In a 37,000-square-foot facility in Sedro-Woolley, rotational molding veterans have built a 20-foot-by-10-foot machine, jokingly referred to as ``Igor,'' to make more verbs happen in the recreational kayak market.
``When you surf, it's a big verb. It's really cool,'' explained Tim Niemier, owner of Wild Design Inc., in an Aug. 18 interview at the plant. ``Do you think about the surfboard? No, that's what you need to have the verb.''
Wild Design also has a 5-foot machine, which is known as ``Mini Me.''
Clad in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt spotted with kayaks, Niemier is the antithesis of corporate America. The top players that serve the recreational kayak market are corporately owned. Niemier sold his first company, Ocean Kayak Inc., to Johnson Outdoors of Racine, Wis.
These days, he and two other officials are focused on getting back to the sport of kayaking and canoeing in a market marked by rampant consolidation, where big-box stores are creeping in, and overseas competition - well, even if foreign players haven't figured it out - soon will.
Niemier himself started selling kayaks in Malibu in the 1970s. When his noncompete clause expired after he sold Ocean Kayak, he started Wild Design and now is determined to bring innovation to the market and get back to the lifestyle of the sport.
``We want to create new experiences,'' Niemier said. ``The main thing [corporate owners] have done is just make it less expensive and more mass market, which is fine. But it's not a new experience. Our goal is to reinvent the whole paddle sports industry ... and we're going to do it in a lot of different ways.''
One of those ways is to tackle the market for outrigger canoes, where the traditional materials are fiberglass and wood. The big factor for kayak and canoe enthusiasts is the weight of the product, said Brian Queen, Wild Design's operations director.
``Most of these boats are coming in at 50 pounds plus, and they're awkward,'' he said. ``For some people, they're difficult to deal with, so one of our goals is to bring the weight down so one person can handle it very easily.''
Now, big-box stores, which are famous for driving down prices, are starting to offer more kayaks in limited, seasonal selections, said Ian Joyce, a market watcher and former industry official based in Greensboro, N.C.
``The industry needs mainstream distribution, and as the price points continue to drop, large, low-margin retailers will offer them as another recreational toy,'' he wrote in an Aug. 30 e-mail.
The market, according to Joyce, faces challenges from Xbox and PlayStation.
``There's a shift away from outdoor activities toward more sedentary hobbies, which could be bad news for all kayak manufacturers,'' he said. ``The industry needs to do a better job of selling kids and their parents on the benefits of the sport.''
Joyce said the paddle sports industry needs to get the public to try kayaking and understand that whitewater paddling, which is perceived as more threatening, is just one minor facet of the sport.
The recreational market, characterized by smaller boats designed for gentle water, dominates the business, he said. Companies like Wilderness Systems, Dagger, Perception and Old Town are well-positioned to own that market.
``Though innovation matters, price drives many of the sales,'' he wrote.
Innovation is a challenge, said Larry Schoenmakers, plant manager at Ocean Kayak Inc. in Ferndale, Wash., whose operations now are more focused on lean manufacturing.
The company is doing more to automate in areas like material flow and packaging. Schoenmakers became plant manager within the past year after serving as interim operations director, and the firm hired Pete Dyhan as operations director.
``You always have to look to foreign competition,'' Schoenmakers said in an Aug. 18 interview at the plant. ``You know, eventually, somebody can figure it out.''
For its part, Ocean Kayak has international operations.
``We're already building in New Zealand,'' he said.
On this particular day, workers were putting finishing touches on a kayak being marketed under the Necky brand as Manitou II, with injection molded parts like multiposition, removable seats that can function as camp seats on the beach.
Still, Schoenmakers is comfortable that kayak makers will find their niche even among a flood of foreign competitors.
``The injection molders have found their niche, back in the U.S., like with on-time manufacturing,'' he said, using Ocean Kayak as an example. ``We don't really want to buy a container load of widgets that go on our kayaks that we progressively use. We're not in the storage business. We're in the kayak manufacturing business.''