When Louise Schmidt and the company her father created relocated to the Charleston area in 1995, the business was focused entirely on marine products, as the name BoatLIFE suggested.
The company is known for developing and manufacturing products to repair, restore and clean boats, but in recent years, it has branched out, marketing products for aircraft, recreational vehicles and homes.
It turned out that specialty products designed to repair wood, metal and fiberglass while standing up to demanding marine conditions could be equally helpful in repairing motor homes and airplanes.
"We found out that most RVs are made with wood, which was a surprise to me," said Schmidt. "The wood gets rotted, and there really wasn’t a treatment for that."
So BoatLIFE's product for repairing dry-rotted wood, Git-Rot, was adapted for the recreational vehicle market, as were other products.
"We just did our first RV show last month," said Schmidt.
Today, North Charleston-based Life Industries sells products under the BoatLIFE, RVLIFE, AeroLIFE and HomeLIFE brands. The company sells its American-made products internationally, with exports accounting for 10 percent to 20 percent of sales depending on market conditions. Life Industries has a distribution facility in Belgium and was recognized this past summer with an "export achievement certificate" from the Charleston office of the U.S. Commercial Service.
Schmidt said the award recognized her company's persistence.
"Just trying to stay abreast of all the regulations takes so much time," she said.
Schmidt said producing American-made products for export is important not just for Life Industries, but for the nation, considering the United States' large trade imbalance. "We're consistently trying to export more," she said.
Schmidt also said the company avoids purchasing Chinese-made materials, mostly because of her concerns about that nation’s Communist government and the persecution of Christians there.
"Unless there is something we cannot do without, or cannot find anywhere else, we won't buy from China," Schmidt said. "Of course, that makes it more difficult to buy things these days."
As a manufacturer of caulks, sealants, epoxies and cleaners, Life Industries' employs people in positions ranging from chemists to quality inspectors, shippers and front office staff. The company's all-in-one location on Bridge View Drive in North Charleston is a manufacturing and warehousing facility in the back, with company offices in the front.
The company employs 18 workers, down from two dozen when BoatLIFE relocated from Long Island, N.Y. Schmidt, who had a second home on Wadmalaw Island at the time, played a key role in persuading the company's directors to relocate to the Charleston area.
Schmidt says the company does plan to fill several positions, and has job openings for a chemist and a controller.
"The number of products has grown," Schmidt said, "but the number of employees has not grown because we have more efficient equipment."
The company is privately held and does not disclose sales figures.
BoatLIFE was founded by Schmidt's father, Edwin Kehrt, who was in the hardware business. He launched the company by marketing another manufacturer’s product, originally made for patching bullet holes in military aircraft, as a boat sealant.
The company later began manufacturing its own products, and the product line has grown to about 100 items today.
In some cases, Schmidt said, different products may have the same basic chemistry, with different formulations tailored to the expected use, such as for aircraft rather than boats.
The company's products tend to be found in specialty stores, such as marine supply stores for BoatLIFE products, and are sold on the company's website.
The HomeLIFE brand includes many products that one might expect to find in a home-supply store, such as stainless steel cleaner and caulk. But Schmidt said HomeLIFE brands are not in stores like Lowe's or Home Depot because the shelves are full of international brands with lower prices.
A pint of HomeLIFE stainless steel cleaner, for example, costs $18.20 on the company's website. Schmidt says the product is far superior to cleaning products that sell for much less.
But the marine supply products, on which the company was founded, remain the company's mainstay. In the greater Charleston area, where one in three families is estimated to own some type of watercraft, BoatLIFE is a recognized brand, but most of the company's sales come from areas with larger populations, such as Florida.
Schmidt said that, while the boat building industry is only now beginning to recover from the deep recession, the economic downturn boosted sales of boat repair products.
"When the economy is bad, people tend to put off buying boats and repair the ones they have," she said. "Of course, that’s good for us."