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Waterford - Defender Industries, supplier of boating-related equipment, announced Thursday a major expansion of its physical plant at the same time that it handed out thousands of dollars in bonus money to more than 100 employees.
Stephan K. Lance, president of Defender, said the company plans in April to break ground on a new 4,000-square-foot office building - a near doubling of current office space - on 18-plus acres the firm owns off Great Neck Road. It also plans to expand its current warehouse space by several thousand square feet, completing both projects by October.
"To me, success is about a positive company culture," Lance said in prepared remarks to his employees. "In this industry, one of the fundamentals of delivering consistent and reliable customer service is to have a capable, resourceful, enthusiastic and loyal staff."
Defender has been handing out piles of cash to employees for the past eight years as a thank you for what has now added up to 10 straight years of record sales growth. Lance reported that sales were up 11.8 percent last year compared with 2012, the biggest increase in the company's now 76-year history.
"With increased sales came an improvement in margin, too," Lance told employees. "Due to your continued teamwork, Defender's sales have more than tripled over the last 11 years."
The amount of money each employee receives is based on length of service and averages about a full week's pay. Employees have a choice of how to receive their pay, which can vary from extra paid time off to pre-tax contributions to their 401(k) retirement or health-savings accounts to bonus checks.
Al Knupp, executive director of Defender, said the marine retailer increased staffing levels last year and plans more hires again this year. He added that the bonuses are not necessarily paid on the first day of spring - that just happened to coincide this year - but normally are handed out a week before the company's annual warehouse sale, the biggest event of the year, which will be held March 27-30.
Lance is the second-generation operator of Defender, which originated in New York state. The company moved to Waterford in 1996, and despite its success Lance said he has no plans to increase its footprint by opening up retail outlets elsewhere.
"We have no desire to become a multistate chain," he said. "We're rather an anomaly; I'm not really pro-growth."
The company also hasn't gotten on board with social networking through Twitter and Facebook, instead concentrating on what it does best: customer service.
"We're constantly looking for new products," Lance said.
And if the products that customers need aren't being produced, Lance said Defender has been known to develop niche products, such as rescue boats for volunteer fire departments.
Lance said Defender prides itself on the longevity of its employees. Of the 105 workers eligible for profit-sharing this year, about a quarter were with the company for more than a decade, which entitled them to double the bonus pay of others with less seniority.
Average length of service at Defender is six and a half years.
"There is no better measure of success here than a customer feeling positive about their experience and having confidence that they can rely on Defender for their boating equipment," Lance said.