Navarro's new owner banking on classic designs for success

John Wiesendanger was a proud owner of a Navarro canoe for over 10 years, and he liked the boats so much he purchased the company.
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John Wiesendanger was a proud owner of a Navarro canoe for over 10 years, and he liked the boats so much he purchased the company.  

"I bought (Navarro from Vernon Pew) because I owned a Navarro canoe, love paddling, and was looking for a new challenge," Wiesendanger told SNEWS®. The sale closed in October 2004 and terms were not disclosed.

Admitting that owning a paddling company, especially one as niche as Navarro (www.navarrocanoes.com), has been a very new and challenging experience for him, Wiesendanger remains optimistic.

"The previous owner was close to retiring, and had let sales taper off. By the time we had finalized the deal, many of the regional and metropolitan dealers I contacted told me they had already spent their paddlesports budget at OR and they had no room for our canoes," said Wiesendanger.

Fortunately, a few larger dealers kept the doors open, allowing the small company to produce a total of 52 canoes and remain hopeful.

"We are starting sales from scratch through the independents," Wiesendanger said.

Working in his favor is the fact that the classically designed canoes with wood ribs have managed to keep Navarro as a recognized name among paddlesport aficionados and as a result, the company still manages to garner press.

"In Paddler (magazine), we got great indirect press recently with an article on seven cool canoeists everyone should know," said Wiesendanger. "Bob Foote was one of the featured canoeists -- he designed almost all of our boats -- and there is a photo of him sitting in one of our boats."

Currently, the Arcata, Calif.-based, company manufactures eight models, with each hand-built boat assembled by a team of four full-time and two part-time employees. Wiesendanger moved the company from Talent, Ore., to Arcata after he purchased it.

"You have to know a little about Arcata to appreciate why a company would locate here," said Wiesendanger. "The community has such a refreshing off-the-beaten path mentality here, ideal for small cottage industries and companies with owners and employees who just want to make a wholesome and healthy living."

Wiesendanger, who told us he is very good with his hands and loves building anything, especially boats, is very keen to expand the product line into other traditional watercraft -- like kayaks -- when the time is right.

"I have been so heads-down trying to be both a builder of boats and an owner/administrator of a small company that I haven't had much time to think beyond that," said Wiesendanger. "But, I believe we can capitalize on the retro trend with baby boomers and retirees looking to buy the throwback boats with classic appeal."

Wiesendanger is also thinking beyond the boat market, perhaps a very good thing for his small company.

"I will be looking to diversify to even out the production throughout the year. Kevlar is currently in scarce supply because of the war industry, and our unique construction process marries Kevlar, fiberglass and woodwork," said Wiesendanger. "If we can capitalize on our experience with Kevlar and add something defense-oriented, like Wing Inflatables (www.wing.com) here in town, that would be very good for us."

For the immediate future though, Wiesendanger is focused on reaching out to small independent dealers, and giving specialty retailers an opportunity to sell a canoe he believes will be very popular with consumers who aren't chasing low price and who appreciate aesthetics.

"Size-wise, we can't compete with companies like Old Town that are chasing each other to be the low-price leader. And if you look at a canoe like a Bell or Mad River, while the designs are fine, there is a night-and-day difference with the aesthetics of a Navarro boat that features wood decking and a wood-rib hull."

Wiesendanger is banking on that visual appeal and retro-oriented consumers to drive sales to 100 boats this year. Emphasizing that much of the first half of 2005 has been spent reestablishing relationships with the independent dealers and making a lot of cold calls, Wiesendanger is looking forward to the face time Summer Market will provide.

"We will be at Outdoor Retailer in August, thankfully," said Wiesendanger. "Understanding the importance of that trade show in establishing and maintaining relationships is one of those bits of industry knowledge I did not bring to the table and the previous owner did not enlighten me with."

Though still a far cry from being able to manufacture 730 boats a year, the 1997 high-water mark of sales for Navarro when the company counted REI and Galyan's as dealers, Wiesendanger has worked to streamline the production process so his current staff can comfortably produce 20 boats per month and maintain the boat quality that customers demand.

Noting that the Great Lakes region is where the meat of canoe sales occur currently, and to facilitate planned growth, Wiesendanger is also looking to the Midwest as a possible location for a second production facility -- small, lean and mean like the one in Arcata -- to better handle shipments to the Midwest and East Coast.

"By setting up a second facility, we would be able to solve some of our distribution challenges of shipping boats to the East," Wiesendanger said. "I'd like a partner or production manager in that facility. With two facilities as well, we'd be able to focus one on production for some of our larger customers."

As for new designs, Wiesendanger tells us that he is not actively designing any new models. And why would he when three of the company's older boats have been in the line for 30 years and one of those is a top seller -- the Legacy.

In fact, it is the Legacy that the Japanese market keeps clamoring for, sold to affluent fishermen. Currently, Japan is the only non-North American country Navarro boats are sold in.

SNEWS® View: Sometimes, blind faith is a wonderful thing. Essentially, Wiesendanger purchased a dying company on faith and a love for a classic design, keeping alive a wonderful boat brand that puts more faith in simply turning out a good product, than on turning out more products just to make sales. We hope he can make a go of this venture, because our industry needs his faith, and more importantly, our industry needs the aesthetics and wonderful sense of tradition that paddling a wood-ribbed, wood-decked boat brings. One of our editors, as the general manager for Western Mountaineering in San Jose, Calif., in the late '80s, remembers the Navarro line well. As he recalls, Navarro canoes practically sold themselves on product aesthetics alone. The fact that the boats also paddle well is simply expected.  

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