ORC Industries agrees to acquire Bell Canoe Works

ORC Industries, a non-profit founded in 1966 that provides employment opportunities and social services to people with disabilities, has agreed to acquire Bell Canoe Works for an undisclosed sum.
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ORC Industries, a non-profit founded in 1966 that provides employment opportunities and social services to people with disabilities, has agreed to acquire Bell Canoe Works for an undisclosed sum.

Ted Bell, founder and president of Bell Canoe, told SNEWS® that he will be staying with the company under a three-year contract, adding that he also has a five-year non-compete clause.

"I suspect that ORC will use me primarily at regional and national trade shows and at consumer shows," Bell said. "I'll also be working very closely with them and the management of this company to ensure the transition from our Princeton, Minn., factory to ORC's Lacrosse, Wis., factory is as smooth as possible."

Dave Kruger, most recently with Wenonah, will be joining ORC and Bell as the production manager. Charlie Thompson, who's been Bell's right hand man for seven years, according to Bell, will also be overseeing production at the new factory.

For ORC (www.orcind.com), this is the second significant outdoor company the non-profit has acquired in 2006, with the Redfeather acquisition closing in February. Price on the Redfeather deal was approximately $2 million.

Earlier this year, ORC President Barb Barnard indicated that her $41 million company, with a reported $86 million in assets, built primarily on the backs of federal defense contracts, would be focusing more on building business with commercial products, not military ones. The Bell acquisition is the most recent of what is expected to be more acquisition announcements (certainly not all from the outdoor or sports market) over the next year.

Since the February acquisition of Redfeather, ORC has been building snowshoes at a decent clip, working two shifts to produce 11 snowshoe models.

By all accounts, the Redfeather acquisition and the factory move from Colorado to Wisconsin has progressed smoothly, and Bell is hopeful the sale of his company will follow in those footsteps.

"ORC came to me because it was looking for high-quality, labor-intensive products, for its workers to take on," Bell told SNEWS®. I was not looking to sell, but the time is right for me, certainly, and there is no way I would have agreed to this if I didn't believe fully that ORC was very capable of producing Bell canoes well. I know ORC is not concerned and the company has a great facility already in place."

ORC is acquiring everything but the building, which Bell told us he retains ownership of. What he might do with that building Bell is not revealing, specifically. However, he did allow that he might start designing high-end racing canoes again, and perhaps look to design and produce other products that are not canoe-related.

"This is allowing me to chase some of my dreams, dedicate more time to spending with my wife, my children, and get out more to paddle," Bell told SNEWS®.

SNEWS® View: First, we would be remiss if we did not offer up a hearty round of applause and best wishes for Ted. We love it when folks who start a company with an idea, and build it to a point of success, are able to realize a return that allows them to sit back a bit at 50 and truly enjoy life, and chase dreams.

But, at the same time we are applauding, we also offer up a cautionary based on reality. Granted, the Lacrosse ORC facility is 140,000 square feet of floor and operations and that it employs 200 people with over 75 being persons with disabilities. All well and good. And granted, the Redfeather transition does appear to be going well, with the first snowshoes shipping in September. However, there is no history in terms of quality control to know, for sure, if the Redfeather snowshoes are as good as they once were. We hope they are.

Which brings us to Bell. There is no doubt that ORC brings more financial resources to bear, which is good. And we suspect that with more resources, it would be possible to build Royalex canoes as well as, if not even better, than the former Bell facility did. Retailers who have been long-term Bell dealers, and very loyal ones, tell us that quality was not always consistent under the old regime, so improvement would be welcome.

Still, producing a Royalex canoe correctly, to spec, with no blems, is not a simple process. And while ORC is experienced, we are told, at injection molding, Royalex is a vastly different production process. It will take time, we suspect, to train anyone who has never made a Royalex boat before, how to set the cloth just right, and then spray on the gel coat correctly…and those are some of the more simple tasks.

Bell allowed that the transition "will pose some challenges in the interim, but promises good things for the future of the company." Here's to hoping those challenges are mitigated and that Bell can and will continue to turn out boats that retailers can sell at full margin, as ordered, when ordered. On-time delivery of quality product will be the proof retailers will need that the sale and factory transition has gone as smoothly as Bell hopes and promises it will.

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