Looking at the front of the Belina Interiors headquarters — green, two-story, on a South Tacoma street where you would not likely drive unless it fit your destination — you might think it housed apartments.
You would be wrong, and you would be less likely still to know that Belina has earned an international reputation as an outfitter of luxury yachts.
Mega yachts. The kind of yachts owned by people who demand perfection and require confidentiality agreements from boat builders.
“We’re not widely known,” said Paul Birkey, Belina president and founder.
“They’re probably one of the — if not the best in North America, one of the best in the world,” said Greg Ward, CEO of Citadel Yachts in Tacoma. “They are very well managed, and the quality of their product is second to none.”
Ward continued, “We in the industry know, but John Q. Public doesn’t. It’s been a secret.”
Belina Interiors manufactures and installs a yacht’s full innards, from the stateroom cabinets to the upholstered chairs, from the staircases to the dining tables. The shop — a collection of buildings comprising some 65,000 square feet — contains departments engaged in engineering, cabinets, veneers, upholstery, metalwork, machining and finishing.
Upwards of 100 workers are employed at the company, which Birkey founded after finding himself unemployed elsewhere.
The company works primarily for a Seattle boat builder, and the latest job has Belina outfitting a 130-foot yacht, with work on another, at 273 feet, having just begun.
“We’ve got one year, 11 months,” Birkey said.
“I just started out as a guy who liked to build stuff,” Birkey said.
A Wyoming native and English major (with a philosophy minor) from the University of Wyoming, Birkey came to the Northwest hoping to secure a job on the ski patrol at a Canadian resort. When he was denied a work visa, he came south, to Seattle.
“On a lark, I decided to stick around,” he said. “I somehow wandered into a boat shop. I was just looking for a job.”
An application at a firm selling fire extinguishers didn’t quite gel, so Birkey applied, and was hired, at Quinlan Custom Craft.
“They gave me the crappiest jobs they could,” he said.
He learned how to grind fiberglass. He ground a lot of fiberglass, he said.
And he fell in love with boats.
“It kind of snowballed,” he said. “I think it’s the love of building stuff in general. With boat building I had an opportunity to build something that was complicated, beautiful and useful.”
When the owner of the Seattle firm moved the business to Tacoma, Birkey followed, upgrading from an apartment that rented for $60 per month to $65 per month in the City of Destiny.
One night early in his time in Tacoma, Birkey was walking along a downtown street when he heard a woman singing in a coffee shop.
That woman would eventually become his wife.
After leaving the boat shop, Birkey worked two years at Tacoma Boat and then seven years at Jones-Goodell Shipbuilding on the Tideflats.
He was laid off at the end of 1981.
“I seem to have been comfortable with uncertainty,” Birkey said. “The smartest thing I did was to marry a woman who was also comfortable with uncertainty.”
In the first week of January 1982, with his wife six months pregnant, Birkey appeared at the County-City Building to secure a business license.
The clerk asked him what name the company would have.
“I didn’t know,” he said. His wife had somehow mentioned the word, “Belina,” and Birkey believed it meant “whale.”
It actually means something else, more domestic and a bit boring, but it does sound akin to “bellissimo,” which means “beautiful.”
And that’s been good enough, all these years.
One job led to another, one location to a new location. Birkey had returned briefly to Jones-Goodell, but then set off, back on his own. A 65-foot boat job led to another of 90 feet, then 82 feet. The Seattle boat builder called in 1993, and thus began a near-exclusive handshake agreement.
“We build everything here, then ship it up there,” Birkey said. “It’s soup-to-nuts. We don’t market at all. We’re a job shop. People in the industry know who we are. We’re not known in Tacoma.”
“They do a great job. They’re about as good as it gets for what they do, interior work, metal work,” said Gary Nordlund, owner of Nordlund Boat Co. in Tacoma.
“For custom interiors, I’d say they were right there at the top. There’s a few people doing it, but Paul’s got it down. They have good people. I know that some of the boats they’ve done are some of the top ones around the world. They just do good work. It’s not about being recognized. It’s about working hard and doing what you said you’d do.”
“Originally, what drove me was building stuff and being the best,” Birkey said. “As time has moved on, what I really am proud of saying is that we have 100 of the finest people you can find. We’re very careful about hiring. We expect a lot from people and we get it. We try to make it a difficult club to get into. It’s rare that we get an application from somebody who is appropriate.”
“Where do you go from here? This is the top of the line,” Belina cabinetmaker Brad Smith said. “You have to do good work. You get to express your talents.”
“It’s like you want to work hard here,” employee Sean Gaugler said.
To build the interior of a recent 211-foot yacht, the finishing department worked “five 10s and Saturdays for a year and a half,” Birkey said.
And incidentally, that boat contained 117 doors.
“We pay lots of overtime, but it’s more than the money,” Birkey said.
Employee Ryan Groves constructs staircases.
“(Birkey) is strictly about the employees, and Tacoma,” he said. “Everyone is super loyal to him, and he is to us. He’s the one who taught me the stairs. He came from that background.”
“We’re just damn lucky,” Birkey said.
He wasn’t so lucky during the Great Recession, when he was forced to lay off perhaps half of his employees. Many have since been rehired.
The downturn allowed him, he said, time to reconsider workflow and systems at Belina. It gave him and his senior staff the opportunity to plan for a future Birkey had faith would come.
It helped him innovate.
“If you don’t keep up with your industry, you become irrelevant,” he said.
“Manufacturing is the classic backbone of economic development,” said Ryan Petty, senior vice president at the Economic Development Board for Tacoma-Pierce County.
“Manufacturing is one of the best ways a community can export something of value to the outside, and import new dollars,” Petty said. “The money is immediately paid out to suppliers, wages and benefits to employees, and ultimately to shareholders or back into the company.”
PASSING THE TEST
Birkey has invented a motto for Belina: “Success is a daily event.” And he lives by a leadership mantra: “I don’t tell people what to do. I tell them what needs to be done.”
He recalls a recent audit by the Internal Revenue Service. Belina seemed to be paying a suspiciously high amount in employee benefits.
Belina passed the audit.
“That’s something I’m kind of proud of,” Birkey said.C.R. Roberts: 253-597-8535 email@example.com