Q&A with Founder Steve Sperry
Steve Sperry launched the sailmaking company Sperry Sails in 1976, designing and making sails and marine canvas for sailboats and yachts throughout Southern New England. A sailor himself, who spent four years in the U.S. Coast Guard, Steve honed his craftsmanship talents at Sperry Sails, overseeing a small staff, which, by the mid-1980s, included his sons, Matt and Tim, when on break from school.
In the early ’80s, Steve created the first-ever Sperry Tent using the tools he had on-hand in his sail loft and milling the support poles at his personal sawmill. This 32-round tent, made from sailcloth and punctuated by the sun-inspired Sperry Sails insignia logo, represented a marked improvement in the look and feel of rental tents, and launched the soon-to-be-formed company of Sperry Tents, which today includes 40 licensed providers across the U.S. and abroad.
Q: What inspired you to make a tent one day when you were busy with your sailmaking company Sperry Sails?
A: It was winter and we’d endured several very meager winters from 1976, so I needed something to augment our business while using our skills, facility, and market. What I knew about tents was limited to small, heavy, dark, and awkward, but I did have a good handle on spinnaker design and construction, so that and a fine crew of two was our start. (An enthusiastic amount of wishful thinking could well have been the most important contributor.) The little “32” was beginner’s luck and a gem that lifted our sideline off the ground.
A: The designs, weight, and translucency were well received wherever we put them up. These factors managed to overcome our start at the bottom of the learning curve relating to anchoring, material (nylon was strong but the slightest amount of water would make it relax and sag), and leaks.
Q: You rented your handcrafted tents through Sperry Sails in Marion, MA, for years — when did you know it was time to form the separate rental company Sperry Tents?
A: Tim had been setting up our tents as a boy while at Tabor Academy and later over summer recesses from college. My wife, Mo, ran the business and crew over the three summers when Tim was away on his around-the-world voyage (returning in 1995). He came to me about setting up Sperry Tents as a separate business in the fall of 1995. The timing was appropriate. Sperry Sails was happy to be building tents but was stretched to be installing them as well. Tim and his partner, Peter Fortier, were off with thumbs up from their other partner (me).
Q: Tim operates the first-ever Sperry Tents rental office, Sperry Tents Marion, and oversees the brand and the corporate headquarters. Matt helms Sperry Fabric Architecture, where all Sperry Tents are designed and made. Why do you think your sons’ business talents work so well together?
A: I think their relationship has been complementary since they were born. Their innate abilities are somewhat different, and the abilities of one seem to always augment those of the other. Quite a beneficial circumstance for brothers in complementary businesses…I am fortunate to be a partner, a supplier, and (from time to time) a consultant and temporary labor.
Q: Has the growth of Sperry Tents in recent years, with the accomplishment of 40 licensed rental providers across the country and abroad, surprised you?
A: Beyond words! Never did I imagine or would I have imagined Tim’s business to evolve and expand to this degree. It is immensely gratifying and just great fun to watch.
A: Well, I remain a partner, though not an active one, and I get to play my part as founder now and then at franchise meetings, but my most effective part is making the long tent poles at my sawmill. I made the first wood pole (18′) for our first tent (32′ diameter) in 1970-something and I’ve made thousands since. I can’t find anyone (I’ve tried) interested, willing, or able to make 8-sided, tapered spruce poles up to 28′ long. As I’m sure you can guess, I’m very proud of my sons, their respective crews, and myself for what we’ve accomplished. It’s been fun.