A century ago, Maine waters were dotted with hand-carved, hand-painted wooden lobster buoys. The varied colors, patterns, and shapes made each buoy a unique identifier of its lobsterman owner and a work of art bobbing in the sea.
Today those traditional wooden lobster buoys have been replaced with commercial styrofoam buoys, which are cheaper to produce and safer for boat props, but their iconic appeal lives on. Summer vacationers, especially in the coastal and lake regions of the US and Canada, want to experience and take home a piece of maritime history.
The last place you might expect to find manufacturing of replica wooden buoys using a historic jig from the 1920s is in a business innovation center. Mainely Buoys does just that and more, located in the Bangor Innovation Center. As the largest American domestic manufacturer of wooden lobster buoys for the gift and home décor market, the company employs five full-time and five part-time employees. They also produce a wide selection of other gifts, including nautically themed giftware, decorated glassware, and cutting and charcuterie boards.
With a business model heavily dependent on trade shows and the tourism market for sales, it’s not surprising Mainely Buoys experienced a significant sales decline over the past year. Recreational travel was almost non-existent, and several of their customers’ businesses did not survive the extended COVID shutdown. Owner Bob Pushard found himself in the position of needing to expand the customer base, while his sales force was effectively grounded and trade shows suspended.
Steve Bolduc, the Director of the Bangor Innovation Center, praised Mainely Buoy for its innovation over the past year, “When it was clear that the COVID restrictions would severely limit their sales and those of the wholesale customers, they had to pivot to other products and sales channels. These new products and marketing channels have developed into a new and vibrant part of their business.”
Pushard described one successful innovation as opening up their online sales platform to benefit nonprofit wholesale customers who did not have the capacity to develop their own online shopping experience.
“We develop their e-commerce site, produce the product, handle all of the customer contacts, fulfill the orders, and process the sale. The customer provides the content for the website, promotes the website, and receives the retail margin dollars for any and all product sales. Mainely Buoys receives the wholesale selling price for any product sold.”
Mainely Buoys also created a new category of products to meet customer needs. In one example, they collaborated with several nonprofit organizations to design and produce recognition awards and donor gifts.
These new markets allowed the company to continue to work with non-profit organizations whose missions they support, while also expanding their customer base in meaningful and relevant ways during an otherwise difficult time for all.
Despite those positive advancements, Pushard had not anticipated the current shock to global supply chains. Lumber and related material prices are up sharply over the past year, so shortages of materials at any price, while a priority, have become a very expensive commodity. Wood inputs are delayed due to both increased demand and reduced production in the field. Increases in shipping costs have also reduced the
viability of alternate sources for logs and other wood products. To work around this problem, Mainely Buoys is looking beyond its namesake to add new products based on other natural and responsibly sourced materials, such as stone and glass.
Luckily, their home in the Bangor Innovation Center is an ideal resource and partner when it comes to meeting their emerging needs, whether that be new product development, troubleshooting, access to technology and multidisciplinary expertise, and general business support under such challenging conditions. The Bangor Innovation Center is a business “incubator” designed to support small businesses during their start-
up and early growth stages. The BIC has operated since 1979 by the BanAir Corporation on behalf of the City of Bangor and is part of the UpStart Maine coalition of programs.
Pushard shared, “The BIC fosters a collaborative environment. The various tenants all have different areas of expertise. If we have an issue that is proving difficult for us, one of our neighbors may have a solution. This camaraderie between neighbors is something not usually found in a business park type of environment.”
The BIC facility has seven individual offices and eight “flex” space units ranging from several hundred to three thousand square feet. Being located in the BIC allows Mainely Buoys to focus on their business, not the business of being a facilities manager. Their affordable rent includes utilities, facility fees such as grounds maintenance and plowing, trash removal, and other building-related services.
Since Mainely Buoy’s primarily sells to coastal vacation destination retailers, their annual sales curve closely mirrors the American public’s summer vacation habits. With COVID restrictions lifting and the uptick of summer travel bookings signaling a return to normalcy, Pushard is hopeful his sales will not only return, but increase thanks to the company’s expanded product offerings.
But that hope is combined with hard work. Pushard will continue the search for alternative sources of raw product to support manufacturing, support their customer base, and keep innovating his business to make sure the treasured Maine wooden buoy stays exactly the same.