Remember TV's "Fantasy Island"? Hervé Villechaize's "Tattoo" character would point to the sky, exclaiming "De plane! De plane!" to Ricardo Montalban's "Mister Roarke" character, the mysterious overseer of the island. The plane then lands and out pop all that episode's guest stars.
Located on Nantucket, the Massachusetts island 30 miles south of Cape Cod, Marine Home Center began flying just two employees to work in the early 1980s. Today, the dealer makes four flights in the morning and four trips back get to everyone home each evening.
"We would prefer to hire people who live here already, but we just don't get the applicants," says Ronald Foster, general manager of Marine Home Center. "Our system has been honed over the years, and that's one of our strengths."
Marine now owns three airplanes, maintains a fourth, and employs two full-time pilots, three part-time pilots, and two mechanics. This portion of Marine's mainland operation, which also includes two small hardware stores on the cape, is right next to the dealer's materials receiving area in Hyannis, Mass.
From its Hyannis warehouse, Marine also sends two truckloads of supplies each day via the local ferry system. "The biggest challenge, and our biggest asset, is getting product and people to the island," Foster says. "Our ability to have our own system has been a real advantage."
Karl Karstens, a nine-year employee of the company who assists in managing the yard, says offering products from companies that are usually considered competition on the mainland is a value-added service. "We order at least once a week from Ganahl," says Karstens. "We stock certain items that are fast-moving."
Combined with the cost of shipping materials to the island, Pebbly Beach must charge higher prices than on the mainland. "Being a small business, in general, doesn't always allow us to get the gold prices that larger businesses get," Karstens says. At the same time, the prices are within a range that can be cost effective to a builder or contractor when taking into consideration what their time and order are worth. "We keep it close enough that you have to scratch your head and think about it," Karstens says. "It's a balancing act."
Knowing what products to carry is one the most daunting tasks that Sunset Builders Supply on Lopez Island faces each year. The third largest of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington, the population can swell to as many as 2,500 people, depending on what time of year it is. Not buying enough of a product could see stock wiped out. In contrast, buying too much of something could result in watching your product go bad.
"You have to be able to predict what people will buy and watch the cycle of products much more closely here," says Chad Hinkley, manager of Sunset's LBM department. "We have to be ready to reinvent ourselves on a weekly basis, based on the customer."
Marine Home Center also stocks major appliances, including televisions, and furniture. "We deliver more than just building materials," Foster says, noting a fleet of flatbeds, boom trucks, and small box trucks the company runs on Nantucket.
Overall, about half of Sunset's sales come from contractor sales, with new home construction being the focus. When another dealer went out of business in 1993, Sunset picked up the flag and focused on LBM sales. Sunset makes about eight deliveries per day on average, while taking care of pros working on no more than 10 new homes per year. According to Hinkley, most new homes on the island take about two years or more to build.
Supply Side of Things. Sunset maintains a tractor trailer for resupply purposes that travels back and forth to the mainland via ferry. Just catching the ferries can be difficult, since they fill up with passenger cars during the summer. "You can miss it, and then it becomes an all-day event," Hinkley says.
Situated in the Avalon region of Catalina Island, Pebbly Beach Building Supply lacks what would be considered a safe harbor; the dock it uses to unload its twice-monthly shipment of nearly 600 tons of supplies is not sheltered from rough seas. Unloading barge shipments can be a dicey proposition. Karstens has seen a barge pull in at the same moment a rough storm was brewing, causing the captain to lift the ramp and pull back before the freight could be unloaded.
"It's tied up to the dock, and you can't unload it. [The shipment is] so close, you can almost taste it," Karstens says. "But you can't blame [the captain]. You just wish there were a different way sometimes."
Vacant lots are scarce on the island so most of Pebbly Beach's customers are remodelers rather than home builders. However, there is a loophole in zoning codes that allows a home to be deemed a remodeling project as long as one of the home's original walls is left standing. "Once the other three walls are up, you tear down the old one, rebuild it and, basically, it's a brand new house," Karstens explains.
Despite the obstacles Sunset faces, and a 45-minute ferry ride that Hinkley himself takes back and forth to work five days a week, he wouldn't have it any other way.
"Figuring everything out every day is a lot more fun than doing the same thing and the same job every day," he says.