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From the Ashes

Pat and Shelly Cooper stand amid hundreds of antique, old and new boat parts in their Plainwell business, Pine Lake Parts. © 2018 Encore Publications/Brian Powers
Pine Lake Parts turns disaster into an unlikely business success

Pat and Shelly Cooper make sales while they sleep. The owners of Pine Lake Parts, in Plainwell, which specializes in new, used and vintage marine parts and accessories, fire up their computers each day to find their eBay account greeting them with new orders: a boat motor, a gasket, a carburetor or perhaps a flywheel … the list goes on.

“We make sales seven days a week and around the clock,” Pat Cooper says, a broad smile lighting up his face. “We have gotten up in the morning to find that we (already) hit our sales goal for the day.”

Pat has good reason to smile. Back in 1998, he and his wife had a dream: to live on Pine Lake near Plainwell, run a fun business that was close to home and pay their bills. Despite a few hiccups and a devastating fire, the Coopers’ dream has come true.

Building the dream

Both Pat and Shelly grew up in Grand Ledge, but Pat spent summers on Barry County’s Pine Lake, at his parents’ cottage. In 1998, he and Shelly bought their own cottage on the lake. Over Christmas break that year, the Coopers — who lived in Portland, just west of Grand Ledge — spent time working on the cottage with their daughters, then-5-year-old Caitlin and 3-year-old Samantha. On the drive home, the girls bawled because they didn’t want to leave the lake.

“If they’re crying now when there’s ice out there, what are we going to do in the summer?” Shelly says she remembers thinking.

The Coopers decided to live at Pine Lake permanently, built an addition to the cottage and moved in. But achieving this part of their dream didn’t come without sacrifice. Pat was a corporate quality director at Lansing-based Demmer Corp., had a 70-mile commute each way and often worked seven days a week.

“We just put a mattress in the back of the truck, and (he would) sleep in there for a couple of days,” Shelly says.

Shelly juggled caring for their daughters and a large German shepherd with working from home as a bookkeeper for law and accounting firms. She says she worried about Pat having a heart attack from overwork or hitting a deer on his commute, with good reason.

“One year he hit seven deer on the way to work,” she notes.

In 2008, the Coopers achieved their next goal: owning their own business. With Pat’s brother, Jeff Cooper, they purchased Pine Lake Boat & Motor, a small marina on Pine Lake. The business had been around since 1928, and when the Coopers took it over, they discovered it housed boat parts dating back to that period. Lots of parts. Experienced at selling collectibles and antiques online, they planned to list all the old parts on eBay, and that would be that. But when $4,000 in parts sold the first month, the Coopers reexamined their plan.

“We looked at how well it took off and thought maybe online parts sales had more potential than we originally believed,” Pat says.

Selling boat parts became a “filler” business for the marina. Each year, after they tucked boats away for the winter and the marina’s business slowed, the Coopers went to work listing the boat parts they had for sale on the internet. By 2014, this sideline required one full-time employee and a few part-time employees. Things were going well.

Then the terrible call came: “The marina is on fire!”

Up in flames

It wasn’t the first time the Coopers had received this particular distress call. Pine Lake Boat & Motor had a gas pump located on the water to fuel boats and fire trucks also fueled there when there was an area fire. Pat says people would often see a fire truck outside the business and assume the marina was burning. But one February night in 2015, the call wasn’t a false alarm.

“We could see it as we were driving down Long Point (the road they live on),” Shelly says. “There was going to be nothing left.”

Very little survived. The Coopers point to a few dark-green items around their office — they painted anything salvaged from the fire this color.

“They didn’t let it get them down,” says Janice Tower, Shelly’s mother. “They picked it all up and started over.”

Their living room became the sales department. Pat tore engines apart in their home’s garage, and Shelly organized the parts into boxes and listed them on eBay.

“I had maybe 20 boxes,” she says. “It started going into the dining room.”

Unexpected outcome

The fire had an unexpected benefit, however. The Coopers long suspected there was untapped potential in boat part sales and now, with no marina to operate day-to-day, they focused full time on that side of the business. They purchased a 12,000-square-foot pole building a mile away that had electricity but nothing else, built a small heated area, put up racks and moved in with 7,000 parts. Jeff Cooper wanted to concentrate on rebuilding and running the marina, so they separated the businesses. In November 2016, Pine Lake Parts became an official corporation.

“He didn’t want to live in a junk yard,” Pat jokes about his brother, Jeff.

“I call it recycling,” Shelly responds with a smile, then adds, “We recycle just about everything.”

That’s not stretching the truth. Many of the parts hang on repurposed metal bed frames salvaged from the roadside or are housed on shelving units once headed for a landfill. The company ships parts in used cardboard boxes collected from area businesses. Last Christmas, Shelly placed a sign in front of their shop that read,

“You want to recycle your packaging? Bring it to us.”

Even though the Coopers jokingly call their business a “junkyard,” every part at Pine Lake Parts is bagged and given an item identification number, barcode and bin number to allow employees to quickly locate items and fill orders.

“I’m kind of OCD (afflicted by obsessive compulsive disorder),” Shelly admits, “but it pays off.”

As if on cue, Pat wanders out to the warehouse to retrieve an order and returns in a matter of seconds. “See?” he says, holding up the bag.

Feeding the monster

“Ka-ching! Ka-ching! Ka-ching!”

The eBay app the Coopers used to have on their phones made that sound to announce a sale, and the Coopers began to hear it often. If they wandered out of their phones’ signal range and came in again, a cascade of “ka-chings” would ring out.

“Everybody was looking at us,” Shelly says, “and we’re going, ‘We’re selling stuff!’”

The full-time focus on the business resulted in skyrocketing sales. In 2017, sales were up 250 percent over 2016.

“We figured out that eBay is a hungry monster — the more you feed it, the more it grows,” Shelly says, but admits they never expected the business to grow so quickly. Within the first six months of operation, Shelly couldn’t keep up, so Tower offered to do the business’s accounting. But looking at the business’s numbers, which showed that Pine Lake Parts was already making a profit, Tower became troubled, fearing that she must be missing something.

“She did not think that this 7-month-old business that was constantly buying inventory could be profitable already,” Pat says.

But it was. And the phone started ringing with more business opportunities. The Coopers bought the parts inventory from a small marina on Gun Lake and 60 outboard motors from Illinois. The inventory they purchased from a closed marina in Niles had 10,000 parts and 40 used motors and took five 20-foot-long enclosed trailer loads to transport. Their building was filled within two months, and the couple was determined to “not buy another thing.” Until they learned about a foreclosed marina in Arizona.

“Three weeks later we pulled in (at their shop) with a full-sized Penske truck and another 10,000 parts,” Pat says. Those parts, acquired in September 2017, have already brought in more money than they cost.

The Coopers figure that a couple of factors account for their success. The internet allows them to serve customers around the world, says Pat who notes that most of their sales come from Texas and Florida, places where saltwater destroys boat motors and parts. In Michigan, many boat motors from the 1960s and 1970s are still running, but marinas won’t work on them, Pat says, because motor manufacturers make parts only for 10 to 15 years of a motor’s life. The older a motor is, the harder it is to get parts for it.

“A lot of (used) parts from Michigan are in good shape. Motors in general are cheap here compared to saltwater areas,” Pat says. “About every time we list a complete running motor (for sale), it will go to a saltwater client because those are a lot harder to find there.”

The first motor they sold, which they estimated would sell for $400 to $500 in Michigan, went for $1,100.

“It was a shocking thing,” admits Shelly, “because we’re kind of an insulated little community here and there’s so many motors around.”

Small-town attitude

From the beginning, the Coopers have sought to bring a small-town attitude to their online sales. They do this by “actually talking to people” and helping them find what they need, even if it takes legwork, Pat says.

“Somebody will say, ‘Well, I don’t have a model number,’ and rather than saying, ‘I can’t help you,’ we will ask them: ‘What’s the number on your carburetor?’ We help them figure out what they have,” Pat says.

“(We) treat each customer like they are standing at our sales counter in our small town. It works. Treat a customer right and they will come back.”

Of the 15,000 customers the Coopers have done business with, they average 12 percent repeat business every month, Pat says, which comes from small marinas or collectors purchasing parts. A Tennessee client who belongs to the Outboard Antique Motor Club has even invited the Coopers to visit.

Customers often call looking for parts to fix up their father’s or grandfather’s old boat motor. One client wanted to rebuild the powerhead on his dad’s 1949 motor and was looking for all of the parts. When Pat told Shelly, she chuckled and said, “Well, you never know what you’ll find at Pine Lake Parts.” She searched their stock and found they had every item.

“I called him (the customer) back and he was so happy,” she says.

The next part

During peak season, which lasts for six months, Pine Lake Parts will ship 70 to 90 packages a day. Even with eight employees, those days get hectic.

“Two people are packing, and two people are printing labels,” Shelly says. At the same time, parts still need to be identified and inventoried. “I need a full time ‘what-is-it?’ person,” she jokes.

In the coming year, the Coopers plan to build a display area in the front of their shop to sell merchandise, because, even though they don’t currently have a storefront, customers routinely show up at their building.

“They know where we’re at, and they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer. They’ll find an open door or window,” Shelly says, smiling.

“I think you were the only one who came through a window,” Pat says, grinning as he refers to the time Shelly locked her keys inside the building. As she climbed through a window into the business, Barry Township Chief of Police Mark Doster just happened to pull into their parking lot.

“I always get caught doing that kind of stuff,” she says with a sigh.

Lisa Mackinder

Lisa’s work has previously appeared in various Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Animal Wellness, Dog World, Michigan Meetings and Events Magazine, MiBiz, and other publications. Though having covered a wide-range of topics, Lisa most enjoys composing people-centric pieces, as well as those featuring nature and animals. She lives in Portage with her husband, and when not at her Mac, participates in outdoor activities, including fly fishing, gardening and hiking.

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