Even passionate entrepreneurs with innovative product designs, solid legal help and a strong work ethic often need a couple other key ingredients to succeed - deep cash reserves and a healthy dollop of luck.
As it happens, lawyer W. Allan Eva and his business partner, engineer David Faber, have been able to fashion the above into a fast-growing, plastics-intensive business called Jet Dock Systems Inc.
The Cleveland-based firm, founded in 1993, has developed and patented drive-on docking for personal watercraft and boats. The product exploits an interconnected system of hollow, floating, blow molded cubes made from high-molecular-weight high density polyethylene that can accommodate up to 50-foot power boats. Confer Plastics Inc. of North Tonawanda, N.Y., has been Jet Dock's primary molder for several years.
Concerns over U.S. security are driving sales of the dock system, which initially was created to help wealthy, waterfront homeowners keep their expensive marine toys safe and dry.
Eva terms the business spurt ``dumb luck,'' but he's happy to take the orders.
The U.S. Coast Guard, as part of an effort to strengthen border security, in March 2003 placed a $145 million order for at least 700 aluminum-hulled response boats to help it patrol the shores. The government's desire to keep the $180,000 boats safely dry-docked has led to a boon in business for Jet Dock, according to Eva. The floating dock for each 25-foot boat uses about 3,000 pounds of plastic.
Additionally, the recent rash of hurricanes in Florida has boosted the marketability of such systems, as they protected boats by allowing them to ride out the rough waters through the devastating storms, Eva said.
Boats tethered to fixed docks often were swamped by the storm surge or bashed when lifted and dropped onto some rigid structure.
Jet Dock also benefited from the timely explosion a few years ago in the popularity of personal watercraft such as Kawasaki Jet Skis and Yamaha Wave Runners. At the peak of the boom in 1995, about 200,000 such vehicles were sold in the United States, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Sales in 2003 were less than half of that total, at 80,600.
But even though sales have fallen sharply, Jet Dock has continued to benefit by increasing its penetration of sales to those owners.
The company is a multiple winner of the Weatherhead 100 award, which is an annual ranking by the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to acknowledge the fastest-growing companies in northeast Ohio.
Jet Dock's system allows boaters to dry-dock their craft by driving right up onto the floating cubes. That minimizes the boat's exposure to the corrosive effects of being docked in water and also eliminating the need for expensive mechanical hoist systems to lift and suspend the boat above the waterline. It has several competitors, but Jet Dock succeeded in patenting the actual method of drive-on docking, which means that even systems that use different types of floating methods (such as interconnected slabs rather than cubes) still are at risk of violating Jet Dock's patents if they employ the drive-on feature.
Jet Dock Systems has invested $75,000 to secure its patents and another $1.2 million to defend them in five lawsuits over the past few years. Eva said Jet Dock has won all five suits, including a case settled this past June against Jupiter, Fla.-based Zeppelin Marine Inc., in which Jet Dock was awarded $455,125 for patent-infringement damages. Zeppelin is appealing the ruling.
Yet another infringement lawsuit - this one involving Hudson, Wis.-based ERA Marine Products Inc. and its rival VersaDock system - is pending, and it should come to court early next year, Eva said.
The development process for Jet Dock Systems was not all smooth sailing, said Eva, a 1983 languages graduate of Boston's Tufts University. He spoke Oct. 12 in Cleveland about entrepreneurship and design, at an event hosted by the Northern Ohio Chapter of the Industrial Designers Society of America. Early prototypes that the partners installed in Florida and Cleveland in 1993-94 sank. Eva and Faber worked diligently to identify and address the problems.
Early float designs tended to be thin-wall (one-sixteenth-inch-thick) HDPE, filled with foam.
``We think that's kind of silly,'' Eva said, noting the tendency of such devices to crack, leak foam and be ``environmentally obnoxious.'' Such a product also requires a two-stage molding and filling process, adding to the production cost.
Jet Dock's current flotation units measure 20 by 20 by 16 inches, weigh 14 pounds each, have wall thicknesses ranging from 0.25-0.33 inch (three to four times thicker than a typical plastic garbage can), and can support 200 pounds apiece. Each system includes several other design features, from cylindrical, high-torque fasteners that connect the cubes, to a keel deflection system that includes an HDPE cylinder running across the front end of the dock that ``lends initial lift to the craft at the start of drive-on,'' Eva said. Other features improve buoyancy and lateral stability and also make it easier for a single person, regardless of weight or size, to launch or park the watercraft.
Jet Dock sells almost exclusively black docks, since Eva said the carbon-black-filled, ultraviolet-light-stable HMW HDPE used in the cubes offers the best resistance to UV degradation and does not have its strength compromised by use of colorants and UV stabilizers. The firm does offer some beige cubes that can be used to designate walkway paths on the docks.
The docks are pre-assembled at the factory, and then separated into parts that can be trucked to their destination. The modularity of the system keeps production and inventory costs down by using standardized cubes, cleats and connectors for all docks, regardless of size or model. It also makes the docks easy to ship, expand and repair, allowing the company to offer a limited lifetime warranty.
The 35-employee Jet Dock, with sales of less than $15 million, sells roughly 30 percent of its product through distributors, and the balance directly, via the telephone and Internet, to customers who install the docks themselves. Jet Dock has two ``field operations'' crews that provide installation and service, but it's an expensive proposition, with Eva saying it costs about $2 a mile simply to keep a truck on the road.
Eva says a twin-jet-ski dock consists of approximately 700 pounds of plastic, but the average Jet Dock order contains about 1,100 pounds. That, he contends, probably makes his company's docks the most plastics-intensive consumer product available anywhere.
``Polymers have allowed us to give birth to this marketplace,'' he said. ``Plastics in our market hit a home run.'' They are lightweight, resist corrosion, and are impact-resistant, cost-effective and flexible yet stable. No other material can perform as well under extremely harsh marine conditions, he said.
``Without plastics applications here,'' Eva said, ``we're out of business.''