Husband-wife team are smooth sailing with their boat cover business, SureShade.
Ron Russikoff is a Tacony native who spent a lot of time when he was younger at the Quaker City Yacht Club, where his dad was a member.
Russikoff, a Frankford High School graduate, developed a passion for boating and eventually bought a small boat.
Next, he wanted a cover for the boat, but couldn’t find anyone to do the job.
“I’m just going to do it myself,” he said to himself.
Russikoff bought fabric from Summerdale Mills and used the machinery skills he developed in shop class at Frankford and working for his brother’s business.
“It turned out pretty good,” he said.
That was more than a decade ago.
Russikoff, a self-taught tool and die maker, was so happy with the way the cover turned out that he decided to combine his passion for boating with his skills to open a side business, R & D Boat Covers, a name that includes his first initial and the first initial of his wife, Dana.
“It was a natural fit,” he said of going into the boat cover business.
Eventually, the Russikoffs opened a site at 13440 Damar Drive in Somerton. They remain there today, with three bays and almost 3,500 square feet of space.
Entry into the boat cover business wasn’t always smooth sailing. The economy wasn’t so great around 2007 and ’08, so the Russikoffs did not give up their day jobs.
Still, they were determined to succeed.
“As long as there is water, there will be boats. As long as there is sun, people will need shade,” said Dana, a Cardinal Dougherty High School graduate who serves on the board of Riverfront North Partnership.
Ron, whose boat is named Gotcha Covered, needed to tweak his initial work and test the robustness of the cover before applying for a patent to take to market.
The Russikoffs took their prototype to an industry trade show to gauge interest, and the results were good.
“By lunchtime of day one, we had Sea Ray’s interest,” Dana said of the Tennessee-based boat company.
In the end, the Russikoffs’ shade debuted on a Boston Whaler boat.
Today, their company, now named SureShade, is poised to make $8 million in products this year. And they expect to grow even more.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface of the marketplace,” Dana said.
Things haven’t always been easy since the first SureShade product hit the water.
In 2010/11, the Russikoffs found it difficult to obtain a bank loan as a startup business in a luxury industry. They didn’t have collateral or tangible assets to help them make a product bought by people with disposable income.
So, they contacted the U.S. Small Business Administration office in King of Prussia. The SBA told them that it has partners and connected them with Sherwood Robbins, managing director of the nonprofit Seedcopa, short for South Eastern Economic Development Company of Pennsylvania.
By April 2012, Seedcopa had arranged a $325,000 loan for SureShade through Valley Green Bank.
The Russikoffs needed the money for in-house mass production, as they were making prototypes at the time. They also didn’t have the time to time to fill out applications and complete other parts of the loan process.
Seedcopa’s help was pivotal in their growth, they agree.
“They guided us through the whole process,” Dana said. “We would not be where we are today without Seedcopa.”
Without the loan, SureShade probably would have gone out of business, the Russikoffs say. Instead, the loan helped the company go from a scrappy startup into the early growth stage.
Robbins said the SBA process can be challenging and he was happy to be able to deliver a loan for two people with such passion for their work.
“That’s what we strive for as a team at Seedcopa,” he said.
Robbins loves helping manufacturing firms like SureShade grow to become industry giants.
“It’s amazing what’s in our back yard,” he said.
Since the loan, SureShade has grown 40 percent to 50 percent each year.
Google “boat shade,” and SureShade will come up first, after any ads, images and maps.
SureShade was the cover story for the “50 on Fire Fastest Growing Companies” in the September 2016 edition of the Philadelphia Business Journal.
The company packages and ships dozens of shades in wooden crates on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays each week.
The shades range in size from an extension of 4½ to 10 feet and a width of 55 to 165 inches. They can be pulled out, pushed in or rotated by hand, or boat owners can simply press a button or lever.
About 60 percent of SureShade customers are boat dealers, builders and owners in Florida. There are also markets in New England and the Mid-Atlantic region, along with a growing international base. Phillies great Mike Schmidt is a client.
When the company sells to boat builders, the product can be installed either during construction or afterward at customer request.
“We’ve impacted boat design,” Dana said.
According to Ron, a canvas on a boat was once an afterthought. Now, 90 percent of boat owners take the canvas option.
There are 20 employees working in production, assembly and office duties at the Damar Drive location. SureShade also has a sales staff and three employees in Florida. All workers are paid at least $15 an hour.
Robbins, of Seedcopa, is impressed with SureShade’s apprentice model, with employees undergoing intense training. The company has collaborated with West Catholic and Benjamin Franklin high schools on a career technical education program. SureShade supports West Catholic through the state Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit program.
The Russikoffs are constantly looking to improve their product.
“We’re always innovating,” Ron said.
The business owners thank their employees, customers and Seedcopa for helping them create a thriving business.
“We’re happy and proud of what we’ve accomplished,” Dana said. ••