Confluence Watersports acquires Bomber Gear

In what marks the first acquisition Confluence Watersports has made since Sue Rechner took the helm as CEO Dec. 17, 2007, the company has announced the purchase of Bomber Gear. SNEWS has exclusive details.
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In what marks the first acquisition Confluence Watersports has made since Sue Rechner took the helm as CEO on Dec. 17, 2007, the company has announced the purchase of Bomber Gear. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Bomber Gear, originally founded in Durango, Colo. in 1992, is recognized as a premium paddlesports brand that specializes in the design of performance whitewater skirts and technical paddlesports apparel. Bomber Gear will relocate from Steamboat Springs, Colo., to Confluence Watersports’ headquarters in Easley, S.C.

Rick Franken (photo with son to the right), founder of Bomber Gear, will relocate with his family to join the Confluence team as product development manager for softgoods and accessories in early January 2011. Franken will work closely with Chris Pageau, Confluence Watersports’ general manager of accessories.

“Acquiring Bomber Gear has given us a tremendous strategic thrust forward for our accessories,” Pageau said. “Rick will be able to focus on what he enjoys most and does best – designing cutting-edge products and bringing innovation to retailers and paddlers. Confluence gains strong design prowess and vision for our accessories division.”

In an exclusive interview, Rechner told SNEWS® that bringing Franken’s talent to Easley adds design and development expertise to an accessories division that includes paddle brand Adventure Technology and gear brand Harmony.

“We are finally in a place to strategically plan our future,” Rechner told us. “It is a good sign. And Bomber Gear is such a wonderful heritage brand that fits nicely into our portfolio. We will learn a lot from Rick and our financial, production and distribution resources and team will give him what he needs to take Bomber Gear to the level customers and our specialty retailers expect.”

Bomber Gear began as many small businesses do in the outdoor industry – in a one-car garage with gear sewn on a sewing machine purchased at Walmart. Franken was 18 years old and partnered with his then-roommate, Rob Mauceli. It did not take long for the two to acquire their first industrial sewing machine. The first products were caving gear, primarily rope walkers and knee pads and not products for paddling. Franken, like many entrepreneurs, made gear for the activities he pursued: kayaking, ice climbing and spelunking.

In 1995, Bomber Gear became an incorporated business, and kayaking products were added to the mix. The company attended its first Outdoor Retailer trade show in 1997 in Salt Lake City, putting Bomber Gear and Franken on the map. In order to keep up with production, the Bula factory on the nearby Navajo reservation became the company’s production headquarters.

Franken's design talent was recognized with a Polartec Apex Award in 2000 for designing excellence. Bomber Gear continued its meteoric growth when Wave Sport decided to outfit its boats with logoed Bomber Gear back bands. Suddenly, Bomber Gear had international recognition.

But, in a story very familiar to many entrepreneurs and small businesses, expansion brought financial pressure that proved too much to overcome in the long-haul. In 2003, the business collapsed under the weight of too much debt. Franken personally paid off the note to the bank by resorting to sell old Bomber Gear inventory on eBay. By 2007, he was clear -- but had no more inventory. Customer demand brought back his business, and Bomber Gear was resurrected with a different business plan, but the same focus on design excellence and quality.

Dec. 20, 2010, launches a happy ending, as well as a new beginning for Franken, one that Rechner at Confluence said she is more than happy to provide. “Bomber Gear is a premium brand in its space and it aligns with the needs of our specialty dealer base who want highly technical product with a premium position. It is one of the best brands in the whitewater space and Rick is recognized as an extremely talented paddler and designer. We couldn’t be happier.”

Does this mark the first of other acquisitions for Rechner and Confluence in 2011?

“Like every organization, we have some very well thought-through growth plans,” she said. “What we see is the ability of the executive team to really scale and that gives us an opportunity to look at acquisitions providing they are strategically appropriate. The great thing is, we have a lot of components now in place to build on a strong platform.”

What kinds of acquisitions Rechner would not say. “We have to find a niche that we can be very good at, and competitive in, and that consumers will get excited about,” she stressed. “There are so many highly qualified brands making great product in so many spaces, that just to make a product and not be special is not something we want to do.”

--Michael Hodgson

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