As the outdoor sports industry — and paddle sports in particular — pull out of a smarting recession, the family-owned company is fortunate to see a better bottom line. And after holding steady in 2009, it's looking to continued growth this season as it seeks to hold a top spot in the field.
The nondescript factory off U.S. 2 just east of downtown Sultan can be easy to miss.
But within its walls, amid carbon fiber shavings and intermittent blasts of '90s alternative rock, growth has been steady.
In the past decade, sales have grown 93 percent, with the company averaging 7 percent growth per year, said owner Bruce Furrer. Werner Paddles is a favorite in the industry, ranking No. 2 behind The North Face as the best company to do business with in SNEWS magazine's Outdoor Retailer Dealer Survey.
“Our biggest challenge right now is to be as efficient as possible so we can continue to be hand-made in America,” Furrer said. “We're a market leader, so everybody's gunning for us.”
Paddle sports have grown from the casual canoe ride down a lazy river to a host of leisure and adventure offshoots — including touring and whitewater. The latest trend is stand-up paddling, a kind of cross between canoeing and surfing. Since his father first started experimenting with fiberglass in their home garage, Furrer said, the goal of Werner Paddles has always been to be the best.
Riding the recession
Local companies like Werner Paddles and Seattle-based REI have fared better than the average.
Outdoor sports is a $5 billion industry that, like everyone, has taken its hits in the recession.
Nationwide, core paddle-sports stores saw sales fall in 2009 by 7 percent, to $338 million, according to the Outdoor Industry Association. Within that niche, sales of paddles were down 10 percent compared to 2008.
Industry-wide, outdoor sports retailers saw a 2 percent drop in sales in 2009, according to the Colorado-based trade association. But in the midst of a recession, that wasn't considered too bad, and industry-wide sales were still 2 percent higher than 2007 figures.
REI sales rose 2 percent from 2008 to 2009 to $1.46 billion, while the retail co-op juggernaut opened five new stores elsewhere in the country. It plans three new stores this year.
“In the most difficult economic conditions we've ever experienced, our teammates drove profitable growth, returning the co-op to greater health and stability,” CEO and President Sally Jewell said in a March 22 press release.
And don't count paddle sports out, either.
Furrer expects the 2010 season, now under way, to post gains.
The signs are already cropping up.
Canoecopia, which bills itself as the world's largest paddle-sport expo, saw a record number of attendees — nearly 24,000 — at this year's event, held in March by retail host Rutabaga in Wisconsin.
And new branches of the sport, such as stand-up paddling, are gaining in mainstream popularity — with their own specialized equipment.
Stand-up paddles are Werner Paddles' hottest product right now.
In 2007, stand-up paddling was a blip on the radar. In 2009, it already made up 10 percent of Werner Paddles' business, doubling 2008 sales.
Its research and development department is continually looking to refine its approach to the sport, ensuring it sets the standard in this segment as it has in others.
Local, family roots
With a remote sales team that stretches into Canada, the company looks beyond the outdoorsy Pacific Northwest.
“We're one of the strongest brands internationally that there is,” Furrer said.
The company exports nearly 30 percent of its paddles, the United Kingdom being its largest foreign market.
But it has no plans to move from Sultan, where it owns its buildings and land.
Growing up, the Furrer family garage in Mukilteo never housed a car. Instead, it was the workshop where Werner Furrer Sr. crafted paddles to improve the kayaking experience that he, his wife and their four kids enjoyed and in which the three boys competed and in which their sister remains active.
“It just turned into a business,” Bruce Furrer recalled.
From there, it moved to his brother Werner Furrer Jr.'s garage, and eventually bounced around a series of leased spaces in south Everett before purchase of the Sultan property in 1996. Bruce Furrer remains the most active in the company; his father and brother stepped back from day-to-day operations. Two of Furrer's nephews now also work on the production floor.
Werner Paddles was incorporated in 1986, and since that time has only had one or two years of flat sales instead of growth, Furrer said.
“We are in the outdoor recreation business. … Hiking, backpacking, kayaking, canoeing, walking, running — all those REI-type sports — have been fairly recession-proof,” he said, adding, “if you're minding your P's and Q's.”
Furrer said part of staying on top means hiring good people and treating them well.
The company employs about 60 people — making it one of Sultan's largest employers — after hiring additional staff for the 2010 paddling season, now getting under way. During the roughest part of the business, it managed to avoid layoffs.
There is a core group of employees who have been there from 10 to more than 20 years, said Don McClain, director of operations.
McClain himself started at Werner Paddles 21 years ago, working his way up from the production floor to the No. 2 position. When the company moved to Sultan, the Everett native settled in nearby Monroe.
“It's been a great place to work and grow, to have a secure job. In 21 years, we've never been out of a job,” McClain said. “Being family owned — it matters. You're not just a number. Your opinions matter. … We have a lot of pride in what we do.”
You don't even have to be into paddling.
Newcomer Jessie Towne of Marysville, who joined the customer service staff about four months ago, is looking forward to her first paddling excursion in May with co-workers.
“I like working here,” she said. “It's nice to get up in the morning and look forward to coming to work. Everyone is down to earth and welcoming.”
Andy Bridge is one of the company's most die-hard paddling sportsmen. He moved to the area 10 years ago from Tennessee to take on the research and development director position — and get closer to the good sea kayaking he had enjoyed on previous visits.
“It's no fun to design something if you can't use it,” Bridge said.
As foreign markets look to produce more cheaply made knock-offs, Bridge said he's proud of Werner's focus on paddles and paddles alone, which allows for craftsmanship and quality.
The company looks at paddle shape, materials, ergonomics, portability — a host of design details, right down to how smoothly the paint transitions from the blade to the shaft — with performance being the ultimate goal.
And as long as die-hard outdoors lovers continue probing the sport, the company hopes to continue to do well. Bridge describes the lure of paddling this way: “I just love being on the water and feeling the pull of the paddle.”
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