All in the family

Seasonal operators in Kawartha Lakes

By Denise Waldron

Stuart Picken, left, Pam Gostlin, centre, and Jennifer Picken, right, at Walsten Marine in Kinmount. The family team is usually at the marine eager to start the day by 7 a.m. Photo: Sienna Frost

Family businesses are crucial to the Canadian economy. They make up half of the private sector GDP and employ almost seven million people. That’s likely not a surprise to many Kawartha Lakes businesses.

Rolling out the carpet for summer visitors is especially challenging for family businesses when our population swells. There’s hiring and training new staff at the busiest time of year, managing cash flow, along with extended working hours and little time off.

Jennifer Picken’s day starts at 5 a.m. as an owner of Walsten Marine in Kinmount. After coffee, breakfast and making lunches, she and her husband and co-owner, Stuart, are at the marina eager to start the day by 7 a.m. The third owner, Pam Gostlin, Picken’s sister also joins them.

While the showroom and the service department open at 8, Picken says they start getting the drivers organized for deliveries by 7:30 a.m. They call customers to let them know the drivers are headed out with their boats and bringing them to the ramps.

Picken says most of the work happens in the service department. She notes that Gostlin will float from the showroom if they are too busy and need her help there.

Their staff of 14 include service technicians, marine mechanics, an accessory and small motor salesperson, a service manager, a few staffers who clean and shrink wrap the boats being stored, and a general labourer who takes care of property maintenance, the outdoor greenery and cleaning. Picken and her sister look after sales.

“It’s kind of all hands on deck,” Picken says when it’s busy. “Wherever things need done, or if somebody needs help in the dealership, whoever is available, kind of helps out if they can.”

She usually spends the afternoons updating social media and following up with customers. She notes, if anybody comes into the showroom, “They’re taking precedent over anything else that’s on the go.”

Hiring and retaining staff is a challenge for many seasonal businesses, but Walsten ensures their employees are well taken care of. “We very much value family time and good work-life balance,” Picken says, noting that good quality staff is essential.

The marine finishes up at 5 p.m. and is closed on Sundays. Picken says if she and her husband want to do something during peak boating season — they usually cannot, but if staff need time off to attend a special event, they work around it so they can go.

Walsten Marine also employs its staff for most of the winter, removing the hurdle of workers needing full-time hours. While the official close date is December and the reopen in March, staff are kept busy servicing boats and behind-the-scenes work. The Toronto International Boat Show is a 10-day event in January, but with set up and tear-down, staff are there for nearly three weeks.

Due to boat shows and other events, Picken says people start to plan for their boat purchase through the winter months, and while it may be an icy -20 outside, the marine sells watercraft in the frigid months.

Although Kinmount has only around 500 full-time residents, the population swells significantly from spring through fall due to visitors and cottagers. Picken estimates the marine attracts more than 1,000 visitors to the village annually, with about 500 of them seeking winter storage for their boats and the rest coming for sales and service. Picken mentions that she enjoys building relationships with their long-term clients.

As a third-generation owner, she says the business has evolved since opening in 1971. Her paternal grandfather had a stereo store in Toronto called Scarborough Electronics. They moved north to Kinmount and set up a new electronics shop. Picken says it wasn’t as successful and they pivoted to Stihl chainsaws and Kubota tractor sales. In the mid 80s, the business turned to marine sales.

Her grandparents, Walter and Eva Stender, named the business a hybrid of her grandfather’s name, taking the first part of Walter and Stender to come up with Walsten Marine.

Wally and Al, Picken’s father and uncle, grew up in the business and were the second owners. Picken grew up around the marine, eventually working there and taking over ownership in 2008.

Picken highlights the challenges of running a seasonal business, including managing cash flow during the off-season, handling the compressed timeframe for operations, and dealing with unpredictable weather, but for the community, there is tremendous economic impact with the marine being one of the largest businesses in Kinmount.

Seasonal realties

Sandra Wright is a labour market information analyst and consultant with the Workforce Development Board. She says that while precise numbers are unavailable, she estimates that approximately 10 per cent of businesses with employees in Kawartha Lakes could be considered seasonal.

Wright emphasizes that, while the number of seasonal businesses may be relatively small, their impact on the local economy is significant because of the influx of visitors and their spending on accommodation, dining, and other activities. “It’s a boost to your economy,” she notes.

Stats Canada reports 1.6 million Canadian tourists visit the Kawarthas every summer. These holidaymakers and new residents help the local economy by spending more than $106 million each year.

You are not likely to see anyone water skiing or swimming in January in Kawartha Lakes, and it is understandable why weather dependant businesses shut down over the winter. There are others that could stay open year-round and choose not to do so — including a Bobcaygeon pub, 72 Bolton Sports Cafe.

Owner Adam Matthews says the down time allows him to incorporate ideas from his winter travels into the restaurant’s drink and food offerings. He also likes to renovate and keep the decor and building fresh.

Matthews opened the pub in 2004, after working in the hospitality industry in various locations, including Budapest, Hungary. His family had a cottage rental business in the area, which gave him an understanding of the local tourism industry.

“It definitely gave me the mindset of what a tourist town is and how to cope with working your butt off in the busy months and having your downtime and taking advantage of that.”

He notes if there are 100 restaurant customers to go around in the winter, it is better two or three restaurants take advantage, and have those customers, than it is for each to have a 10 per cent share of clients.

Matthews emphasized the importance of taking a break to maintain passion for the business and avoid burnout. He says he’s set a standard for himself where he’s there 24/7 when open.

“I’m going to look after the staff, customers, (and) give them, a place where they feel comfortable to come to work, (and) where customers know what to expect when they come here.”

Matthews says getting to know the locals and people from other areas is key. “We get a lot of people in from other countries that want to watch a specific soccer game, a rugby match, golf, and we’re able to accommodate all that. It means a lot to them,” he notes.

A Hungarian man stopped by to see a certain game that was unavailable on TV. Matthews’ son was able to find it online, and the two of them sat in a booth and watched it together on his laptop. “We’ve got a customer for life now. The guy comes in every time he’s up here.”

Sherri Galler is the executive director of the Bobcaygeon Chamber of Commerce and says there are several seasonal businesses in the area that extend into the shoulder season, including 72 Bolton Sports Cafe by providing patio heaters and partnering with other organizations to provide late fall events.

“Last year for the first time, we partnered with Kawartha Settler’s Village and we did a Halloween haunt,” which she noted kept people coming into town past Thanksgiving.

She says many businesses have adopted an open-air concept, with garage doors that allow them to spill out onto the sidewalks, creating an inviting atmosphere during the summer months.

Marylee Boston, manager of the Fenelon Falls & District Chamber of Commerce, explained summer businesses enhance the local area by offering activities such as kayak rentals and beach vendors.

“They’re kind of adding extra things to the beach experience so that people can stay longer and do things that maybe aren’t accessible to them where they come from,” adding some people don’t own cars or paddleboards and this gives them a chance to get onto the water and try the sport.

John Sawah, centre, has run the Lindsay Twin Drive-In Theatre since 2021 with his son, Ryan. Pictured with John are vintage car show attendees.

Ryan Sawah sells memories at his summer business. Along with his father John, they have owned the Lindsay Twin Drive-In Theatre since 2021. “The biggest thing we find is nostalgia,” said the younger entrepreneur.

Boomers remember speakers that would attach to their car window for sound. Nowadays, it’s broadcast to an FM antenna to tune to it through their car radios or portable speakers.

The drive-in has two screens, one original, and another added in the 1980s. Sawah plans to add games, host events like car shows and concerts, and potentially have karaoke to diversify the cash flow.

He says since they are the only drive-in for the region, people travel for the experience. “You kind of see people coming from all over the place.”  The areas include Beaverton, Oshawa, Peterborough, Havelock and Madoc.

While finding local students to work the summer is not an issue, the biggest challenge is maintaining the property. The interior roads have a certain amount of gravel, which they fill every year along with potholes. “The grass cutting, since it is 10 acres, takes basically the whole day with a few staff members.”

For children who grow up in a summer business, their childhoods can be full of interesting experiences but can also restrict them from some events because of their parents’ busyness or having to punch the clock themselves.

New York Times best-selling author and novelist Linwood Barclay had a bittersweet experience living and working at Green Acres RV Resort in Bobcaygeon.

For New York Times best-selling author and novelist Linwood Barclay, who is currently enjoying the success of his latest novel, I Will Ruin You, his experience living and working Green Acres RV Resort in Bobcaygeon was bittersweet.

Barclay started working at the resort around 12, doing various chores, but mainly riding a John Deere tractor, which he says he loved and could spend hours in it. “I really thought that tractor was a babe magnet, you know, that girls would just love me on that thing.”

The future wordsmith encountered a revolving cast of characters every summer. He believes the experience of taking on responsibilities, meeting various people, and forming friendships with them were probably defining moments in his life.

Due to his responsibilities at the resort, he didn’t experience the heady freedom most teens enjoy. His life changed dramatically at 16 when his father died. Balancing his studies at Fenelon Falls Secondary School, he took over running the resort. His older brother was coping with mental illness, and while his mother managed the books, she couldn’t handle the physically demanding tasks.

“I didn’t have one of those sort of carefree, later teenage years where I could get (drunk) on Friday night, because I was responsible for everybody, or at least for my mom and my brother.”

If Barclay wanted to get away for something special, there were guests who took him under their wing and acted as surrogate fathers. At 17 he drove to Toronto to see Quincy Jones playing at the CNE Bandshell. “If there was a real jam up or whatever, one of them would do something when I was away.”

For Jennifer Picken’s children, growing up at the marine, taught both teens valuable skills. While her almost 20-year-old daughter does not wish to pursue the business, she developed a hard work ethic, according to her mother.

It looks like Walsten Marine will be in good hands for the future. Picken’s 18-year-old son is heading to school in September. He’s taking the automotive marketing and dealership program, which translates well to marine management, with hopes to take over one day as fourth generation.


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