Made in the Tri-States: Dubuque company epitome of family business

Frank Salwolke sews reinforced webbing on a product. PHOTO CREDIT: JESSICA REILLY

For nearly a half-century, Canvas Products Co. has been the epitome of a successful family business.

Owner Frank Salwolke and his wife, Mary Ann, have owned the Dubuque business for nearly 30 years. Today their business team is rounded out by their 27-year-old son, Jacob.

Frank believes this family dynamic is precisely what makes the company tick.

“It’s very important to what we do,” he said. “When you’re as close-knit as we are, you can keep a better handle on everything. There are days when it’s stressful, but I am very glad to be able to work with family.”

The fruits of the Salwolke family’s labor are on display throughout the area.

While the company creates multiple products, its variety of residential and commercial awnings serve as the most visible.

And for Mary Ann, seeing the products around the region is a consistent source of pride.

“It is a part of the job that I really enjoy,” said Mary Ann. “When we drive through town, we get to see a lot of the finished product. It is fun and it is rewarding.”

LENGTHY HISTORY

Canvas Products Co. has remained in the Salwolke family since the mid-1970s, when Frank’s father, Virgil, purchased the business.

Virgil Salwolke continued to run the business until his retirement in 1991. He sold the business to Frank and Mary Ann, turning them into second-generation owners.

Their son, Jacob, has been working full-time at the business for nine years. Frank said he’d like to see Jacob become a third-generation owner.

In the meantime, though, the family is just enjoying its rapport.

“We all get along and we all have our own things we do within the business,” said Mary Ann. “Everyone has their own skills that they are good at.”

The consistent family dynamic might suggest the business is frozen in time. But Frank insists that isn’t the case.

Through the decades, some things have changed in the industry, and Canvas Products has sought to incorporate new technologies and processes.

“You do see a lot of changes in equipment, machinery and technology over the years,” said Frank.

THOROUGH PROCESS

The Salwolkes believe consistency is a hallmark of their business. They generally follow the same steps to ensure everything from the customer interaction to the finished product meets expectations.

One of the Salwolkes typically will make a site visit once a customer has expressed interest. Once there, a company representative can take measurements, find out what the customers want and provide an estimate.

Canvas Products then orders the necessary products and gets to work.

Frank said the majority of products are made from an acrylic fabric or a hybrid vinyl. Employees use scissors or hot knives to cut the material to exact specifications.

Staffers then apply handwriting or graphics to the awnings, creating the eye-catching displays that compel passersby to stop at the business.

Frank said the purpose of awnings is twofold.

“A lot of it comes down to functionality,” he said. “The awnings can protect the building from the sun or keep it from coming into windows. But a lot of it is also meant to catch the eye. It’s a way to draw people into the business.”

Canvas Products also installs the sign for its customers.

Located at 182 Main St. in Dubuque, the business clearly has established a big presence in its neighborhood.

Candle Ready Cakes, Vinny Vanucchi’s restaurant, Pepper Sprout Midwest Cuisine and the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce are among the entities that feature awnings created at Canvas Products. The influence extends beyond the Lower Main district, with products on display at business such as Phoenix Theatres and HuHot Mongolian Grill.

The business also creates awnings for residential clients.

DIVERSE SELECTION

Canvas Products might be best known for its awnings, but the company creates a range of other products.

The Salwolkes create covers and tarps for various types of vehicles.

The company’s boat covers can protect everything from a fishing boat to a pontoon boat.

Meanwhile, Canvas Products creates massive truck tarps that are meant to protect the cargo transported within. The company also crafts covers meant specifically for pickup trucks.

As the Salwolke family nears 50 years of owning Canvas Products, the family realizes that such longevity is a rare feat.

Mary Ann, however, said the keys to success are relatively simple.

“It comes down to how you treat your customers and whether you put out a good product,” she said. “If you do a good job, your customers will tell other people. You’ll have that repeat business that keeps you going.”