Jim and Connie Grant weren’t even thinking about starting a business when they found themselves making their own sails for their sailboat in California 53 years ago.
“My parents were both teachers, but sailing was their hobby,” says Matt Grant. “The need for sails for a national racing event could not be filled by local sailmakers in time, resulting in my father deciding that he would sew them himself. This was really unheard of, but he figured out how to make them and ended up taking second place in the race. It was a pretty impressive feat for homemade sails.”
Matt says people started asking Jim how he did it, prompting him to start writing do-it-yourself books on sailmaking. Sailrite Enterprises, Inc. was born.
“Jim’s books are still used by sailmakers today to teach the traditional approach to making sails,” says Matt, vice president of Sailrite. “My parents were both born and raised in Columbia City and when I was very young they decided to move back home to raise their family, taking Sailrite with them. Once back in Indiana, Sailrite operated out of a 1,500 square-foot barn on the outskirts of Columbia City. We’ve since grown to a 100,000+ square-foot facility off U.S. 30.”
What started as a resource for self-reliant, do-it-yourself sailors has evolved into a household name in the sewing and DIY community. Makers from all over the globe rely on Sailrite for high-quality fabrics, tools, hardware, sewing machines and everything needed to tackle their sewing projects.
Sailrite has always been a family affair. Jim still does some remote software development for the company, with Matt as the vice president and his wife, Hallie, president. Their sons, Zach and Tanner, serve as marketing manager and purchasing manager, respectively.
Early on in the life of Sailrite, Jim thought it was important to hone in on sewing machines for their customers.
“The sewing machine category is one of the pillars of Sailrite,” says Zach. “Yes, we’re the only sail kit manufacturer in the world, but the fact of the matter is, you can’t do the DIY canvas work that’s necessary for a boat or home without a way to efficiently stitch fabrics together. The sewing machines have always been a focal point. During the early days, Jim would take existing sewing machines and modify them for sail making and canvas work.”
“I started making a machine that was completely custom to us and that resulted in the Sailrite® Ultrafeed® Sewing Machine, which is our flagship sewing machine,” says Matt.
Matt says after he got the Ultrafeed® patented, it became the nucleus of growth into other industries including décor and upholstery, outdoor living, hobby and craft, automotive and leather-crafting.
“Once Hallie and I started running the company, we realized there was a lot more to do-it-yourself than just sail making, so we began concentrating on everything else DIY when it came to canvas, and made Sailrite a one-stop shop.”
As the business grew, the Grants found themselves making changes to keep up with the technology their customers wanted.
“Of course, it started with print through Jim’s books and then we made CDs,” says Matt. “Our customers told us they didn’t want to buy the CDs, but instead would prefer to get the instructions for free and then buy the materials from us. We started a YouTube channel featuring step-by-step instructional DIY videos. Today, we have more than 360,000 subscribers. Plus, Hallie took on the job of getting us into website development early on in the game, so that was very helpful.”
“I have to laugh, because we used to run to the mailbox every day to retrieve customer orders,” says Hallie. “Now, people just call us or order online. With the exception of last year, Sailrite has had a mail-order catalog every year since 1970 and people still love that.”
Depending on the season, Sailrite employs 80 to 90 people, with six of those employees being members of the Grant family. They like to keep it simple and do just about everything in-house.
“Since our focus is DIY, we like to live that philosophy,” says Matt. “We do our own advertising, copywriting, videos, photography, customer service and a lot of our web development. We do not have an automated phone attendant, which our customers appreciate. I have strong convictions that we need to answer the phones ourselves and stock everything we sell, and then ship our inventory and not rely on other companies to do that work for us. I think that makes us more unique every day.”
“We just went through a big expansion, adding quite a bit of office and warehouse space,” says Zach. “We were able to fit in three first-class marketing studios, two video studios and one photography studio. This allows us to keep propelling further and further into a more digital world.”
Interestingly, the state of Indiana doesn't make the cut when it comes to the top ten states that Sailrite receives business from.
“Florida is number one and California is up there, too,” says Tanner. “The coastal areas of the country are our biggest draw. We all sail ourselves, but we just can’t do that right now because we’re too busy.”
The Grants know that as time passes, they will always be tweaking and modernizing their practices to stay ahead of the market, but the roots of the company will remain intact.
“Being the only sail kit manufacturer in the world is actually a very small part of what we do today, but it’s still something that makes us very unique,” says Matt. “I think the most interesting thing about Sailrite is that we tackle projects no one has ever created instructional content for; we show our followers the process from start to finish and then we stock the required materials and tools to complete the project. If you have a sofa and you tell an upholsterer that you’re going to try to reupholster it yourself, they’ll laugh at you. It’s the same way with sailmakers. Part of this industry has always looked at sewing as some kind of mystical art, but we know that people can do it on their own given the right training and tools.”
“For first-timers it’s not going to be perfect, but the great thing is you understand how to do it and you’ll be even better at it the next time,” says Hallie. “And I don’t care who you are — if you built it with your own two hands, you’re going to be proud of what you did.”
Owner(s): Hallie Grant, President; Matt Grant, Vice President
Address: 2390 E. 100 South, Columbia City, Indiana 46725
Phone: (800) 348-2769 / (260) 244-4647
Years in Business: 53
Number of Employees: 80-90 seasonally
Products & Services: A one-stop shop for fabric, tools, hardware and sewing supplies for DIY projects