High-Schooler Shows Business How to Work With Mexican Maquilas

EXECUTIVES who still hesitate to do business with Mexico should talk to 15-year-old Clark Childers, president of QuikSkins Boat Covers in Corpus Christi, Texas.

Low-cost labor in Mexico has made the difference between profit and loss for his fledgling business, the young chief executive officer says.

Clark's voyage to international manufacturing began when his father gave him a Sunfish sailboat. Clark kept the Sunfish at the local yacht club in a three-story, open-air boat rack. Frequently, Sunfish-owners store their boats with the sails wrapped around the spars, where they are exposed to the sun.

Clark found that three months of sunshine can bleach the color out of the sails and turn the boat's shiny finish to chalk. That gave him the idea for a protective cover - ``kind of like a hairnet'' - that would slip over boat, sail, and spars in less than a minute.

Making an idea reality

Once he had the idea, Clark needed a plan. As it happened, the then-eighth-grader also needed a topic for his graduation thesis from private school. So he chose, ``Can a Fourteen Year Old Start His Own Business?''

Clark provided the answer himself by founding QuikSkins Boat Covers. The family housekeeper sewed a prototype. Clark solicited mail orders with magazine ads.

But sunlight ravaged the prototype, which was made of lightweight nylon fabric. As for advertising, ``after getting very few orders, I figured out that people are going to buy [a cover] right after they buy a boat, when they've got their money out,'' Clark says.

Through a local upholsterer, he found a new fabric - a cotton/poly blend containing a chemical that resists sun and mold. Meanwhile, Clark wrote to the boat manufacturer, Sunfish/Laser Inc. of Portsmouth, R.I. Sunfish president Peter Johnstone liked the idea and ordered 300 QuikSkins.``No cover has ever been designed like that before,'' Mr. Johnstone says. ``We've quit making our own. We're buying Clark's instead.'' The initial order for covers is ``a small fraction'' of Sunfish sales, Mr. Johnstone notes. Nonetheless, ``with time, I would expect that cover to catch on quite a bit.''

Clark, however, could find no tailors in Corpus Christi to make even 300 QuikSkins. But eventually, he was directed to Tight Stitches, a maquila (factory) in Piedras Negras, a Mexican city across from Eagle Pass, Texas. The factory also makes backbacks for The North Face and soft bags for Apple Computer Inc.'s portable computers.

Maquila offers savings

Tight Stitches not only took the order, but at a savings of $30 per unit over what Clark would have had to pay in Corpus Christi. That accounts for most of the profit on the QuikSkin, which retails for about $200.

``They are really a great idea. We ordered them immediately,'' says Claude Hargrave, co-owner of Sailboat Shop in Austin, Texas. Other Sunfish covers do not leave room for the spars, he says.

Now QuikSkins has a second product. Made from leftover scraps of the QuikSkin fabric, the item is a drawstring bag that fits over a plastic milk jug. Sunfish owners, Clark explains, tie the jugs to the sides of their vessel to help it float higher if it capsizes. That way the mast won't get stuck in the mud. The new product dresses up the jugs.

Sunfish/Laser ordered 2,500. ``It's a great idea,'' Johnstone says. ``Here's a kid who's very close to what's needed in the boats.''

Next fall Clark will attend a prep school in Connecticut, but he says he hopes the business arrangements he has put in place will continue. Rather than choose a business career, however, he says he hopes to enter a scientific field such as marine biology or oceanography.

``I feel really lucky that it happened,'' Clark says of his success. ``I don't think I'm a natural businessman.''

Maybe not, but he got an ``A'' on his graduation thesis.

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