Kyle and Jeanne-Marie Gross,
Annapolis Performance Sailing (APS) Ltd.
It's a pretty simple strategy.
If you're going to sell cleats, don't stock just the cleats; stock
the cleats, the riser, the wedge, the fairlead, the under-deck
mounting kit and fasteners. If you're going to sell boots, don't
stock just the boots; stock the boots, the sock liners, the thermal
socks, the boot gaiters and the rubber or leather conditioner.
Follow these guidelines, and you will earn the right to call yourself
the most comprehensive performance sailing retailer in the Americas.
It's working for Annapolis Performance Sailing (APS) Ltd. in Eastport.
Two days before graduating from St. Mary's College in 1991, Kyle
Gross opened a small dinghy shop on Fourth Street, across from
Leon's Barber Shop. "I starved for the first two years of business,
[working] seven days a week, not knowing what I was doing," he
recalls. "I bribed my friends with pizza and beer to pose in sailing
gear in my living room for our first catalog pictures. Later,
it was pizza and beer to label the catalogs."
The mail order business quickly expanded to include parts for
larger boats and small racing boats up to 17 feet. After five
years, the company moved to Severn Avenue, in the building occupied
by UK Sailmakers, and remained there for six years. By late 2001,
APS's business had doubled, and it became clear that a larger
space was needed. A new building was designed and constructed
nearby, at 104 Severn Avenue. "To buy the property, design the
building and move over here, after leasing for so many years,
into a building that was designed around our needs is our biggest
accomplishment," says Kyle. "Somehow, we found enough money to
do it in an esthetically-pleasing, Eastport fashion."
Kyle and his wife Jeanne-Marie ("Ja-Ja") are both sailors and
met during a regatta in 1995. They have been married for six years
and have three children. Ja-Ja joined the business as a partner
in 1998. Kyle is a native Marylander from Frederick; Ja-Ja describes
herself as "Heinz 57," having moved frequently between the United
States and Equador.
Kyle recalls the early days before the company had a web site.
"We had a clumsy e-mail service, and I wanted to pull the plug
on that," he says. "Ja-Ja and another employee would secretly
answer e-mails behind my back." Kyle credits his wife with piquing
his interest in the Internet. "Obviously, we needed professional
help," he says. "It seemed daunting, since it was all custom.
We went to a company in Texas that had been used by Ja-Ja's previous
employer, and we had the site custom designed around our needs.
It was quite an education for me. It took a year to write it,
debug it and get it up and running. We still employ the same programmer
part-time, although we've never met him face-to-face."
APS's on-site employees are all active, performance sailors; in
fact, that is the first requirement of everyone who wants to work
for the company. "We focus on performance sailing, and everything
we do is directed there," says Kyle. "Because our employees are
performance sailors, they have the same perspective as the customer.
Our inventory is unrivaled for meeting customer needs, and we
are efficient. We know that our market needs things by the next
regatta, which usually means 'next weekend.'"
The ability to stay focused on their niche market has been at
the heart of APS's success. "We have stayed true to our long-range
plan by staying focused and by embracing technology as much as
we can afford, year to year," Ja-Ja says.
The company's marketing strategy is to continually identify and
maximize their exposure to people in their niche market. In other
words, they are trying to get their catalog into as many hands
as possible. The business is 90 percent mail order and Internet,
with the Eastport store serving mainly as a warehouse and showcase.
As far as their geographical location goes, Kyle says, "We couldn't
be anyplace else. All eyes [in the marine industry] are focused
"There is something more about working in the marine industry
in Eastport," Kyle says, "because most people who live and work
and play around Eastport are professionals, but we are in a 'pleasure
marine' market which allows us to be more laid back. In Eastport,
your dog can walk into a store or office. Probably everyone who
works here wears flip-flops to work eight months out of the year."
"Most everybody here shares the same passion for sailboats," says
Ja-Ja, "so we inevitably run into people out on the water or around
town. It's a very natural relationship, kind of like a family."
As a business owner, Kyle enjoys the creative freedom and ability
to formulate his company's expectations. "A lot of people have
preconceptions and can't get motivated or creative beyond their
preconceptions," he says. "Here, we have a flat management structure.
Everybody is a department head and that allows motivated people
to become creative and develop their part of the business."
Oddly, or maybe not, the family's vacations are usually sailing-oriented.
They recently returned from their third trip to Belize. "It was
the kids' sixth sailing trip," Ja-Ja says. "We took the first
one when our youngest daughter could just walk. They have the
mask and the fins and the snorkel---they love it, and it's exciting
to watch them grow up around the water. We keep a powerboat near
the house and go exploring on the Bay and do a little fishing.
Annapolis is a great place to raise a family."
You can visit Annapolis Performance Sailing at www.apsltd.com.
Callaghan is a freelance writer and native Marylander who
enjoys spending time with her five grandchildren.