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Jackson Kayak has had tremendous growth even through the recession

Thursday, Jun 30, 2011

Employee Steve Zeatlow of Jackson Kayak in Sparta is shown working on a boat.

In the Upper Cumberland region, it would be hard to find a better success story than Jackson Kayak in Sparta.

From meager beginnings of four people in an old laundry building to 100,000 square feet and growing, including up to 125 employees and expanded product lines, the story is compelling. And don’t forget the continued strong growth during the recession.

“It blows my mind,” said Carman Ratliff, customer service manager for the company. “From where we started to where we are now.”

The entire operation was founded by Eric Jackson, one of the premiere whitewater kayakers in the world. (He even has a Wikipedia entry.) She calls him the “Wayne Gretzky” of kayaking.

That, says Ratliff, is the key to success for Jackson Kayak. It was Jackson who got frustrated working for other companies in the industry when they would not take his suggestions seriously about design and other aspects of building boats. In 2004, Jackson decided to start his own company. It was in a very small building in Rock Island.

What those other companies apparently didn’t realize is that Jackson is so respected in the kayak world, just having his name on a product would mean automatic business. Add to the fact that his designs have proven to be the best in the world, and the combination for success was in the works.

Time for change

By 2007, Ratliff said the time had come to change locations. There was simply not enough room to keep up with the demands of the orders. At that time, a lot of the work was being done by outside vendors and the kayaks were being assembled locally.

A building which came on the market in Sparta was “way too big” for what they thought they would need. It was a former garment factory of 96,000 square feet. But they got a good deal and made the move.

“We thought there was no way we would grow into that building,” she said.

Ratliff said they started to market part of the building for lease since they figured it was way too big for their fledgling company. By 2010, they added another 4,000 square feet, bringing it to 100,000 square feet and they are currently adding another 10,000 square feet. That’s not to mention the 8,000 square feet they lease for storage.

One of the reasons the company has had to expand is because they decided doing almost all of the operations in-house would be best for not only the company but for this area because it would create jobs. They now have four “ovens” in the factory which mold the plastic in the first operation of what will become a kayak.

For quite some time, they had another company manufacturing seats and other plastic parts. Again, they decided it would be best to do it at the factory, so the proper equipment was purchased and now all of those operations are done at the Sparta facility.

Ratliff said during peak season, the company employs around 125 workers and it’s around 85 during off-season.

Even more change

However, all of that might be changing quickly. The company recently launched Sparta Plastics as a separate business. They are now molding plastic for such diverse items as playground slides and road barriers.

She said they have “clam covers” for ovens, meaning they can “handle very big parts.” It’s a specialty not every plastics company can provide. They are hoping this new line will bring them more business during the off months of kayak production.

Yet even with off months, Jackson Kayak has grown tremendously over the past four years, including through the recession. From those humble beginnings, Ratliff said this year the company will likely produce 10,000 to 12,000 boats as well as the new product lines.

What they have discovered in recent years is how much kayaking has grown in popularity when it comes to “recreation and touring.” In the beginning, the company focused strictly on whitewater boats. But Ratliff said they learned whitewater was only about 4 percent of the kayak market. She said recreational kayaking has about 30 percent of the market.

Those are boats which are basically flat with no moving parts. They are lightweight and are popular at tourist destinations where the boats are rented to customers. She said orders for those boats can range from 50 to 100 from a single business which rents the boats.

Another area they have recently discovered which is “very popular,” said Ratliff, is a new fishing line of kayak. It was developed in the past couple of years and has quickly become the best selling boat made by Jackson Kayak. It all happened when world-renowned bass fisherman Drew Gregory approached Jackson about building a certain kind of kayak for fishing. Gregory is known as the king of kayak fishing.

“This is really a first of its kind,” said Ratliff.

The boat is very lightweight and easy to paddle, making it very popular with anglers who want to get to those nooks and crannies on rivers and streams. The Jackson Kayak Coosa was born and is now growing rapidly in popularity all over the country.

Popular uprising

In fact, many of the 45 or so models of boats the company manufactures are growing in popularity. In just a few short years, Jackson Kayak has set up a network of dealers numbering more than 100 in the U.S. as well as dealers in Canada, Japan, Spain, Finland, Australia, Costa Rica and many other locations. Ratliff sees Europe as a wide open market for kayaks as the sport gains in popularity.

She said they work hard to try to keep the prices as low as possible. Each dealer must have a storefront. She said they do not sell to the large retail outlets and have focused on “mom and pop” dealers across the world.

“People are very loyal,” said Ratliff.

Part of that loyalty comes from the fact that Jackson Kayak “has the best customer service in the industry,” she said.

Ratliff said they do whatever is needed to take care of customers, whether it’s a discount for a customer whose older boat has a problem or even replacement if something goes wrong.

“We are that company,” said Ratliff.

That company is one which also had growing pains because nobody was really an expert in manufacturing when things got started.

“It has been a learning experience for all of us,” said Ratliff, who moved from Kentucky to Sparta with her husband, John, after he agreed to come and work for the company. She was in the upholstery businesses before going into the kayak business.

“I think in a way it’s a good thing,” said Ratliff, “because we are not set in our ways.”

Expert opinions

Part of the growth has been adding manufacturing experts into the mix, including production, molding and maintenance managers. They also now have a CFO and a research and development department. They have also developed a sales team which works with all of their dealers.

She said they also have several employees who have been with the company since their first expansion. Their very first employee still works and has moved up to the maintenance department, another recent addition to the company.

Something else which sets the company apart is how they present new product lines each year. Every fall, they introduce new models to “keep it fresh.” She said each kayak model now gets a new design every one to three years. That means a major expense for the company as new molds have to be designed and built. However, it also keeps customers satisfied and always looking for the latest in kayaks.

All of that has led to growth for the company, even during the recession.

Ratliff believes part of that growth actually is because of the recession. She said more people are “staying closer to home” and finding cheaper forms of recreation. She said for around $2,000, an entire family can purchase recreational kayaks.

“It has helped us,” she said of the economic slowdown.

Personal touch

They have also tried to make the business personal, she said, by traveling and getting to know their customers. Through Jackson’s fame in kayaking, their network has spread throughout the world. Each year in August, they travel to Salt Lake City for an annual show which is attended by dealers and kayakers from around the world.

Their name also gets out as they sponsor various kayak teams. It was an industry standard at one time, but many of the companies have cut that out of their budgets.

“It’s what we do,” she said.

Jackson Kayak doesn’t give the boats to the teams, she said, but they help in other areas and Ratliff pointed out those teams want Jackson Kayak products because they are the best in the world and mean championships.

And those championships are with products made entirely in America. Ratliff said that is an important aspect of the company. In fact, she said they try very hard to get as many of the parts as they can from companies in the Upper Cumberland region.

“We try to buy locally and we try to hire locally,” she said.

Another aspect of the local nature is the company’s first dealer summit and whitewater symposium, scheduled for Oct. 10-14. Dealers from all over are being invited to come and participate in seminars as well as tours of the factory. There will also be a whitewater summit for four days where the first 125 people will be able to get kayak instructions from some of the best in the business.

She said details of these events are being worked out and will be placed on the company’s website, in the near future.

In all, Ratliff said the growth and expansion of the company has been positive for everyone involved and they plan to continue to add product lines in the future.

“It’s a good business to be in,” said Ratliff.

Reader Reaction      3 COMMENTS      New Comment

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Eric Jackson
Friday, Jul 1, 2011 at 11:11 AM
Thanks for the great article! Carman and John, Great job representing!
Delaware Paddlesports
Saturday, Jul 2, 2011 at 10:03 AM
Jackson Kayak is a great company to work with. The best kayaks, made in America! What more could you ask for?
Jake Skeen
Thursday, Jul 7, 2011 at 3:52 AM
I completely agree. Great People, Great Products, Great Service. Keep up the great work in Tennessee!!!!