When Annapolitan Tom Wohlgemuth started his own rigging business in 1979 at 21, it never occurred to him that one day he would be headingthe largest rigging concern in the area or that he would own the company that had been his first employer.
Today, that situation is a reality, and he still seems a little amazed.
Wohlgemuth's Chesapeake Rigging Ltd., established at first, by his own description, as "just me and my clipboard on the --board of my Volkswagen bug" while he commuted to jobs in Cambridge, has grown slowly but surely. Within the past few years it has become the largest and arguably the strongest custom rigging and rigging repair shop in the Annapolis area.
A couple of weeks ago, the business took another giant step forward when Wohlgemuth purchased the name, phone numberand assets of Annapolis Spars, re-hired all of its employees, and merged the businesses. Chesapeake Rigging's capabilities were greatly expanded by adding Annapolis Spars' highly reputed fabrications skills.
Wohlgemuth explained that Annapolis Spars' previous owner, Pittsburgh investment banker Bill Steitz, familiar to bay sailors as the skipper of IMS I racer Dancer, no longer really had time for the business after his 1990 purchase of Concordia Yachts. The two reached an agreement allowing Wohlgemuth to purchase Annapolis Spars, which benefited both concerns.
In January, Annapolis Spars will move into Chesapeake Rigging's space at 7310 Edgewood and Wohlgemuth will expand the combined shop area to take in the entire ground floor of the building and move the office areas upstairs.
The resultant Chesapeake Rigging Ltd./Annapolis Spars 4,000-square-foot shop space will be the largest and best-equipped in the area.
"Annapolis Spars was one ofthe best-kept secrets in Annapolis, even back in their heyday," Wohlgemuth said. "Visibility has always been a problem for them, and our (Chesapeake Rigging) location is much better for that. We're keeping all the same people. (Manager) Rob Begor will still be around for people to work with, and all of the others, so I think it's going to work out pretty well all around."
Wohlgemuth explained that in the past Chesapeake Rigging had been able to sell masts but that the company had been more in the business of assembling and rigging them.
"Now we can build things from the bottom up," he said. "It gives us more control and better bidding possibilities. Also a lot of neat machines and tools came with the deal, like a milling machine, a press-break-punch machine and a lot of other things that can really expand our range."
In addition to marine commissions, both companies have been involved in industrial, art and architectural projects -- an arm ofthe business Wohlgemuth says he hopes the merged operation will continue.
Annapolis Spars recently completed a commission to fabricatethe aluminum elements of a piece of outdoor sculpture by German artist Gabriele Schmidt-Heins, which was unveiled and dedicated in October in downtown Rockville. Although the company is best-known for first-quality high-tech marine fabrications, the sculpture was not its first such project.
Chesapeake Rigging has been responsible for the wire railings at the Tred Avon Yacht Club building in Oxford, and it executed a spectacular commission for a private house on the Severn River involving stainless steel posts, wire and turnbuckles.
In the meantime, Wohlgemuth said his next big goal is "to make this (merger)work. We had a good season this year. Last winter stunk for everyonein the industry, I think, but spring came out real good for us, we were really busy.
"Toward the end of the summer things were really flat, and I was worried about the fall, which traditionally is a resurgence of spring, but this year it was a killer fall -- between the usual fall transients, and the business we picked up at the Boat Show,we almost had more work than we could handle. I haven't seen the figures yet, but I'm pretty sure we had our best year to date."
Projects the merged companies actively are working on include a new mizzenmast for Ted Turner's maxi-ketch Challenge America, a pair of masts and booms for a Sea Star 46 ketch and a new mast for a Swan 49.
"Any kind of business expansion is a little scary," Wohlgemuth said, "and that's especially true for a marine business lately, but there's an election year coming, and that's generally good for a boost in the economy, so we figure that'll help."
Meeting ambitious challenges successfully is nothing new for Tom Wohlgemuth.
A sailor since childhood, after a year or two of college he gravitated to the marine trades as a rigger with Annapolis Spars. The next step was learning sailmaking from Scott Allan, until Annapolis Spars asked him to come back.
As winter came in 1978, however, the company's business slowed and they had to lay off Wohlgemuth -- a perfect excuse for the relatively footloose young sailor to spend a few months working on boats inthe Caribbean.