of a van and started driving,” said Van Dam, who was 21 at the time. “I’d heard of (wooden boat builder) Vic Carpenter, who was at the southern end of Point McNicoll in Ontario, so on our way to Maine we drove through there – just pulled into his driveway. I looked at his work and we talked, and then he offered me a job. He was very eccentric and creative. I was pretty independent and raw when I got there, and personality-wise he was tough. But he taught me so much.
“I was thankful for the opportunity. Everything just kind of fell into place. I know I would have gotten ‘there’ at some point, but if I’d gone to Maine I would have learned more traditional construction methods. Vic was more creative, more of a free thinker. It was such a great experience for me.”
After a 3½-year apprenticeship, Van Dam knew it was time to set out on his own. He and Jean returned to her hometown of Harbor Springs, Mich., just a few miles from Lake Michigan, and in 1977 they opened Van Dam Wood Craft, a name they later changed to Van Dam Custom Boats. The first few jobs were restorations.
“Our first workshop was pretty small – it was actually an oversized garage,” Van Dam said. “Fortunately, we had a couple of sailboats to work on right away, and Jean had a job. It was a year and a half before we had our first contract to build a boat. It was a long haul.”
Then in 1981, the company had its first “milestone moment” when Fred Ford contracted Van Dam to build a 33-foot sailboat. “Fred was well connected and helped get our name out there,” Van Dam said.
Building quality boats also quickly built the company’s reputation, and work remained steady for Van Dam and his slowly growing staff. In fact, Van Dam said, “We’ve never advertised; we’ve always had work waiting for us.” In 1988, Van Dam built a 55-foot sailboat called Patrician, and “I think that’s when we really started thinking, ‘Maybe we’ll be able to make a living out of this.’ That was the first time we took an actual paycheck.”
More business meant the need for more space, as well as waterfront access to test the boats upon completion. So in 1991, Van Dam moved to Boyne City, Mich., located on the shores of Lake Charlevoix in the northwestern portion of the Lower Peninsula.
“We fine-tuned our financial structure, and we had investors at that point,” Van Dam said. “From a business standpoint, that did a lot for us. A lot of boat builders have come and gone; it’s the nature of the business. But we survived because I’m stubborn. I just wouldn’t give up. And we learned that you have to run it as a business if you want to survive.
“You have to analyze and plan, and even then it doesn’t always go as expected. You can’t sit back and think it’s going to happen; you have to make it happen. We have great clients and a lot of repeat clients. We’ve been fortunate. But we don’t ever take anything for granted; we’re constantly working to get better.”
Van Dam focused on sailboats during its first decade of business and didn’t build its first powerboat until 1989, a 22-footer named Pretty Pattie. But luxury powerboats have become the company’s trademark. Van Dam is currently working on two projects, a 34-foot powerboat and a 44-foot sailboat. The powerboat is a larger version of what may be Van Dam’s best-known project, Alpha Z.
“We like unique stuff – one-offs – so I kind of bent the rules a bit this time,” Van Dam said. “We sketched it and changed it some, so it isn’t the same boat. It’s two feet longer.”
Built of Honduras mahogany from Central America, all of the wood for the boat came from one 20-foot log. “And we still have enough left for another,” Van Dam said. Using cutting-edge technology, the company manufactures its own parts, as well. Van Dam completes two to four boats per year, depending on size. Work on the newest powerboat began during summer 2013, and water testing isn’t expected to take place until summer 2014.
“It takes time, but it has to if you want to do it right,” Van Dam said. “And that’s what we do here – make it perfect.”
The company’s reputation for building quality wooden sailboats and powerboats has not only brought clients to its door but quality craftsmen as well. Van Dam has a staff of 13, and Steve created a four-year apprentice program with the goal of bringing in a new apprentice each year.
Steve and Jean Van Dam’s two children – Ben and Brie – both paid their dues in the shop as kids. Ben, 31, went on to earn an engineering degree in naval architecture from the University of Michigan and then returned to Boyne City to work in the family business. Brie, 28, is a scientist – “She has a doctorate,” her father said – and lives in Fairbanks, Alaska.
“They both worked in the shop since they were old enough to carry,” Steve said. “We told them they could do whatever activity they wanted in school, but if they had nothing going on they were in the shop.”
Ben, who is managing the new powerboat project, never wanted to leave.
“I wanted to work here since I was a kid. It was my goal in life,” he said. “I went to school to come back here. Originally I didn’t want to go; I felt that maybe the best place for me was here. In hindsight, it was a wonderful experience. What I learned in four years would have taken me much longer to learn if I’d stayed. I’m more theoretical in the way I look at things. And as a bonus, I met my wife (Erika) there.”
Ben’s expertise proved beneficial when Van Dam accepted its first European project a year ago. The boat had to meet European standards and mechanical systems specs, requirements that Ben navigated efficiently.
He said he wouldn’t want it any other way than to be working side by side with his father. “This is what I’ve been working for my whole life,” Ben said, sounding very much like Steve. “This was an ideal place to grow up. It’s a great playground for a kid – or an adult who acts like one.”
“Most sons are smart enough not to follow in their father’s footsteps,” Steve said with a smile, to which Ben added, “Or crazy not to.”
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