Making It in Northern Michigan: Quantum Sails

by Clark Miller

One of the largest – and arguably most innovative – manufacturers of boat sails in the world is headquartered in Traverse City.

The reason is simple. When industry veteran Ed Reynolds was asked to become president of Quantum Sails by majority owner Doug DeVos, who is an avid sailor in addition to being Amway board co-chairman, he accepted – but only if he could remain in Traverse City.

Reynolds grew up in Fenton, but launched his career here.

“Years ago, I started working at a small sailing loft (store) in Traverse City,” Reynolds said. “I didn’t even know how to sail when I started, but it sucked me in, so I dropped out of college to work full time.

“Now I’ve been in the business for 42 years.”

Besides housing Quantum’s company headquarters, the TC facility does prototype work and provides various services to existing clients. Most production happens in Sri Lanka and Malaysia.

Like many companies, Quantum Sails faces unexpected challenges these days.

“The pandemic has been a train wreck for us,” Reynolds said. “Normally, this time of year we’d have three shifts at our manufacturing facility in Sri Lanka, but we’re only doing two shifts, and (for health reasons) they can’t overlap.”

The situation is even more dire at the plant in Malaysia, which is producing at only 10% of capacity.

“So the whole supply chain is kind of hit and miss,” he said. “There have been delays in deliveries of raw materials. It’s also difficult to getting finished products delivered on time.”

The lag between orders and deliveries has jumped from six weeks to 12 or even 14 weeks, he added.

Another blow has been a drop in demand for racing sails, which typically account for around 70% of Quantum’s business.

Luckily, that’s been offset by a dramatic upswing in sails for cruising craft, a broad category that generally refers to leisurely, non-competitive travel. Quantum is also seeing a new set of customers.

“Traditionally, it’s a white guy’s sport, but there’s been a long, slow growth in the number of women sailors out there,” he said.

One thing hasn’t changed: Quantum Sails’ distinct advantage when it comes to branding. DeVos also owns the Quantum Racing team, which has become a highly visible competitor on the grand prix mono-hull racing circuit. Racing at that level is enormously expensive, but Reynolds said it’s not just about branding (or having fun) – it also helps research and development in sails for everything from tiny, Optimist-class sailboats to luxurious 200-foot cruising vessels.

“There’s a 100% trickle-down effect from the racing team,” Reynolds said. “It’s an excellent way to thoroughly test new sail designs and materials under extreme conditions. It gives us insights into sail structures and different shapes that work.

“Racing impacts everything we do.”

Sail making might sound like a simple matter of cutting and sewing material, but it’s more complicated than that. Quantum Sails is always on the hunt for new materials and designs, so its workforce includes aerospace engineers, naval architects, specialized designers and code writers.

“Our sails aren’t for everyone,” Reynolds said. “If you’re interested in a Quantum sail, you’re interested in top quality and great support.”

The Grand Traverse Area Manufacturing Council (GTAMC) sponsors this column. Its mission is to support a sustainable and globally competitive manufacturing sector for a stronger economy;