January 24, 2019
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Maine marine hardware maker looks to find new customers, including on land

Ben Dinsmore knows how critical it is to keep ocean-going vessels watertight both in his former role as a U.S. Merchant Marine captain and now as the new owner of a marine hardware company based in Hancock.

A fourth-generation seafarer, Dinsmore began to search for land-based work last year, in large part to spend more time with his wife, also a Maine Maritime Academy graduate, and three children. During his 19 years in the U.S. Merchant Marines, he often spent three weeks on ship, primarily in the Gulf of Mexico drilling oil wells, and then alternated three weeks at home and then three weeks on ship.

“I looked for job opportunities where I could transition and use my skills from the oil rig, like management, team-building, risk-management and knowledge of the energy sector,” he said.

After an internet search, he found R.E. Thomas Marine Hardware Inc., a 45-year-old boat parts company, one of the last of its kind in New England to make boat parts that seal water out of propellers and keep other boat parts watertight.

Another bonus is the business is in Hancock, near where he was raised. He called John Vogell, the real estate agent at Dawson Commercial Brokers handling the sale, and quickly met R.E. Thomas Marine’s owners, retiring couple Ron Thomas and Karen Macomber.

Dinsmore said he paid just under the $1.5 million listing price for the business. The company has more than $1 million in revenue, which he hopes to double in five years, and it has five employees, a number he also plans to double in five years.

The company is growing steadily. In 2015 it expanded from the 7,000 square feet it occupied to 11,000 square feet, Dinsmore said, primarily to increase space for inventory.

“We are one of the few remaining marine hardware manufacturers in New England,” Dinsmore said. “Most of our competitors distribute parts made in China.” The company uses bronze and stainless steel to make its parts.

And while he’s already seen the impact of the Trump administration’s trade tariff threats — one supplier said it is raising prices for stainless steel by 5 percent — there’s an upside and downside to tariffs. It means finished goods imported from China will cost more, making them less competitive, but it also means raw materials’ prices will rise, which could increase his finished goods’ prices.

“China is a wait-and-see approach for me. It’s hard to do any long-term planning with certainty,” Dinsmore said.

Among the parts R.E. Thomas Marine makes are shaft seals that keep a propeller watertight where it goes through the hull of a boat. The seals also protect engines that cost anywhere from $30,000 to $80,000 Dinsmore said. The company also makes covers to keep openings on decks watertight. The products are for both new boats and to replace worn parts, primarily on lobster boats and some yachts.

Dinsmore saw a number of new opportunities in an old New England business with a regular client base. And they dovetailed into ways to even out some of the ups and downs of the cyclical marine business.

First, he noticed the company was mostly advertising in local maritime newspapers and by word of mouth.

“I saw this as a way to take on more of a digital online presence through Facebook,” Dinsmore said. “The trick is getting information out about the value of our products to boatbuilders around the country. We are known in Maine but the higher awareness of our products could mean more sales.”

Other than expand geographically, he expects to improve current products, making them safer, as well as create options for deck covers and some of the other products the company markets.

A new business he’s planning is residential products.

“There’s a lot of interest in the architectural world for nautical-themed lighting fixtures,” he said. And he’s refurbishing parts for antique boats, like portholes.

Having a local shop that can fine-tune parts makes a big difference to boatbuilder Peter Kass, owner of John’s Bay Boat Co. in South Bristol, and a long time customer of R.E. Thomas Marine.

“They have a high standard and they can modify items to suit our needs as we replace older parts,” Kass said. “They are the only one in the northeast with American-made parts.”

Kass identified one of the challenges for a boat and a marine parts company: boats are getting bigger and heavier and need parts that can withstand the extra stress. He said R.E. Thomas Marine has kept up with the heftier lobster boats he makes and the parts hold up.

“When we started in 1973 boats were around 600 horsepower, but they quickly moved up to 1,950 horsepower and we had to redesign each part we made to stand up to the power,” Thomas said.

While the company initially started as a general machining shop, in 2003 Thomas added the marine product line, saying he saw it as a growing market.

After steadily growing the business, the self-described workaholic, now 72, had several heart attacks last year, and he and Macomber decided to do something else with their lives.

“I am a grumpy old, dirty old machinist and somewhat of an engineer. My wife kept the company going by running operations and doing financials,” he said. “We have four daughters and they all have other jobs.”

Thomas and Macomber realized the employees weren’t in a position to buy the company, so they considered a handful of offers for the company. They were drawn to Dinsmore’s experience and work ethic.

“Ben’s attitude is tremendous,” Thomas said. “And we discovered we knew his parents through the historical society in Franklin.”

The five existing employees are staying on, including Mike Newbert, the shop manager, who has a strong reputation with Kass.

Kass said he’s not concerned about having a new owner because Newbert and Thomas still are around and Dinsmore has shown his abilities.

“Ron has grown the business and Mike has been there a long time,” Kass said. “And if Ben could handle a drilling vessel when he was age 30, then it’s likely he can manage a small machine shop. It’s similar skills.”

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