The owners of a family business created a new product for boaters and helped keep some jobs in the process.

Julie Irwin and her husband Todd discovered recreational boating about five years ago. As Great Lakes Energy members, they own a cottage on Torch Lake, where they caught boating fever.

A self-confessed “neat freak,” Julie was immediately frustrated with the lack of storage on boats for personal items like keys, cell phones or sunglasses. A duffle bag or a simple plastic bag works to bring supplies on-board, but many are neither compartmentalized or easy to stow securely.

Keeping her son’s prescription glasses in a cup holder on the boat made her uneasy, so she decided a container with pouches would do the trick—something to quickly, neatly and securely pack and store recreational supplies or personal items. However, such a product didn’t seem to exist.

The Irwins own the Delux Tents and Events company in Belleville and Lansing. It’s a thriving business started by Julie’s in-laws in 1966 that provides one-stop rental items such as tents, tables and chairs for family or commercial events.

Two years ago, they heard about a small third-generation manufacturing company in Ann Arbor that closed. Well known for tents and awnings, they also produced canvas flags, boat covers and other custom canvas marine accessories, and the building still held a large stock of those items. The closing also stressed the company’s small workforce, who found themselves suddenly without jobs.

Seeing the advantage in acquiring the company’s stock of materials, plus adding a sewing staff with 50 years’ experience in producing and repairing canvas and marine products, the Irwins bought the company and put three of the employees back to work.

That’s when “everything just kind of fell into our laps and ‘the flow’ started,” Julie says.

She shared her boat organizer idea with the new employees. Together, they brainstormed a design and developed six- and eight-pocket versions of what today is called the “First Mate Organizer.”

“So many of the items needed, such as certain buckles and straps, they already had in stock,” Julie explains. “It was a fun, fun product to see unfold.”

Crafted from 100 denier nylon with a urethane back coating and available in many colors, First Mate Organizer is water repellent, quick drying, and resistant to abrasion, rot and mildew. Open pockets provide places for smaller items such as eyeglasses, keys, flashlights or suntan lotion. A larger two-section pouch with a flap that snaps shut provides dry, secure storage for cell phones, cameras or magazines.

The design allows the organizer to be hung on a rail or fastened to a surface with clips or suction cups. To take the organizer along, you can simply fold it up, snap it together, attach the strap, and throw it over your shoulder like a tote bag.

While the product was designed for people who boat, Julie notes that others who find it useful now include campers, hunters and horse and motor home owners. Personally, she also uses one in her car.

The FirstMate is available online (see or call 877-824-7946) for $34.99 (six-pocket) and $39.99 (eight-pocket). To keep her employees busy, Julie explains, she purposely set the pricing so that people would want to buy. She emphasizes that the product helps fulfill a pledge to employees who came from the company the Irwins acquired.

“We told them we’d make work for them,” Julie says. “We’re trying our best to keep this wonderful state’s economy moving forward.”