By Tom Pawlak
My career at Gougeon Brothers is coming to an end. By the time you read this article, I will have moved on to new things, the things that retired people do such as travel, kayak, volunteer, read books, and tinker creatively in my shop.
There is a place inside each of us where creativity bubbles freely. Creativity is a gift that needs to be tapped into and shared with others to fully blossom into something beautiful. Tinkering has always been a creative outlet for me. I wonder why many of us seldom tap into it. Possibly we were embarrassed as a child after showing someone our creations. The emotional wounds we suffered early in life may cause us to stop sharing ideas and creating things.
Tapping into creativity has produced a number of highlights in my life. Many of them involve my work at Gougeon Brothers, Inc. Brothers Jan and Meade Gougeon were creative geniuses. People flocked to them because they were innovators who were fun to be around. They made their employees and co-workers proud to be part of an organization that helped inspire the next generation of innovators.
Creativity would seem to be the spark of life that is trying to be expressed and created in the world.
When faced with a challenging situation at work that did not require immediate action, I often took a walk. I found this best done outdoors where distractions are limited and not at all bothersome if they occur. The walk often got me out of my thinking mind just long enough for my brain to steer out of the neural grooves that had me struggling at a dead end.
Years ago, when Gougeon Brothers was known as the best wind turbine blade manufacturer in the world, I was a crew leader responsible for fabricating prototype tooling for making the blades. I was often faced with the creative task of figuring out ways to guide a saw, router or drilling device, clamp things in place or align tooling so the wind blades were in perfect alignment for the next step in the manufacturing process. If my crew and I struggled to come up with a good approach to accomplish the needed step, I would take a walk to an old hardware store located a couple blocks from our Pinconning, Michigan plant. It was the type of hardware store that had lots of old, tarnished, dust-covered tools and clamping devices from decades prior, like was found in many small towns prior to the big box building store era. Within 15 minutes of my arrival, an object on the shelf would catch my eye, a lightbulb would go off in my head and my challenging problem was solved. Often, I just needed a concept. The tool on the shelf might be oversized or undersized for my project so I often came back to the shop where the crew and I fabricated our own using the borrowed concept.
One of my favorite quotes, often attributed to Albert Einstein, is “Creativity is contagious, pass it on.” The wisdom of this quote surely rings true at Gougeon Brothers; the place where two amazing brothers, along with their childhood friend James R. Watson, and several others came together to build race-winning boats that moved effortlessly across water and ice.
Their success spawned lots of curiosity. People stopped by the Gougeon brothers’ boat shop to see their methods and materials. They witnessed a new epoxy that could glue wood together without need for fasteners or high clamping pressure. They discovered that this same epoxy glue could also be used to seal wooden structures, stabilizing the moisture content so the wood stayed dry. This was the birth of WEST SYSTEM Epoxy.
The brothers exemplified the quote “Creativity is Contagious” in willingly passing along their creativity to others. They wrote The Gougeon Brothers on Boat Construction, a book that spawned a grassroots phenomenon of wood and epoxy boat building. They sometimes spent more time on the phone helping others be successful than they spent on building their boats in the shop. This set up a remarkable business model of technical service that to this day is unmatched in the boat building and composites industry.
Today though, I reminisce about the amazing people that I’ve worked with and learned from in my Gougeon family over the past 37 years and I am grateful for the experience. I’m remembering too the creative conversations on the phone with many of you, helping you out of a jam or being a sounding board for your creative juices. It has been a privilege to have participated in your creative process. I will miss you.
I have benefited from that spark of creativity and I’m genuinely grateful for having had the opportunity to work for such an amazing company.
Featured photo (top): Tom Pawlack refinishing his stripper canoe in the Gougeon Brothers Technical Building.