Kokotat turns 50 and doubles down on U.S. manufacturing

The paddlesports and technical apparel company has responded to a year of growth by reinvesting significantly in its facilities and workforce.
A kayaker rides a small wave with mountains in the background

Though paddlesports apparel makes up most of Kokatat's business, a significant portion also comes from government contracts, including a contract with the U.S. military. 

One year ahead of its 50th anniversary, the paddlesports and technical apparel brand Kokatat has undergone an aggressive expansion of its Arcata, California, headquarters. To support 7,500 square feet of new factory production space and 3,000 square feet of new warehouse space, the company has added 30 jobs to its workforce of roughly 200. Currently, about half of those jobs are filled, said director of sales Jeff Turner.

“Our workforce has been growing over the last five years or so. The expansion on our factory floor means that we have more workstations, more sewing machines, and more sealing machines, so we have to fill those seats. We’ve engaged a pretty aggressive hiring strategy for the production floor to support this expansion. We had one of our biggest years ever last year and we’re also looking forward to continued growth so I think this [hiring] will be ongoing,” Turner told SNEWS this week.

The decision to expand the Arcata headquarters has drawn praise throughout the industry for supporting Kokatat's much-touted commitment to keeping its primary operations based in the U.S. Today, more than 90 of the company's revenue comes from its California location.

"After 50 years, we have maintained one of the top specialty apparel manufacturing facilities in the country," Turner said. "We really take pride in that, because there aren't many left."

The move comes at a time when tariffs on Chinese-made products and other complicating factors like supply chain disruptions due to the coronavirus outbreak have reality-checked many brands and manufacturers who have moved large parts of their operations overseas.

"Keeping production local is part of our history," Turner said. "We were one of the first Gore-Tex licensees, and we developed our products in an extremely specific way. When you buy a dry suit from us, you know it will maintain its function for a very long time. Steve O'Meara, our founder, foresaw the shift to offshore manufacturing and decided that the only way to maintain our standard of quality was to keep the factory here."

Despite relatively flat growth in the paddlesports sector over the last several years, Kokatat has managed to maintain steady growth due partly to its expansion into adjacent verticals, including production for the U.S. military.

“We contract with the U.S. Army Special Forces to make a product called the APPPE suit, or all-purpose personal protection ensemble. It’s a chem-bio suit, meaning it protects from chemical and biological threats. We have a fairly significant contract [with the government], which is another reason we've decided to keep our production based in the U.S. For a contract like that, the military stipulates that our products must be produced here,” Turner said.

Given the highly specialized nature of the company’s products, Turner said that training is one of the critical challenges of an expansion this size, and will be a big focus for the company moving into the next few months.

“Our garments are bigger and more technical, so we really focus on training people well. Another challenge is making sure we hire people who appreciate the culture of Kokatat. We require people who understand the importance of the products and how they keep people safe—whether in a kayak or in a military situation," said Turner.

Kokatat is about two months into the expansion and hopes to finish the hiring process in roughly the next six weeks. As for future growth, the company estimates that this expansion will max out the space potential of the current headquarters in Arcata, but that hiring will likely continue to support extended production hours.

“We’ve got a solid first shift and we run a second shift, but we’re trying to fill that out better so that we can do full 18-hour days,” Turner said. “We know that’s going to carry us through the foreseeable future.”



When is it time for a retailer to close up shop?

It’s never easy to let go of something you love. When John D. Mead, 63, of San Diego-based retailer Adventure 16, decided to close the last two locations of his business in January after a 58-year run, he said it felt a little like losing a family member. “I've been in this ...read more

Paddlesports Retailer 2018 in Oklahoma City

By paddlers, for paddlers

When Emerald Expositions and Outdoor Retailer announced shifted show dates in 2016, some industry veterans responded by launching a new trade show specifically designed for paddlesports. First held in 2017 in Madison, Wisconsin, Paddlesports Retailer organizers moved this year’s ...read more


Ups and downs of the 2010 job market

Anyone keeping up with trends in the U.S. job market must feel as if they’re on a turbulent roller-coaster ride. While the unemployment rate fell from 10 percent to 9.7 percent in January, U.S. jobless claims unexpectedly jumped by 31,000 to 473,000 the second week of February. ...read more

Jeremy Jones in red jacket standing on top of a mountain

Snowboarding legend Jeremy Jones drops new line of outdoor apparel

After 10 years building its foothold in the U.S. snowboard market, California-based Jones Snowboards announced today that the brand will start selling apparel for the first time later this year. A new line of outerwear including jackets, bibs, pants, and base layer pieces will ...read more

Untitled design (2)

120 jobs in jeopardy at Gore

The fabrics division of W. L. Gore & Associates announced to employees this week that the company is "realigning its organization to support a refined business strategy," a move that has put roughly 120 jobs in jeopardy. In a statement dated August 24, Gore confirmed that the ...read more

Screen Shot 2020-02-10 at 10.11.58 AM

Murder at Timberland's New Hampshire headquarters

A 20-year-old security guard, Robert Pavao, was charged with second-degree murder on Monday for the stabbing death of a 46-year-old woman at the headquarters of Timberland, in Stratham, New Hampshire. The incident occurred on Sunday afternoon, with multiple law enforcement ...read more

Large storefront of a Dick's Sporting Goods

Dick's Sporting Goods to launch new outdoor stores in 2021

In a call with investors last week, the outgoing CEO of Dick's Sporting Goods, Ed Stack, announced a new initiative for his company, set to begin in the latter half of next year. As early as August 2021, Dick's plans to open two outdoor-only retail concepts, called Public Lands, ...read more

patagonia in causeway bay

Patagonia ceases all operations

In response to the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the U.S., Patagonia has taken the unprecedented step of temporarily closing all stores, shutting down its website, and suspending all orders. The company effectively ceased all operations at the end of the business day ...read more

Man and woman clinking beer glasses in California Cowboy flannels

Hot New Product of the Week: California Cowboy High Sierra

Hot New Products are written by the company and edited for space and clarity. They do not express the opinions of SNEWS or its editors. Pitched by Drew Clark, founder and CEO of California Cowboy:  Après-ski. The infamous slope-side social is a global phenomenon practiced by ...read more