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Stick figure sculptures are smiley-face business

During the summer of 2010, with the foundering economy threatening his Sarasota-based boat building business, Scott Gerber mailed $800,000 worth of invoices to three customers who had ordered custom boats. All he got back were letters.

“Each said about the same thing,” he says: “We can’t afford the boat anymore. We can’t pay our invoices. Sorry.”

The letters convinced Gerber to close the business, called Legend Custom Yachts. Driving to work the day he told his 40 employees that they no longer had a job, he says a strange feeling came over him when he stopped at a traffic signal.

“I’m not a religious guy, but it was as close to a religious experience as I could ever imagine,” he says. “I felt I was being told to build a stick man, but I had no clue what it meant. I just knew I had to do it.”

With help from Laszlo Szalanczy, his shop foreman, and using scrap aluminum tubes, Gerber built his stick man. It was about 6 feet and had a “big smiley face.” He brought it home. A neighbor liked it and asked him to build her one to hold a mailbox. He did — and realized he had the seed of another business.

He named the company Tube Dude. Initially, the stick men were their own advertising. People would see them around Sarasota and want one. Since 2010, Tube Dude has sold more than 1,000 custom-made smiling figures. Each sells for between $1,000 and $2,000. Some hold mailboxes, and some are yard art. Some advertise businesses: A pizza shop has one holding a pizza. Gerber’s company also sells Tube Dude shirts, hats, mugs and keychains.

“Our estimated sales are upward of $2.5 to $3 million a year,” he says.

Tube Dude has a factory in Sarasota’s Rosemary District and a storefront on Main Street. Last year, Gerber got $100,000 in incentives from Sarasota County, about half of which he has spent so far on welding machines and other equipment.

The company employs 12, including Ringling College of Art and Design grads who help customers design their own stick figures. This summer, Gerber will ship four 24-foot Tube Dudes to New York to be placed along the city’s High Line linear park. He thinks the exposure will fuel more growth.

“These things touch people,” he says. “They make you smile.”