Few business owners have an office assistant who is willing to go outside to play fetch, but with all that’s on Duane Willman’s plate, the occasional break for his golden retriever Gus, who is always on hand to vet visitors, is a welcome diversion.
The sole proprietor of Duane’s Cover It All in Wausau, Willman has covered a lot of ground on his way to hand-sewing boat covers, upholstery and awnings since 2011. The Marshfield native actually began as a kid, when
in fourth grade, a neighbor moved in who Willman noticed had boats parked all over his property. The man, John Sharp, had founded AJ Canvas Works as a boat-cover repairman.
It was then that the young Willman developed an appreciation for this age-old skill of sewing.
“With my parents’ permission, after school I’d be over there in his basement working until 8 or 9 at night,” Willman said. “I found it rewarding to do something with my hands.”
As Willman got older, Sharp asked him if he’d like to go into a partnership with him in the business.
“As an 18-year-old, to have ownership in a business,” Willman said. “There’s an appeal to that.”
By the late 1980s, Sharp had moved his part of their business to Minocqua, and Willman needed a job with benefits. So, Willman turned sewing into a sidelight while he worked full time for Fleming Foods from 1987 until it filed for bankruptcy in 2003.
“I was burning the candle at both ends,” Willman said. “I was burning myself out.”
So, he closed the sewing business in 1997.
And after Fleming, he got into truck sales. While he had a good thing going, he admitted he got “lured” away to a new employer by big promises that sounded almost too good to be true. When that new opportunity would’ve required an unwanted cross-country move, he once again found himself at a crossroads.
“I thought, ‘Not again!’” Willman said. But rather than spend time wondering if he’d had a black cat cross his path and broken a mirror while walking under a ladder, he decided to try creating his own luck.
He bought his first industrial-strength sewing machine in 2010 and incorporated in 2011. Even then, Duane’s Cover It All wasn’t exactly off and rolling.
“I made about $9,000 that first year,” he said
with a smile and a shake of the head. Willman was working out of his 20- by 23-foot garage. “I parked boats in the driveway, and I’d fit the boat covers outside.”
It was quite a lifestyle adjustment since he’d just left a sales job that brought in about five times that, but Willman had come to draw small victories even from defeats. Even when one client — who remains a friend — told him he wasn’t going to buy a truck from him, he told Willman exactly why. So, Willman filed it away as a lesson in forthrightness.
“Doing something for nothing,” he said after considering other lessons he’s learned in grow- ing his business. “Sometimes, someone would come in with a small job, where they could wait for it while I did it. They’d ask me how much for it, and I’d wave them off and say, ‘Nothing, but here’s a handful of business cards. Give them to everyone you know.’ I’ve gotten a lot of business that way.”
Willman also realized that connections and relationships he developed in sales could lead to business in his new line of work. He gradually expanded into sewing hems and grommets onto banners for Finishing Touch Signs and Flipside Graphics.
“I outgrew my garage in six to nine months,” Willman said.
He moved into a space in the industrial park on 72nd Avenue and shared that space with a small local manufacturer for about three years. Later, a lease disagreement led him to his cur- rent location at 500 S. 38th Ave., just off Stewart Avenue, about a block from Wausau Mine Company.
Sales have hovered around $250,000 the past couple of years, and while Willman is happy with the steady business, he feels he may have maxed out what he can do by himself. But in thinking of expanding, he runs into a common problem of available labor.
“I’m at a saturation point,” he said. “This could go to a million a year, but I’d need two or three people.”
In this challenging employment environment, Willman hopes that the same sense of ownership, investment, and wonder that he experienced as a young man can be rekindled in a new generation. There exists an opportunity for someone to come on board, learn Willman’s trade, and even take over the busi- ness one day.
“Maybe pay more?” Willman wonders aloud, almost seeking Gus’ feedback. “More flexibility? Benefits? ... I just know I haven’t had my own boat in the water in three years.”