In August, three employees departed Bell Canoe, including sales managers Bryan Kuhn and Bryan Tomczak, and production manager Dave Kruger. Patty Bakalars was named as the new Bell Canoe sales manager, and Rick Bury has replaced Kruger as production manager.
Bakalars told SNEWS® that as soon as she joined Bell she began contacting existing dealers, though some retailers said they did not immediately get the news and were curious about the staff changes. "I had no idea any of that happened," said Rob Frenette, owner of Raquette River Outfitters in Tupper Lake, N.Y. "They hadn't contacted me and told me about any of the changeover. I heard it through a rep from another company."
John Ure, owner of Ure Outfitters in Hope Valley, R.I., told SNEWS that he had not heard any details on the changes in staffing at Bell. "With Bryan (Kuhn) gone and some other people leaving, I really don't know what's going on there, but it does make you scratch your head," said Ure.
SNEWS contacted ORC Industries, which acquired Bell Canoe in 2006 (and also owns Redfeather Snowshoes), and ORC Industries vice president Todd Bahnub said that Kruger, Kuhn and Tomczak left Bell "to look for other opportunities."
Kuhn told SNEWS that he, Tomczak and Kruger all left on their own accord to pursue other jobs. "There was an opportunity available to me that better suited a lifestyle I was more interested in," said Kuhn, who is now a field representative for Pemba Serves, the Midwest rep agency for several outdoor brands, such as Mountain Hardwear, Jetboil, Leki and Sea to Summit. Tomczak has left the outdoor industry to pursue an apprenticeship in plumbing, and Kruger took a position as director of technology and manufacturing for Epic Kayaks.
"I had a great opportunity given me that I couldn't turn down," said Kruger, who worked with Bell almost two years. He said that the job with Epic is a step up in responsibility, and he will be more involved with the "big picture," supervising re-tooling efforts as well as examining ways to run Epic more efficiently.
It's understandable that retailers would feel some concern over the departure of Kruger and the others. Dealers had already been through a difficult stretch with Bell when it was acquired in 2006. "When ORC first took over, it was pretty rough going on my end," said Ure. "The communication was discombobulated. But most companies, when they're bought out, that transition year is a mess."
While he and Frenette have been wondering how the staff departures and new hires will affect the brand, Kruger said Bell Canoe is in good hands and retains a good core of employees. "I've talked to a number of dealers, and I have explained to them that things are going well with Bell and to not fret," he said, adding that Bell shouldn't suffer from the turnover.
One reason that retailers can be optimistic is that the production and quality of Bell boats have improved, following a rocky period in 2007. "There were a lot of quality issues in spring of 2007," said Ure. "But, they got it solved by the end of the year." In fact, he said the quality of Bell boats has surpassed that of previous years. "This season's stuff came in the best ever."
Frenette, who said he's been selling Bell boats for about six years and was named Bell dealer of the year in 2005, also had to deal with quality issues in the past, but he agreed that things have really turned around. "As far as quality of canoes, they've been fine. Production and delivery was really good this year," he said.
When we talked to dealers, their major concern was that they hope Bell's parent company, ORC Industries, would realize the importance of staffing Bell with paddling enthusiasts. Bakalars told SNEWS she is a kayaker and canoer, and she is also a veteran of the outdoor and ski industries. For 14 years she owned Patty's Ski Shop in La Crosse, Wis., and also served as a rep for brands such as Helly Hansen, Kombi and Uvex. Bakalars said she also wants to form a "pro staff" comprised of paddlers and champions of the Bell brand to visit dealers and help with promotions.
Bakalars said that after she joined Bell and contacted existing dealers, she began a series of road trips to visit shops and talk with retailers about her plans for the brand. She said that in 2007, Bell Canoe sales increased 35 percent and she wants to "continue the double-digit sales growth." Part of her plan is to increase co-op advertising with dealers.
In the meantime, the paddling community will no doubt watch closely how ORC steers Bell Canoe, as paddle dealers have become increasingly cynical about large companies and their affect on boat brands. "My biggest concern (for Bell) would be what happened to Mad River," said Ure. "You have a company built by canoers, and then it goes into the hands of a corporation that doesn't know the background and history of canoeing, and they let it fall apart."
Founded in 1966, ORC Industries (www.orcind.com) is an unusual company within the outdoor industry in that it is a non-profit that employs people with disabilities. It has more than 750 employees and manufacturing facilities in Arcadia, La Crosse and Westby Wis., as well as a facility in Brownsville, Texas. ORC does most of its business producing clothing, tents and other products for the U.S. military, and in 2007 ORC had $49 million in government contracts. In 1996, ORC purchased Bell Canoe and Redfeather Snowshoes to broaden its income base, and moved manufacturing for those brands to La Crosse. In 2007, ORC's Bahnub told the La Crosse Tribune, "We're continuing to look for labor intensive companies that are somewhat insulated from Asian sourcing, because government contracting is slowing down" due to tighter governments budgets and the assumption that the Iraq War will wind down.
SNEWS® View: Insiders who know Bell and Redfeather well told us that the departures were very likely more than just three people all seeking new opportunities within weeks of each other. We were told that ORC runs the companies more like a corporate parent and it is devoid of the vibe many who work for an outdoor company crave, and that, as well as a few other issues involving relationships with superiors made decisions to leave very easy.
Despite an accusation we received via email, in our investigation we found that while ORC's CEO pay scale in relationship to the pay scale of employees was well discussed (Barbara Barnard makes $375,000 per year according to the non-profit's latest tax filings), it was not an issue in any departures and really isn't an issue among the staff.
Bottom line here, ORC has some serious proving to the outdoor industry to do: That Bell can be the company it was before the acquisition. It appears that quality control is on the upswing and better than before, which is great. ORC also needs to ensure that its relationship with dealers, both existing and new, is solidified. In our view, the hiring of Bakalars, who comes with a strong retail background and is someone who clearly understands what it takes to be a retailer, bodes well for the future.