Tube Dudes capture imaginations, hearts on Gulf Coast
June 28, 2013
After his yacht-building business dried up in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, entrepreneur Scott Gerber decided to build a simple sculpture from tubing. Based on a basic stick figure, the first one was a fisherman. Gerber placed a few around town, encountered some interest, and suddenly a new business was born.
In 2009 Scott Gerber didn’t have much to smile about. The U.S. economy was in the depths of recession; job losses were rife; and even his customers, well-to-do clients who relished Gerber’s million-dollar yachts, weren’t buying.
A master boat builder immersed in marine culture his entire life, Gerber built boats in the U.S. for several years, then did a little globe-trotting, working in Monaco, Norway, and South Africa, passing along some knowledge and learning a few tricks of the trade along the way.
When he returned to the U.S., he settled in Sarasota, Fla., where he opened his own boat company. His dream was to do something big, bold, and different. He named his venture Legend Custom Yachts and took a risk when he decided against using conventional materials. He built his business by using unconventional materials like carbon fiber and Kevlar®.
It was a big risk.
“I could buy the material, but putting it together was trial and error because I couldn’t get any advice on how to do it,” Gerber said. Carbon fiber panels are used on aircraft such as the F-22 Raptor, but companies like Lockheed Martin don’t pass out information freely. “All the information on assembly was proprietary,” Gerber said.
But he and his team persevered, and the company became a success. Legend couldn’t build boats fast enough during the middle 2000s.
“The phone would ring off the hook,” Gerber said.
Eventually the financial crisis set in. The phone stopped ringing off the hook, then it stopped ringing altogether. The business shrunk as fast as it had grown, and the future for custom yachts grew increasingly bleak.
However, Gerber didn’t give in to despair. The fate of his business gnawed at him, but his mind continued to churn, turning over many of the business ideas he had dreamed up but never had time to pursue during his high-flying yacht-building days. He was driving to work one day when inspiration struck.
Gerber asked the shop foreman, Laszlo Szalanzy, to give him a hand with a not-too-serious fabrication project. Gerber wanted to pull together some odds and ends to make a stick figure, one with a big, smiling face.
Szalanzy was more than a little mystified. An immigrant from Hungary, he had been acclimating to U.S. culture, but he really wasn’t sure what the phrase stick figure meant. Gerber made a drawing, and Szalanzy understood, but he was skeptical. Although he had done some hobby projects with metals, neither he nor Gerber had much fabricating experience. Legend Custom Yachts had outsourced the metalwork for the yachts, so they really didn’t know much about bending tubing. And besides, why make a stick figure?
Nevertheless, they tried it. They did some cutting, bending, and welding, and later that morning put together a man. His hand was a length of tube fitted out with a fishing pole. Other designs followed, and Gerber distributed a few around Sarasota. He put the fisherman on his dock. He made a stick man holding a mailbox for a neighbor. Then Gerber created a handful of figures holding signs with short, inspirational messages, like “Smile” or “Be Nice” or “Love,” and he put them on display anonymously in parks, on beaches, and in other public places around Sarasota.
Gerber didn’t know it, but the displays generated a small wave of curiosity around town. It came to his attention that the lone, mailbox-holding stick figure was becoming a minor celebrity when he saw people posing for photos with it.
One thing led to the next, and it wasn’t long before Gerber was receiving orders. He didn’t realize it when he created the first one, but he had been in the process of launching a new business.
Gerber’s sunny, informal spirit infects the business. He christened the original stick figure Tube Dude, and later gave the business the same name. As president dude—that’s his actual title—he is focused on one objective: Keep it simple.
So far the business plan is pretty simple. The fabrication staff cuts, bends, and welds the tubing to create a Tube Dude. Each figure goes out for powder coating, and gets shipped to the customer. However, even a simple business can become complicated if the owner isn’t careful.
Faces. The business motto is Keep Smiling, and in keeping with the motto, Tube Dudes’ faces don’t vary. The staff starts every dude by cutting a few short lengths of round tube to make the head, eyes, and mouth. Despite the need to make a variety of other parts, the shop uses just one jig, and it’s for the face.
Bodies. No two people are alike, and neither are any two Tube Dudes. The key ingredient in keeping them unique is the use of manual rather than CNC equipment. The arms, legs, and spines are bent on a hydraulically powered, ram-type (vertical) tube bender. The staff uses a Greenlee bender, a machine intended for use by electricians to bend conduit. It’s not difficult to make consistent 45- and 90-degree bends, which electricians need, but the bender also provides flexibility, allowing the Tube Dude staff to vary each bend slightly.
Corrosion-resistant Materials. Sarasota’s environment is a good place to test materials for corrosion resistance. The area is known for high humidity most of the year and more than 50 inches of precipitation annually, which can cause rust to set in. Exposure to saltwater spray from the Gulf of Mexico doesn’t help, and the nearly relentless sunshine (more than 250 days per year) can be hard on finishes.
Accordingly, Tube Dudes are made from materials that don’t rust: aluminum for the main components, and stainless steel and high-density plastic for the fasteners that hold the Tube Dudes together. Each figure receives two layers of powder coating, one color and one clear.
Carbon steel would be less expensive than aluminum, but Gerber won’t have it.
“I don’t want CPAs to run the business,” he said.
Every Tube Dude does something. Tube Dudes take photographs, deliver pizzas, drive nails, and on and on. Some are professions, some are vocations, and some are hobbies, but they all have a purpose.
Who comes up with all the designs? This is the best part of the business plan. Rather than rack their brains for ideas, the staff builds each Tube Dude to order. They have made golfers, tennis players, basketball players, and a team of two paramedics carrying a stretcher. They also branched out to make animals, such as a marlin, dogs, and even a life-sized giraffe. The Tube Dude showroom has a chair in the form of a mermaid and even a Dudess of Liberty.
And, of course, they can make a fisherman.