How two rutgers buddies brought the elegance of Sperry Tents, and a booming business, to New Jersey
by JENNIFER VIKSE • Photos BY Tina Collela
As students at Rutgers University, Tim Daugherty and Eric Larkin knew one thing: they didn’t want to spend their lives behind a desk.
So, upon graduation in 2003, they started putting money away and purchased a rental property in Belmar, NJ in which they lived, along with a few college buddies. “That project went well, and led to further late-night discussions about business,” said Daugherty, who at that time had been working a 9-to-5 gig as a banker, while Larkin was a lobbyist.
Ideas were flying around. “We almost bought a candle company, almost started a staffing firm, along with many other ideas,” Daugherty recalled. “But they just didn’t have the right feel.”
In 2007, the two took a last-minute road trip to Nantucket. While on the island, they noticed beautiful sailcloth tents dotting the landscape. It turned out that these “Sperry Tents” were not yet available in the New Jersey market, which produced yet another idea.
“We called the Sperrys, and said, ‘We love your product and would be interested in bringing it to market in the New Jersey area.’ Shortly after that phone conversation, we were on the road headed to Marion, MA to meet in person. We had real admiration for the Sperry’s authentic natural way of life, production, and operations. We joined their family, and since then, have never looked back.”
Sperry Tents has been in existence for over 30 years, and provides not just tents but flooring, lighting, climate control, and power generation for outdoor weddings and special occasions. Its elegant structures are crafted of real sailcloth, the way founder Steve Sperry, sailmaker, began doing it in 1980.
“It’s a handcrafted product made in the USA,” added Daugherty. “The poles are still milled in the same sawmill…the tents made by hand. It is a very graceful, handcrafted product. In our world of tenting, plastics and metal have become the norm. Our goal is to turn that around and provide a natural, elegant feel for the spaces we create.”
Models are available in many sizes, from small rounds to huge ovals, and can meet the needs of a small classy cocktail party all the way to a monumental wedding—with anything from 10 to 2,000 guests. The natural design is completed by varnished wooden support poles, made at a historic 1930s sawmill.
“Eric and I frequently look back to when we told our parents, then our girlfriends— who are now our wives—that we were starting a tent rental company. They just looked at us, perplexed. They had this vision of us running around on the weekends with a handful of small tents. No one realized the size of the event rental industry.”
While no day is typical, Daugherty said most of his time is split roughly evenly among meetings with clients, designers, caterers, wedding planners, being on site during installations, and on the back end of operations. As the business has grown over the last eight years, the owners have hired additional full-time staff to help perfect the details.
“We have a great team that cares about the service and product we provide. We are very in tune with how important this is to the client, and want everything to be perfect,” he said.
Daugherty and his crew recently helped an event planner with an emergency. A couple in the Rocky Mountains ordered a custom tent from India for their big day, but found, just five days before the wedding, that it was stuck in U.S. Customs in California.
“We received the call at 2:30 p.m. on Tuesday, and the wedding was on Saturday,” recalled Daugherty, who immediately got to work on logistics. “Four days. We had a truck packed Tuesday night by 9 p.m. that drove non-stop to Colorado. The tent was installed by Thursday evening, and the couple was ecstatic!”
Given this type of business, Daugherty and Larkin are often called on to get creative.
“We had a couple get married in a gazebo on a frozen lake. Then they came in, shed their coats, and it was a comfortable 75 degrees in the tent,” he said. While heating and cooling aren’t without challenges, they can be managed, as can flooring on a sloped piece of land.
This year, the partners are on schedule to do up to 240 events.
“Sperry Tents are the only sailcloth tents in existence,” said Daugherty. “There are some knock-off vinyl options trying to achieve our look, but they’re just not the same. The product today is just remarkable.”
Sperry Tents New Jersey
732.681.8368 / sperrytentsnj.com