Interview with Avalon & Tahoe’s Jim Wolf
This article appeared in the June 2018 issue of MiMfg Magazine. Read the full issue and find past issues online.
When you live in Michigan, few things are better than a day spent on the lake. Boating becomes an escape from the world and a chance to experience family, fun and freedom with nothing but pale blue water and an endless horizon in front of you. The team at Avalon & Tahoe Manufacturing, Inc. doesn’t just manufacture the boat you use to ride the waves, they help manufacture lifelong memories. In the last two decades, the Alma-based manufacturer has navigated its share of choppy waters to reinvent a brand and redefine a culture.
Avalon & Tahoe was founded by the Hutchison family as Playbuoy Pontoons in 1973. Originally in Mason, the company relocated to Alma five years later. In 2000, the Wolf family (John and sons Jim, Bill and Andy) and the Sawyer family (Jon Sr. , Jon Jr. and Jason ) pooled their resources to purchase the business.
Almost immediately, the new owners began looking for ways to elevate the image of a company struggling to stay afloat.
“We knew we needed to rebrand it and a new name could really represent the start of a new era for everyone,” Jim Wolf, Avalon president and CEO remembers.
Like a ship’s anchor, the name Playbuoy had begun to unintentionally cheapen the reputation of the business and rather than fight against the current, Wolf and his co-owners knew a change was needed.
“I’d spent the last decade on the West Coast and spent a lot of time out on Santa Catalina Island in the town of Avalon. Areas like Avalon and Lake Tahoe — it’s a beautiful region and the name represented the experiences customers could have with our pontoon boats,” explains Wolf. “More than anything, it was a name that didn’t restrain us or keep us tied to the past. A new name meant a clean slate and a fresh start.”
The company-wide restructuring was a challenge, but over the years, Avalon & Tahoe made huge strides forward. As a vertically integrated builder, the Alma facility makes everything — pontoons, framing, furniture — and allows Wolf’s team to have greater control over production and quality than their competitors. At the same time, an investment in technology and talent helps to maintain the company’s now-elite reputation and continuously improve upon their products.
“We have a highly qualified team of experienced welders, furniture makers, assemblers and quality assurance engineers in-house and each new innovation and new talent just adds to what we can do,” says Wolf. “We’ve been able to nearly double our facility space to 250,000-square feet and our team has grown five-fold since we acquired the business. We work in one of the fastest growing segments so being able to match that growth ensures our customers are always satisfied.”
Recalling his own lessons learned on the path to success, Wolf offers simple advice to small manufacturers in all industries, “Always be focused on the future. If you know where you want to be 6-12 months from now, 3-5 years from now, it makes getting there much easier. Don’t feel like you have to continue down a path because that’s the one you happen to be on. Carve your own path —determine your own future and work relentlessly day-in and day-out to realize your dreams.”