Boat lift buoys Minnesota manufacturer's fortunes

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 22, 2013 - 12:35 AM

Manufacturer Vanpro is enjoying surging sales thanks to its sister company’s modular dock-and-lift system for small boats and water bikes.

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Owners Brian and Michelle Varsoke of Vanpro Inc. in their manufacturing facility in Cambridge, Minn.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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The Swift Lift, a modular, portable lift for small boats and water bikes, has given a boost to inventor/entrepreneur Brian Varsoke’s contract-manufacturing company, Vanpro Inc. in Cambridge, Minn.

The lift has everything he was looking for, but couldn’t find, in a lift and dock system, said Varsoke, who described it as lightweight, compact, easy to set up and adaptable to varying shorelines and water depths. The abrasion-resistant rails won’t damage hulls, he said, and the lift has no moving parts.

Sales have surged since the Swift Lift was launched three years ago, Varsoke said. Customers include campers, lakeside homeowners and resorts and lodges. The JetLift, a lift-and-trailer system for stand-up water bikes that was introduced in 2011, has gained exposure and sales as racing pros have adopted it.

With orders swamping his factory, Varsoke is expanding efforts to find distributors to get lifts to dealers nationally and in other countries.

The Swift Lift’s success has been a boon to Vanpro, which produces precision-machined components and subassemblies for the medical device, defense and communications industries. The company’s expertise in working with specialized metals such as magnesium is a key differentiator, Varsoke said.

Vanpro enjoyed several years of strong growth before the recession and, like many manufacturers, is still recovering. Varsoke, who has extensive manufacturing experience, was a longtime Vanpro customer when he worked for other companies. He and his wife, Michelle, became partial owners in 2005 at the invitation of Vanpro founder Gene Van Alstine, who started the company in 1977. The Varsokes became full owners in 2008.

The Swift Lift has fulfilled Varsoke’s goal of developing a proprietary product to complement Vanpro’s contract-manufacturing work.

“To have a proprietary product allows you as a business to control your destiny more so than just having customers come to you,” Varsoke said. “It helps balance things out.”

The Swift Lift has a 2,000-pound capacity and all but the largest model weigh less than 150 pounds. A video on the Swift Lift website shows two people putting together a lift in less than three minutes on land, while other clips show boats and personal watercraft easily gliding onto and back off the lift placed in the water on the shoreline of a lake. Accessories such as a winch and wheel kits enable users to tow the lift behind an all-terrain vehicle or convert it into a shop cart or display stand. (The lift breaks down quickly, as well, for storage in its own carrying bag.)

Vanpro and Premier Outdoor Products share 10 employees, Varsoke said. Lift sales through the first quarter of 2013 had tripled last year’s sales and could end this year five times ahead of 2012, he said. Combined revenue for the companies last year was $3.4 million.

The Swift Lift is “revolutionary to the marine industry” in its materials and engineering, Varsoke said, and incorporates heavy-duty, aircraft-grade aluminum and high-grade plastics. Varsoke said he, engineering manager Darren Bombich and plant manager Robert Sholly have spearheaded product development.

Brian O’Rourke of Nashville-based Team Faith Ministries, said his pro racing team uses Swift Lifts and JetLifts in varying configurations to load watercraft onto the rack system in his semitrailer, to tow watercraft between the pits and the beach and as shop carts.

“Nothing really does compete with it,” O’Rourke said. “The versatility allows us to do whatever we want and to customize the fit to our needs. It’s perfect. We wouldn’t be able to effectively do our job without them.”

Scott Jauman has a custom 24-foot Swift Lift for his 20-foot Lund Alaskan fishing boat on Lake Winnibigoshish in north-central Minnesota.

“It’s an ingenious design and one of the best investments I’ve made,” Jauman said. “I’m always looking for things I can manage on my own and make life easier. I cannot imagine being 70 years old and moving a standard boat lift on my own.”

The expert says:

Debasish Mallick, associate professor in the operations and supply-chain management department at the University of St. Thomas’ Opus College of Business, said contract manufacturers such as Vanpro sometimes transition into making their own products.

“They start off by making products for other companies and over a period of time they get to know the technology better, they get to know the customers better and the two things come together in a proprietary product,” Mallick said.

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